Jerry Brown, co-owner of Petra’s bar in Plaza Midwood and a former educator, always seemed to have a story to tell as he stood at the end of the bar drinking a dirty martini.
But after Brown, 62, died of a heart attack Sunday night, his friends and family became the storytellers about the self-proclaimed “mayor of Mecklenburg Avenue.”
He loved Chinese paper lanterns – he always had a stash on hand for special events and nearly lit a few trees on fire with them. He had a natural talent for the piano, but he’d never play in the bar. He knew most, if not all, Plaza Midwood residents, and he’d stop whatever he was doing to chat if one of them passed by while he was mowing his lawn or shopping at Harris Teeter.
“Just ignore them,” longtime friend and bar co-owner Dean Freeman would tell him.
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“Well, I can’t,” Brown would say.
An educator and a friend
Growing up in a small, rural community near Lenoir, Brown was the youngest of five children and the only musician. By age 11, he was playing the piano at the church where his father, a Baptist minister, preached.
He started as a music major before deciding to study business education at Appalachian State University.
He was the only one in his family to go to college, his brother Ronald Brown said, and he worked to put himself through.
“This young man, he wanted that education so bad,” Ronald Brown said.
Jerry Brown worked as a teacher in Caldwell County, then moved to Charlotte in 1979. He became assistant principal at Ranson Middle School in 1992, the school attended by Jon Lindsay, who would later become a singer-songwriter.
When one of Lindsay’s best friends died in a car accident, the tragedy devastated his group of friends.
“We were already predisposed to just sort of being hellions,” Lindsay said. “It really could have sent us careening off a cliff.”
But Brown was there.
“Every day, he would find out who was hurting the most. He would come to you, he’d say, ‘Do we need to go to Taco Bell and talk about it?’” Lindsay said. “He certainly helped me from going down a plethora of negative paths.”
‘Braver and weirder’
Lindsay met Brown again years later, when Lindsay was starting out as a musician, after Brown became a co-owner of Petra’s in 2008. Brown became more and more involved, helping to bring in artists and encouraging them to be creative in their acts, from cabaret shows to stripped-down, acoustic sets, Lindsay said.
“It transcended the neighborhood, it was bigger than the scene in Charlotte.” Lindsay said. “A little braver and a little weirder.”
But Brown remained private and unpretentious.
“A really humble, soft-spoken, classic, classy guy,” Lindsay said.
Still, Brown often referred to himself as the “mayor of Mecklenburg Avenue,” the street he lived on in Plaza Midwood, Freeman said, because of his love for the neighborhood.
Brown and Freeman, along with fellow co-owners Curtis Tutt, Perry Fowler and Marta Suarez del Real, worked to make the bar a welcoming place for the LGBT community and the diverse, eclectic Plaza Midwood neighborhood. There were a variety of events – Wednesday night karaoke, trivia hosted by drag queens, “buzzed” spelling bees.
“You could walk in there every night, and there was no telling what you would see there,” Freeman said.
A legacy of advocacy
Several of Brown’s friends referred to Petra’s as their own “Cheers,” a welcoming place where everyone knew your name. The bar’s patio was Brown’s pet project, where Tutt said he spent hours cleaning and tending to the plants.
Another project of Brown’s was the entrance to Midwood Park. Two years ago, the walkway was in disrepair, with overgrown plants and bricks popping up, creating a tripping hazard. Brown worked with Mecklenburg County commissioner Matthew Ridenhour to fix it.
“It should look pretty nice here shortly, and really it’s all a result of Jerry’s advocacy,” Ridenhour said.
A petition to memorialize Brown at the park has garnered more than 300 signatures since it was posted Tuesday.
Friends and regulars gathered at the bar throughout the week. To some, it seemed unreal that they wouldn’t see Brown through the front window, turning the corner and walking into the bar with a smile and a story to tell.
“It was kind of hard walking in,” Tutt said. “But it got better.”
Someone ordered a dirty martini. It sat at the end of the bar next to a glass vase of pink and white hydrangeas.
Rachel Herzog: 704-358-5358, @rachel_herzog
A memorial service to honor Brown’s life will be held 3-5 p.m. Sunday at Carolina Funeral Services at 5505 Monroe Road.