The purple ribbons fluttering in the wind inside the Berkeley High School courtyard symbolized the loss of BHS Vice Principal Denise Brown for the entire Berkeley Unified School District Monday.
Purple, as those close to the 50-year-old vice principal know, was her favorite color. And in a tribute on Friday, hundreds of grieving students and staff spread hues of purple throughout the school in her memory.
Recuperating from a knee replacement surgery at home for a month, Brown felt dizzy on Friday afternoon and was rushed to the intensive care unit at around 3 p.m. She was declared dead two hours later.
Brown’s son Justin Real, 22, told the Planet that the probable cause for his mother’s death was a blood clot.
“She didn’t really have any serious illnesses, although the doctors told me that she was diabetic. I guess we will have to wait until the autopsy results come out to find out what really happened,” said Justin, adding that arrangements for a memorial service were still pending.
Justin, who recently graduated from the University of Oregon, was with his mother at the hospital when she died.
“It’s difficult for me, but it’s more difficult for my sister Sarah, who was really close to her,” he said. As friends and family gathered inside Brown’s house on Monday afternoon to comfort the two children, Justin told the Planet that his main concern at the moment was his sister.
A senior at Berkeley High, Sarah, 18, is also an accomplished dancer.
“She’s applying to dance programs and auditions all over at the moment,” Justin said. “My mother was a really big support in that field, especially when it came to applying to schools such as Julliard. I really hope she gets into a good program in New York, because that’s where she wants to go.”
Sarah told the Planet that although her mother had had pains from her knee surgery during her recovery, there had been no indication that it was life-threatening.
“The doctor said it was normal. We didn’t really think twice about it,” she said.
Both Sarah and Justin described Brown as the “coolest mom ever,” whose favorite things included The Color Purple (both the book and the color), watching “I Love Lucy” and author James Baldwin.
“She was just amazing. A real people person,” said Justin, whose first memories of his mother were from when she was a teacher at LeConte Elementary School.
“I never got her as a teacher though. My mom would never allow that. Even when she joined as an administrator at Berkeley High, I had already graduated,” he said.
At Berkeley High, as students gathered around her memorial to put flowers and write messages on Monday, many remembered her from their days at LeConte.
“I knew her from Kindergarten,” said Rosey Chardak, a sophomore who did not go to class on Monday.
“I was sitting here all day. I just don’t feel like doing anything after I heard the shocking news on Friday,” she said scribbling a message on the memorial.
Rosey’s message to Brown read:
“I am going to miss your ability to create a relationship with everyone you met. May you rest in peace but never be forgotten.”
News of Brown’s death spread over the popular social networking websites MySpace and Facebook over the weekend.
Maddie Trumble, a senior at Berkeley High, encouraged the BHS community to wear purple on Monday in honor of Brown.
“Denise Brown—teacher, dean, and mother to all, passed away Friday night. Her favorite color was purple. It’s vibrant, loud, and beautiful—everything she was ... wear a purple shirt, headband, hat, anything. But make it purple. And spread the word,” her message on Facebook read.
A native of Oakland, Brown graduated from Oakland Tech and went on to meet her future husband Juan Real—from whom she is now divorced—while she was pursuing acting at the Black Repertory Theatre in Berkeley.
Brown taught kindergarten at LeConte Elementary School for ten years, where she introduced innumerable students to music, dance and theater. She later went on to serve as a vice principal as well as dean of discipline at Berkeley High, where she became a “second mother” to many students.
Nia Shina Franklin, who had Brown as her kindergarten, first-grade as well as fourth-grade teacher at LeConte, described her as a warm and loving person.
“If she liked you she would hug you. I remember acting in legendary school plays such as the Vegetable Coup and The Biz which she scripted,” Nia said. “There will never be a community as wonderful as the one she had created. She will always be our hero, our Queen of Berkeley.”