Larry Alan Brown
1935 - 2014
Larry was born in 1935 and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania to immigrant parents. His life and work reflects in many ways the classic American immigrant story of success. His father and other relatives fled the pogroms in Ukraine; and the family name was changed from Browarnik to Brown when they immigrated to the U.S. via Ellis Island. His parents instilled in him deep values about the importance of education and achievement.
A self-described “dead-end kid,” Larry initially aspired to be an auto mechanic which may explain his affinity for late-model BMWs. Instead of technical school, Larry went to college after high school because it meant something to his immigrant parents. He received his undergraduate degree in 1958 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, with a B.S. degree in Economics/Business . He first worked as an accountant in Philadelphia and then tried law school before discovering his true passion for geography, enrolling in the graduate program at Northwestern University in Chicago in the early 1960s.
The roots of Larry’s interest in geography were set much earlier, however, when he and his brother Ed travelled through Latin America, driving down the Pan American Highway in the late-1950s. There he encountered an international development worker who shared Preston James’ book – Latin America (1950) with him—an event that Larry often recounted in stories of his early discovery of geography. His formal training began at Northwestern where he earned an MA in geography in 1963 and PhD in 1966. The renowned Swedish geographer, Torsten Hägerstrand, supervised his dissertation fieldwork on innovation and diffusion processes.
Larry’s seminal book, Innovation Diffusion: A New Perspective (1981, Methuen), provided the definitive account of the ongoing adoption and spread of new products and techniques. Earlier research had emphasized the adopters themselves, but Larry refocused attention to the social and geographic processes that supported transformative technologies, products, and behaviors. Later, his research on mobility and migration offered new insights into why and where people move. His pioneering theory of intra-urban migration (with Eric Moore) in 1970 separated residential mobility process into two stages: dissatisfaction with the current home and the search for a new one. This influential work inspired several generations of demographers and urban geographers who went on to clarify the mobility behavior of young adults just leaving the family home, the role of residential change in the upward mobility of new immigrants, and the way local housing markets affect homeownership—all compelling and socially significant issues today. More recently, up to and following the publication of another important book, Place, Migration and Development in the Third World (1990, Routledge), Larry’s research sought to show how context shapes the relations among urbanization, economic growth, and population change in Latin America, Third World development, and in US metropolitan areas.
In addition to these groundbreaking intellectual achievements, Larry’s legacy to OSU and the field of geography lies in his generous, strategic, and unstinting mentorship of graduate students. As a faculty member at OSU, he advised thirty PhD students in all, many of whom are intellectual leaders themselves today. He made a lifetime commitment to those who chose to work with him: following their careers, offering advice when asked, writing hundreds of timely, and pointed letters of recommendation; taking an interest in their personal lives, and being the go-to person in times of need. He had a special relationship with a large cluster of doctoral graduates from Korea, and the story goes that his sociable participation in karaoke sessions won him lasting admiration and gratitude. His hallmark departmental “pointer” was a very simple yet effective item to have people remember their visits, and of course, also came in handy in the classroom.
In a lifetime of professional effort he deservedly earned high honors himself. He was President of the Association of American Geographers, Department Chair (at the same time!), a Guggenheim Fellow, President of the North America Regional Science Council (NARSC) , and a Distinguished University Professor at Ohio State. In recognition of his extraordinary vision and leadership in the field of geography, the AAG presented its Lifetime Achievement Honors Award to Larry in 2008. Larry also worked assiduously to advance the many causes he championed. As department chair, he nominated countless colleagues for teaching, service, and research honors, as well as honorary doctorates. He nominated former students for similar positions at their home universities.
There were also sides to him of which few were aware. Larry had been a consummate golfer in earlier years. He was a very good tennis player and an excellent swimmer. He had an extensive collection of blues and American roots music. He was widely read outside the social sciences.. He felt things deeply and cared for people. And yet, those of you who know Larry will not be surprised that he spent the final days at his place of work: a corner office in Derby Hall with a window facing Bricker Hall where his light often burned late into the night. The hallways and hearts of OSU geography faculty, staff, and students are filled with reminders of Larry’s devotion to the discipline, to his friends, colleagues, and students. His style and dedication to service has shaped the way we are today, and this lives on in the Lawrence A. Brown Faculty Fellowship.
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” The first floor of Derby Hall and the discipline of geography will be different without Larry. He will be forever missed.
–OSU Geography Dept.