Californians live to this day with the political reforms enacted under Hiram Johnson. And both Earl Warren and Ronald Reagan moved on to more powerful posts after their tenures in Sacramento. But Edmund G. Brown Sr., who died Friday night at 90 in his unpretentious Benedict Canyon home, was arguably California's greatest 20th century governor. For no other chief executive left as lasting a mark on this state's infrastructure as the affable visionary everyone knew simply as Pat Brown.
Put aside for a moment the many natural wonders that make this state special and think of the man-made projects that have helped California's economy boom and have transformed the state into a leader not just of the nation but the world. They include the massive system of dams and aqueducts that carries water from a rainy north to a dry south; the extensive higher education system crowned by a public university that is among the world's best. These remarkable public resources and others grew dramatically in Brown's two terms as governor, from 1958 to 1966.
Consider these facts: During Brown's administration, more than 1,000 miles of freeway were built, about one-quarter of the state freeway system. State university and college enrollment doubled and three new campuses of the University of California were opened, at Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz. So were six campuses of the California State University system, including those in Fullerton, Northridge and Dominguez Hills. Brown's former colleagues say the expansion of higher education was his proudest achievement. He once asked the daughter of a friend after learning she would attend CSU: "Which one of my colleges are you going to?"
But bare facts alone do not come close to telling all there is to know about Brown. Perhaps they are even a little deceptive, for they create an image of an awesome, strong-willed statesman, Winston Churchill astride the Sacramento River. The real Pat Brown was an easygoing gentleman who was as accessible as his oh-so-common nickname.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the esteem in which Californians held the Brown name is that it identifies the closest thing to a family political dynasty that the state has ever known. The patriarch's controversial, imaginative son, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., was elected governor in 1974 and daughter Kathleen Brown became state treasurer and the 1994 Democratic nominee for governor.
Pat Brown was at his best while dreaming big dreams for his native state. Perhaps the most fitting obituary for him is the comment with which he conceded defeat to Reagan in the 1966 gubernatorial election. With characteristic grace and good humor, he said: "California has been good to me. I can only say I've tried to reciprocate." He did--and more.