Shirley Collins Browning passed away Wednesday afternoon, May 10, 2023 while doing what he loved…planting things outside so that they may grow. He was 83. Mr. Browning was the son of the late Mabel Collins Browning and the late Francis Parry Browning. He was born, August 24, 1939 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Mr. Browning worked for more than four decades at the University of North Carolina-Asheville as a professor of Economics and lecturer in their nationally recognized Humanities program. Over his tenure at UNCA, Dr. Browning was Economics Department Chair for more than twenty years, Chair of the UNCA Faculty Senate eight times, represented UNCA in the University of North Carolina system’s Faculty Assembly for 14 years, chairing that body twice, was Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UNCA for six years, and was an interim director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement. Dr. Browning led or participated in ten separate accreditation studies of either UNCA or other institutions around the nation. Additionally, he served on countless search committees for future Chancellors of UNCA, Instructors and the like. If there was a committee that needed sound, organized, principled guidance, Dr. Browning often was asked to serve, rarely if ever refusing to do so. He was one of the final links UNCA had to its transition to a full-fledged member of the North Carolina University System in the early 1970s as the state’s public Liberal Arts institution. Former colleagues have described Dr. Browning’s contribution to the growth and development of UNCA as “unparalleled”. His many students would no doubt agree.
Dr. Browning was a lifelong learner and voracious reader of as many things he could get his hands on based on what was piquing his interest in that moment. His bookshelves are overflowing with titles that cover topics from mental health, farming, reparations to African Americans, Social Justice, politics, humor, poetry, Economic theory, Volvos, Apples, current events, and, and, and. His pursuit of what he referred to as “truth” was never ending. Shirley believed the quest for knowledge was in fact a never ending journey in search of the elusive concept of “truth” regardless of how rewarding or painful it was revealed to be. For anyone who was on his email list, you were sure to get no less than three to five articles each week about a variety of topics he would find interesting and add his commentary to because in his heart he was still trying to teach all of us whatever he had just learned himself. He had the true heart of an educator and was forwarding articles as late as the evening prior to his passing. To say that everyone’s inboxes are significantly less crowded is one of the great understatements of the millennium, and we are all less informed for his passing.
Dr. Browning spent a lifetime dedicated to many things, from education, farming, food insecurity, charitable service, and preservation of the past. He began his education journey in a one room schoolhouse with no running water just up the road from the family farm where he grew up in Eastern Kentucky. In 1953, Dr. Browning moved from Poston Academy and the 8th grade in the schoolhouse’s terminal class, to Fleming County High School. He graduated in the first racially integrated class in Fleming County history in 1957, and entered the Army on the GI Bill so he could afford to go to college later that year. While in the Army, he was called on to Active Duty during the Berlin Wall crisis, leading to an elongated undergraduate period. He left the University of Kentucky with his BS, and later a Masters degree, and enrolled in the University of Connecticut where he was awarded his PhD. He arrived at UNC-Asheville in 1970, where he would remain for 42 years, and continued his teaching in retirement at OLLI afterwards.
Dr. Browning dedicated much of his life to the service of others. He was a decades-long member of Rotary International, serving in numerous leadership roles. He also was a former board member of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), and lent many hours of volunteer service to advising others in personal finance with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service from its very beginnings in the mid-1970s. As a professor, he advised thousands of students on potential directions for their future. Dr. Browning was steadfast in his belief that Universities are for students and student development and that with every decision made by these institutions, students’ needs and development should ALWAYS be considered first, ahead of faculty and administration. In his mind, Universities were created to serve student development, not the personal egos or political agendas of a faculty or administrative team.
Dr. Browning was also a collector of things that brought him joy, be they hats from a variety of Baseball teams, stamps from childhood, or his beloved Volvos. While his wife collected horses and dogs, he chose to search endlessly for another addition to his growing fleet of cars he would have preserved. He was not a fan of today’s automobiles, regularly complaining of the constant alarms, buttons and screens that appear in today’s modern transportation. He was most comfortable with an old car that did not have power steering, had a clutch, a manual choke, and a fin window to direct a cool evening breeze in his face. The last thing he wanted was to have a car buzz or talk to him. It is likely best for all that none of us are privy to the conversations he likely had with Siri trying to figure out his 2021 Subaru’s various bells and whistles. Shirley’s old cars represented a link to the technology of the past and brought him joy, comfort, and occasionally a little excitement when he would buzz by an unsuspecting millennial in a car that dated to an era older than their parents.
Dr. Browning was also passionate about the land and growing things. Raised on an Eastern Kentucky apple orchard with a large garden tended by his mother, father, and several local farm hands, he never was far from a place he could grow something. Whether it was flowers, trees, vegetables, or fruit, he was always seeing what new thing he could grow or resurrect. His quest to bring a Poinsettia back to bloom in subsequent years after its initial holiday season without a greenhouse or subtropical climate was a study in experimentation, stubbornness, and will. In recent years he was researching and planting hybrid varieties of the long since extinct American Chestnut Tree, a variety of Elm that he recalled from childhood, and other species he believed needed to be added to his property to leave a legacy of growth and biodiversity. The land was a link to self-sufficiency and sustainability and he understood he had to work with it, rather than against it. His encyclopedic knowledge of the land at his home place, down to specific locations where apple trees could and could not survive, sometimes down to areas a few feet apart regardless of what was done to the soil, was incredible for its specificity and attention to detail. He knew the land and wherever he lived, he could quickly and adeptly understand what the it would provide and give to him, if nurtured and cared for properly. This led to a life spent mostly outside. He loved being outside and in fact was refurbishing a planter when he passed, trowel in one hand, pruners in the other.
Shirley’s greatest love and the things that brought him the MOST joy and pride was seeing the many interesting things his five grandchildren were doing and accomplishing. While much of his support for soccer, horseback riding, running, theater, music, debate, wrestling, and the like has been from afar, he was always looking forward to the next opportunity one of his grandchildren would sit and share a recent experience with him. He may not completely understand the ins and outs of what they were telling him, which of course led him to start searching online for more information so he could better internalize what the kids would say to him. Shirley’s pride came from knowing they were having fun, learning life lessons, and defining their own success. He particularly enjoyed when one of his grandchildren would ask to “interview” him for a school project. Watching him open up to a grandchild and share portions of his life experience in a way that was instructive and educational was truly a gift to behold. As his physical condition slowly deteriorated he was unable to take in as many activities as he had previously, but he always relished the after event conversation he would get to have with his grandchildren.
Shirley will be remembered for his passion for seeking truth, knowledge, and his loyalty to service to others. He was in his heart a giver and supporter of many throughout his life from students, children, parents, grandchildren, colleagues, and beyond.
Shirley is survived by his son Robert (Bob) Browning of Swannanoa; his children Aiden Browning, Abigail Browning, and Avery Browning all of Swannanoa and Candler; his daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) Puckett and husband Benjamin Puckett of Asheville; their sons Ezekiel (Zeke) Puckett and Noah Puckett of Asheville; his brother Frank Browning and his partner Christophe Sevault of Paris, France; as well as the thousands of people he taught in the classroom and served through his charity and volunteerism. He was preceded in death by his wife of over 55 years, Carole Browning.
In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations to the following organizations both of which were very important to Shirley and his dedication to service to others:
Manna Food Bank: https://www.mannafoodbank.org/
Asheville Breakfast Rotary Club: https://www.ashevillerotarybreakfast.org/
As Shirley’s favorite seasons of the year were Spring with the Apple bloom, and Fall for the subsequent harvest, an Autumn Celebration of Life will be planned.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Shirley Collins Browning, please visit our floral store.