The Story of Me

We all like to know a bit about the people we’re going to work with, right? Because of that, I decided to share a condensed version of The Story of Me…

It all started on March 25, 1968, during the infamous Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis, TN… I was born to parents Roger and Phyllis. Unfortunately, my dad couldn’t even visit my mom and me at the hospital because of the dusk-to-dawn curfew that had been imposed because of the upheaval of the strike. Martin Luther King, Jr. had visited Memphis to support and speak out for the workers, and that is where he was assassinated 10 days after my birth, nine blocks from where we were at the moment.

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Shortly after that, we moved to my parents’ home state of Minnesota — to the outskirts of the Twin Cities for a few years and later to the outskirts of Elizabeth, MN (population 184).

Growing up in a small town meant that my brother and I created a lot of our own entertainment. Our property was 10 acres with a river flowing through it, and we also did a lot of hunting and fishing with our dad. At various times, we raised horses, pigs, banty chickens, pigeons, peacocks, goats, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers. When I was in 6th grade, I was really into saving the whales. At 10 or 11 years old, I got my first motorcycle. I still ride today.

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In 8th or 9th grade, my friends and I had a totally sweet cardboard band called Black Velvet. We even got featured in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal.

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High school consisted mostly of hanging out with friends. At one point I joined FFA (Future Farmers of America) because the students got out of school a lot. I was briefly the local chapter secretary, but I refused to cut my hair so I got demoted.

Later in high school, I ran the sound equipment for a local band, Apollo, and I got pretty into the punk rock scene. It was the mid ‘80s, after all.

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In my senior yearbook, I was voted “Most Unique Dresser.” After senior year, I still owed the school some detention hours, but I worked it off double-time by picking up garbage on the school grounds. Not quite Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club.

My first real job in high school had been as a dishwasher at Perkins. After I graduated I was working as a day cook at another restaurant when a friend who was home on leave from the Army dared me to join up. He said I couldn’t do it, so I had to prove him wrong. A few weeks after I signed up to join the Army, another friend dared me to go airborne, so I renegotiated my contract and became a 43E parachute rigger. The training was intense, culminating in the ultimate pass/fail test: to graduate as riggers, we were required to jump out of the plane using a parachute that we had each packed for ourselves.

Shortly after that, I found out that I was going to be stationed in Vicenza, Italy. I told my girlfriend at the time that we needed to either break up or get married, so we decided to get married. That way she could join me in Italy. Hindsight: that was a poor choice. She hated that life, and we divorced after about a year.

I was part of the 3/325 Airborne Battalion Combat Team, part of the Southern European Task Force. TIME Magazine labeled us as “one of the 7 elite forces of the U.S. military” at the time. I have almost no pictures of the nearly 3 years I was in Italy, but I have some wild memories. Amongst them, some friends and I were in Venice for the weekend that Pink Floyd did a massive free concert there that became legendary for the amount of garbage and destruction that was left behind. My unit also spent some time in West Berlin for urban combat training. While there, we were able to go through Checkpoint Charlie and experience East Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down.

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When my enlistment was over in 1990, I was officially done and being transported back to the U.S. on the very day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, which started the beginning of Operation Desert Shield/the Persian Gulf War. I was pretty surprised at the time that I was not called back into active duty, but in retrospect very glad.

After the Army, I spent some time working at a Frigidaire factory. One day I looked around at the long-timers there and realized I really didn’t want to spend my life there, so I enrolled at Fergus Falls Community College.

I was getting my AA degree and planning to pursue psychology or psychiatry. At one point, I had to choose between Public Speaking or a Technical Theater class. I chose theater, and the path of my life took a big turn! Here was a field that I had never considered, but I had a real knack for it and suddenly a strong interest. I earned the AA and then transferred to Moorhead State University to pursue the BA in Theatre Arts (technical concentration).

The beginning of my time at MSU marks the second half of my life so far…

Right after I started school there, I met Lindsay. We had a memorable Intro to Scene Design class together and spent a couple years as friends before I finally asked her out in January 1997. We will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary this August.

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I quickly worked my way up to an Assistant Technical Director position while a student, and after finishing my degree I had no problem continuing to work in theater. The first several years of my career were in educational theater, serving as scenic designer, lighting designer, and/or technical director for nearly 150 shows and events at a few different high schools and colleges.

During the last 3-4 years of that time period, we lived in Phoenix, AZ, which is also where our daughter was born. Being a parent is an entire life adventure of its own that can’t be done justice in this blog.

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In 2007, we moved back to MN when I was hired as Production Manager for the Duluth Playhouse in Duluth. For 7 years I led their design teams and coordinated all production aspects for another 100+ productions while also creating some freelance designs for other local and regional theater companies.

In 2014, I left the Playhouse and broadened my design & management experience beyond theater by spending a year consulting on, designing, and fabricating the learning environment and exhibits of the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (Mankato, MN; grand opening was May 2015). This opportunity greatly strengthened my knowledge of exhibit design and construction and rejuvenated my creativity and passion for discovery and research – and the thrill of being involved in projects that leave a true legacy!

With this renewed energy, I formed BrownKnows Design in 2015, and much of the rest of that journey is already chronicled here on this site. Being an independent business owner has its ups and downs, but I have really learned a lot and look forward to the continued journey.

Now that you’ve got the timeline, what are some other interesting things I can share about my life?

When I was a teen, my friends and I messed around with giving each other indian ink tattoos, but mine are covered up by professional tattoos now. I got my first “legit” one in 1988 and am up to 21 (and counting).

When we lived in AZ, my parents and wife and I took a hot air balloon ride. It ended in a champagne brunch in the middle of the desert.

I was briefly a Guinness World Record holder when I participated in the world’s longest ATV parade with a friend, my dad, an uncle, and my nephew. The record was broken a couple of months later.

For five years in a row, I was a Super Plunger for the Minnesota Special Olympics, raising $3000+ for the organization each year and then jumping into an icy lake 24 times in 24 hours.

I have completed an Iron Butt challenge by riding my motorcycle more than 1000 miles in 24 hours and more than 1500 miles in 36 hours. Both were accomplished on a ride from Duluth to Pensacola, FL.

I was scuba qualified while in the Army.

I have competed in one marathon and several half marathons, as well as a few Warrior Dash races and the Tough Mudder.

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I have a strong affinity for bacon, grills, and grilled meats. I also like a good Beam and Diet Coke, but I don’t like hot sauce nearly as much as people assume I do.

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I have an 18-year-old cat named Splotch and a 10ish-year-old cat named Conversational Carol.

I think traveling is fantastic and critical for expanding one’s perspective. The countries I have visited so far: Canada, Mexico, Norway, Greece, Italy, Germany, France. I will be able to add England to the list this summer when we do a whirlwind tour of London/Paris/Venice with my parents. My favorite travel spot in the U.S. so far is Moab, UT and Arches National Park.

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I own (and have watched) the entire Columbo series (69 episodes)!

I also really like collecting the mail from our mailbox, mowing the lawn, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and watching feel-good (like Ellen!) video clips on YouTube.

Have I forgotten anything about the “essence of Jeff”? Remind me in the comments below.

ADDENDUM: I love the value of a strong high-five and a solid rock kick! (Thanks for the reminder, Robyn!)