'Nancy Brown' provided a shoulder for News readers to lean on

Nancy Bown (J.E. Leslie) in her office at The News. Although her face rarely appeared in print, her warmth and sincerity created an extraordinary family-like bond with her readers. Click on the photo to read her farewell column in 1942.

A Nancy Brown column in November, 1930, suggested that her readers gather at the Detroit Institute of Art and a crowd estimated at 35,000 to 100,000 jammed the museum.

By   Kay Houston/The Detroit News

Mrs. J. E. Leslie wrote The Detroit News Experience Column under the pseudonym of Nancy Brown from 1919 to 1942. She started the column at age 49, telling the editor she was old enough to have had the “experience … of living” and felt she could give people the “shoulder to lean on” that they needed in this age of flux and uncertainty.

She was one of the best in the field; her warmth and sincerity created an extraordinary family bond with her readers.

In November 1930, she suggested they gather at the Detroit Institute of Art to view some art that had been discussed in her column. No one was prepared for the tremendous response. The crowd ranged from 35,000 to 100,000. They jammed the Institute and streets. It was the first time her readers had gathered publicl-y. Many never got inside but friendships were formed. The curator wrote to Nancy: “You have done more in a brief few weeks to arouse interest in art and this building than we have been able to do by our united effort over a long period of years.”

It was the greatest party Detroit ever had.

Following this party, one of the column contributors suggested that a fund be started for art to be purchased and hung in the Institute by the Columnites. This, too, was done with great success.

In 1934, a reader suggested, and Nancy promoted, a gathering for a sunrise service at Belle Isle. It drew 30,000 to 50,000 participants, the largest crowd in history. It became an annual event. From this, came the idea for a Peace Carillon on Belle Isle. Conceived in 1936, it was built by the nickels and dimes of readers, and dedicated in 1940. It was at this dedication that Nancy spoke and readers saw her “face-to-face” for the first time.

After Nancy retired, the Experience Column was written by other staff members under the pseudonym of Jane Lee until. 1985.

Thousands of Nancy Brown “Columnites” gathered on Belle Isle for the 1940 dedication of the Peace Carillon, inspired by annual sunrise services on the island that had been suggested by one of her readers.

Her final column

Dear Column Folks:

For nearly 23 years now you and I have worked and played shoulder to shoulder. We have sat by Column fireside together and discussed every subject under the sun–gay, lively discussions oftimes–oftimes grave and serious–sometimes sad–but always, whatever the discussion, in friendly spirit.

We have had our activities too. We have planted our forests, jammed the Art Institute at our historic party, presented our paintings, shared concerts with our symphony orchestra, given our Sunrise Services, publicized our books, held our bazaars, helped our Civic Opera, shared relief work with the Red Cross, shared food funds, Goodfellow funds, and carried on our own considerable fund through all the years for needy Column children. And last and greatest of all, have completed the construction and payment of our Carillon Peace Tower. All these we have shared together with equal, loyal effort. Neither could have accomplished them alone. My years have been happy years, happy for me and I hope for you.

But now, my folks, I find that I am no longer able to fulfill my share of the work. The years have taken their toll. I must lay down the burden.

Thousands of “Columnites” wave their songsheets at a Sunrise Service on Belle Isle in 1935.

It has been a difficult decision for me to make. It makes oh so great a change in my life–so great I can scarcely yet realize it. The choke of emotion is so insistent I can scarcely continue the dictation of this letter, but I have considered the question from all sides and think it is the only way.

The Column will be carried on by Jane Lee, who has been a member of Experience Department for several years. You will find her sympathetic and understanding, and thoughtful in all things. The responsibility is new for her, but you will help her, I know, just as you have always helped me, with your loyal friendship and support.

I shall follow the Column daily and shall write to you frequently.

My years with The News have been beautiful years. I am going to miss my daily contact with them. Always they have given me unfailing consideration and co-operation throughout the years, personally as well as professionally.

A few years ago, when I moved into my little private office on the top floor of the building, Mr. Scripps came up to inspect the new rooms. He looked out of the windows and back at the dainty fittings of the little nook they had prepared for me, and with his eyes all shiny with kindness, and lips smiling, asked, “Are you happy here, Nancy?” I assured him I was, and of my deep appreciation for it. His reply was, “That is what we want.”

It will be among my treasured memories always.


A group of “Nancy’s Belles” compete in a lollypop contest at an outing on Bob-Lo in July of 1939 sponsored by Nancy Brown’s column

And Mr. Gilmore–I should not like to think of my work here without his fine, ever-ready counsel and help, given always so graciously and generously.

My own department staff–life with them has been lovely, with never a break in the friendly feeling between us.

The News did not want me to go, my folks, but when they understood it was a question of my health, they did everything one could wish to be done to make the change pleasant and easy for me.

I am going to miss all the friendly folks on our News staff, too–all of the hundreds of them in all the departments–miss them dropping into my office for a few minutes’ chat–miss them at lunch in our cafeteria — miss them oh everywhere — but it comforts me to know that I shall be welcome to drop in to visit with them when I am too lonesome without them. They and you, my folks–all–have brought me only happiness through all the years. I thank you. I shall be with you till the first of February.

My love to you all–Column and News.

Nancy Brown

January 8, 1942

The dedication stone on the Belle Isle Peace Carillon.