Robert Pack Browning, a strong and dedicated contributor to his community, a gifted poet, owner of Berkeley’s Talavera Ceramics and Tile, and a retired senior editor at the University of California Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers, died Friday, March 15th while swimming in rough waters in Baja Mexico. He was 78.
Rob was born and raised in Salt Lake City where his ancestors crossed with the first Mormon wagon train. His ancestors founded the Browning Arms Company of Ogden, Utah, but his grandfather went his own way and started Salt Lake City’s Browning Buick, “the first Buick dealership west of the Rockies,” where his father also worked.
In the mid-sixties, Rob moved to New York City and worked for Time Inc. before relocating to Berkeley for graduate school in English. He served on Berkeley’s Poverty Board in the 70s, worked on many progressive campaigns, and channeled his love of language into these causes and into many delightful letters and whimsical notes to friends and family, as well as his own more serious literary writing.
In the mid-eighties, he was part of the leadership team that wrote (in his kitchen) and worked to pass the first Berkeley Schools Enrichment Bond, Measure H, which has become a critical part of local schools funding. Subsequently, he founded the University Avenue Gardeners, initiating the native trees and plantings we now enjoy along the University Avenue medians.
Rob retired from the University after many years as a senior editor at the Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers. Many scholarly editions of Twain’s letters and manuscripts were published with his contributions. These volumes accurately reflect Twain’s original hand-written repository of work. Rob was the principal editor of Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, Volume III: (1883-1891).
Almost 20 years ago he learned that a struggling small business, one he valued, Talavera Ceramics, was closing. Rob could not find someone to take it over so he took the plunge himself. Over the years, he and his wife, Linda, manager Lilia Maciel, staff members Belinda Bueno, Virginia Browning, Valeria Guerrero, and others, built the tiny store into a major resource for Mexican Talavera tiles, colorful ceramics, and handmade crafts. Customers remember Rob’s stories about the families who create the beautiful pieces, and his playfully engaging them with, “are you browsing or do you require interference?”
Rob was a talented and accomplished writer and poet. Under the writing name, Pack Browning, he authored many deeply evocative works reflective of the breadth of human experience, and of the deep bones of the West. He composed the libretto for Samuel Barber’s “Easter Chorale” and his poems have been published over the years in various journals. Recently he was invited to read his work at the 50th Anniversary of the Native Plant Society.
Rob Browning is survived by his wife, former City Councilmember Linda Maio, who wrote, “Rob’s kindness, insights, wise counsel, and generosity sustained us in our over 30 years together. Our life was rich beyond measure.” Rob is also survived by his sister, Virginia Browning, his children of a previous marriage, Jessica Chaplin Browning and Jonathan Edmund Browning, his stepchildren, Michael and Michelle Veneziano, and grandchildren Nina and Cassius Browning Glikshtern, Lucy and Willa Browning, and Giulia and Simona Veneziano.
The family plans to publish a compendium of his work in the near future. Donations in Rob’s name may be made to the Bancroft Library or the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
A memorial will be held on Saturday, May 18th, 2 p.m. at the Northbrae Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley.
Excerpted from Callas in the Morning Light
…The Callas seem to care less than we do,
taking the light smack in the face
and giving it back smartly—as though whiteness
and smoothness and clean double curves
were their own invention. Yes, it’s the blade
they are, slipped into us so deftly
we hardly know why we are bleeding.