Carol Brown heard the news she had been waiting for a year: her husband of over 50 years, Ralph, had been found.
“I can finally sleep,” she said after receiving a call last week about the discovery of her husband’s body.
Ralph Brown’s family said they are overwhelmed with emotions of euphoria, relief and grief. It was three days shy of a year since their patriarch – and a longtime community leader – disappeared without a trace.
On May 13, Adventures with Purpose – an Oregon-based group dedicated to recovering cars from waterways and solving missing person cases – sent a diver to search Roger’s Landing, a county park from Yamhill and the entrance to the Willamette River.
They had already searched the premises three times in the past year.
But this time, 100 feet from a boat launch and 40 feet deep in the Willamette, under a submerged pile of branches and tree trunks, they found a blue Nissan Sentra at the towards. The windows were still open and a body was inside. A few days later, dental records confirmed that it was the remains of Ralph Brown.
The 76-year-old former Cornelius mayor and Hillsboro educator had left his home on May 16, 2021. After a Sunday of running errands with his wife, Ralph, who had suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s disease for two years, s got up from his chair and said, “I’m going home,” then he left.
Ralph’s driver’s license was no longer valid and he had not driven a car in over a year. But in confusing episodes, especially at night in so-called sunset syndrome in dementia patients, Ralph often spoke of his childhood home in Astoria.
He left his home of Cornelius, where he had lived for 50 years and raised a family, and never returned.
Hours later, Brown finally answered his cell phone after family members frantically called. The last person he spoke to was his daughter, Laurie Saunders.
“I’m in the bushes on a golf course,” he said. “Are people looking for me? You’re looking for me, aren’t you?
Brown’s disappearance mystified the community, garnering widespread support in a months-long search effort. Dozens of volunteers, some who knew Brown closely and some who did not, searched hundreds of miles across Oregon.
A Facebook page dedicated to his research is filled with posts from former students, friends, colleagues and locals who revered and respected Brown. Posters and flyers with his picture and physical description — 5ft 10in, white hair, blue eyes and a missing tip from his right index finger — are still scattered across McMinnville, Forest Grove and Hillsboro, the western suburbs of Portland where his family mapped his last known location using pings from a cellphone tower.
It was the last ping – just south of Newberg – that finally solved the mystery.
“Where the hell are you, dad? »
Every day on his commute to work as a physical education teacher in Hillsboro, Daryle Brown passed a large billboard displaying his father’s missing person flyer.
“I was always telling him to hit him,” Daryle said. “Sometimes I would ask, ‘Where the hell are you, dad? “”
For the past year, every day the sun rises, Daryle has wanted to play nine holes of golf with his dad. Any joy or positivity the 52-year-old felt was clouded by a heaviness in the back of his mind. He wondered, “Should I even be happy?”
Some of Daryle’s earliest memories, he said, are of a garage filled with street signs and posters covered with photos of his father’s “glorious” paws in the 1970s and horn-rimmed glasses that Ralph Brown sported when he first ran for mayor of Cornelius, the small town that sits along the Tualatin Valley Highway between Forest Grove and Hillsboro.
As mayor, Brown was instrumental in adding an elementary school and the Virginia Garcia Medical Center to the city as its population grew. He and Carol founded Cornelius Kids Inc., the area’s first youth sports program.
Brown was a social studies teacher, then vice-principal at Poynter Middle School in Hillsboro, where he retired (or “never graduated,” as Daryle puts it) and a member of the Forest Grove School Board. .
Brown was the kind of guy who said, “If you’re on time, you’re late,” Daryle said. His dad would get up at 6 a.m. on family vacations to go running, and over the decades he’s run multiple marathons and organized more than 100 fun runs for charities.
In his sixties, Ralph was still racing with friends like Jan Van Blarcome.
“He was like, ‘It’s not how fast you go, it’s about finishing the race,'” VanBlarcome recalled. He embraced everything, he loved his family and he loved his community.
It made no sense to Daryle, or anyone who knew Brown, that he disappeared without someone reporting a sighting.
Brown was friendly, outgoing, and sympathetic, with a personality fueled by social interactions and relating to others.
“Even in his worst Alzheimer’s days, he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to talk to people,” Daryle Brown said.
Megan Closson, Brown’s granddaughter and Daryle’s daughter, said growing up she saw her beloved grandparents almost every day. “Daddy Ralph” helped raise her, she said, and called her and all of her cousins ”partner.”
He held out his right hand to show where the pointing finger had been severed in an accident and told a story to the grandchildren, warning them that he had been severed by too many noses.
In the past two years, Brown has changed, she says. He had a blank stare, asked the same questions over and over again, and couldn’t remember his family members.
“Over the past year, obviously we’ve had enough time to grieve,” Closson said. “But even over the last three years when Alzheimer’s started to change him, we had time to adapt and accept the knowledge that he would never come back.”
“My gut was telling me, ‘We’re missing something'”
The search for Ralph Brown never really ended, despite the desperation, his family said.
“For the first week after she disappeared, we were harassed and believed,” Daryle said.
Then people from different phases of Brown’s life came to help, Daryle said. Family and friends coordinated the search from Washington and Yamhill counties to the Oregon coast.
“The number of people who helped find Ralph proved that he was a pillar of the community,” VanBlarcome said.
For Jared Leisek, founder of Adventures with Purpose, Ralph’s case was one he couldn’t give up.
“My gut was telling me, ‘We’re missing something,'” he said.
Leisek travels the country on dive trips, documenting recoveries on his YouTube channel. Despite resolving several cases over the past year, every time Leisek returned home to Oregon, he thought of Brown, missing “in our own backyard.”
“He’s not just a former Cornelius mayor,” Leisek said. “It was a grandfather that attracted me, because my grandfather had the same short finger, the same smirk.”
Leisek tracked the last location ping from Brown’s cellphone. Its 5 mile radius took it to the Willamette.
Using sonar, Leisek and his dive partner Doug Bishop searched several waterways in the area and recovered six other cars during the three times they searched Roger’s Landing.
“We know that when a confused person gets behind the wheel of a car, they often drive without stopping, even if it means ending up in water,” he said.
Leisek and Bishop decided to look a fourth time in the most likely place. A pile of tree logs, visible from the surface, and growing moss made dangerous and potentially deadly diving even more difficult, he said.
But this time, Bishop returned to the surface of the water with a license plate number that had been taped to all the missing persons signs: Oregon 319 KQV.
“There’s a feeling that comes over you that I just can’t describe,” Leisek said. “It’s like you already know you’ve found the person you’re really looking for.”
“We can heal now”
Daryle Brown’s head was spinning when he heard the news.
Little did he know that Adventures with Purpose was looking for the river again.
“Not once did finding dad cross my mind, it was so impossible,” Daryle said. “It felt like we were going to get stuck forever.”
He ran down the halls from school to work and kissed VanBlarcome. They cried together in the staff room.
Megan Closson said she felt more happiness than sorrow as the saga finally came to an end.
“We can heal now because worry and despair are relieved,” said Saunders, Brown’s daughter.
The family is planning a barbecue to celebrate life near what would have been Brown’s 78th birthday in July.
This weekend, his youngest granddaughter, Olivia, will graduate from high school in West Virginia.
The 18-year-old recently got her first tattoo. Just above his chest in small print is the word “partner” – the affectionate term Papa Ralph called all his grandchildren.
–Savannah Eadens; [email protected] ; 971-712-3423; @savannaheadens