ROCKERVILLE | Robert Thomas "Bob" Brownell, 69, died peacefully at his home after a long struggle with COPD and chronic pain. He was a man of many words, countless achievements and was truly one-of-a-kind. If you ever met him, you’d never forget him!
He was very proud of his family roots. His grandfather, Harry F. Brownell, was a prominent figure in the history and development of Sioux Falls in the early 1900s. His great-grandfather, Col. William J. Thornby, born in 1856, was a major figure in the history of the Black Hills, who with Prof. W.P. Jenney located Hot Springs. Thornby married Bertha Youmans, one of the early notable teachers at the State Normal School, now BHSU in Spearfish.
Bob was born in Sioux Falls on July 30, 1946, to Robert Jewitt & Jane Hayter Brownell. He grew up in an affluent neighborhood and due to his severe asthma the family divided their time between Sioux Falls and their other home in Paradise Valley, AZ. He would reminisce of riding his pony over the desert (now known as the popular Shea Blvd.) to a one-room adobe schoolhouse where he enjoyed playing and smoking rolled cigarettes with his Indian classmates.
He became acquainted with many prestigious friends and neighbors such as Joe Foss, a lifetime friend of his father's, and Barry Goldwater, who gave him his first ride in a fighter jet. His father had polio and spent many months in an iron lung. Because of this, Bob was given one of the first polio injections, personally, by Jonas Salk at the Brownell home.
As he grew and his health improved, Bob was sent to St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, WI, where his father had also graduated. It was there where he learned marksmanship and was trained as an airplane pilot. He boasted the fact that on his 16th birthday he received his pilot's license before receiving his driver's license. The Argus Leader even ran an article verifying this accomplishment! He was rated in 14 different aircrafts and logged countless hours.
Prior to his senior year, he was called home to assist with the issues arising from the death of his grandmother. He graduated from Washington High School in Sioux Falls in 1964 and attended the University of South Dakota. During those young adult years, Bob let his hair down. He was a good friend and "agent" for Myron Lee & the Caddies.
His knowledge was further expanded while working at both Dow Drug and Brown Wholesale Drug companies. Later, while employed at Olsen Marine & Sporting Goods he developed an avid interest in trapshooting attending meets in many states. He also enjoyed boating on Lake Okoboji and Wall Lake, where he renovated a home, which he later sold to purchase the Brownell Company, a water company in Worthing, SD. He expanded a customer base of only 25 to 625! Bob was active in the civic affairs of Worthing and held several offices including that of mayor pro tem.
After his first back surgery, he came to the Black Hills to recuperate and lived in a Palmer Gulch cabin for many months — and like many others, he fell in love with the Hills. In 1976, Brownell Enterprises, Inc. purchased the entire town of Rockerville which included a restaurant, 12 individual shops, gas station and motel. It was the last time a single entity owned the entire town as a whole. Bob incorporated novel ideas, including stage coaches, train rides, theatrical gunfights along with a carnival and live animal shows. During that time the Gaslight Restaurant (capacity of 1,000) was rated "Model Restaurant" by the AAA. In 1978, Rockerville was sold for a sizable profit.
It was back to Arizona where he would have another back surgery and of course a few more unique encounters. He was hired as a general laborer by the Phoenix Greenhouse, a wholesale plant business serving four states and Mexico, and within three months was promoted to general manager. He always did have a green thumb and enjoyed telling the story of how he would assist Stevie Nicks in picking out plants and flowers for her mother. And, we still have the backgammon board on which he played a few games with Omar Sharif, while at a neighborhood gathering. "Omar always won," he said.
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In 1983, he moved to Florida, where he again successfully managed two separate restaurants, Luther's BBQ in Delray Beach, FL, and Le Peep in Atlanta, GA. He later became a territory manager at Economics Laboratory, a commercial chemical corporation, with equipment leases to major restaurants, hospitals, hotel chains and cruise ships. His territory included Palm Beach and Broward County, including Fort Lauderdale, as well as the Florida Keys. This was probably his most challenging and enjoyable job where he met so many fascinating people and saw extraordinary places!
He returned once again to the South Dakota in 1986 to join his long-time friend and confidant, Shirley Cahoy. Although he was offered jobs in Colorado and New Zealand with Economics Laboratory he chose to stay with her in the Black Hills. He worked a while for his old friend “Doc” Casey at Bear Country and later for Emsco Industry, Inc. After assuming a different line of work, he sustained an injury which left him disabled and ultimately ended his working career.
At age 40, he would embark on his greatest journey yet, becoming a father. He stayed at home and ran a tight ship — he was chief cook and bottle washer extraordinaire! He took on this task as he did every other...with his whole heart and soul and with raw determination. He attended every school event, soccer game and pre-teen pageant (where he was awarded "Father of the Year") with enthusiasm and a keen eye. His children are his greatest achievement. He was quite proud of them and they will be forever grateful for all he has taught them, showed them and instilled in both their hearts and minds.
At first blush, many people didn’t quite know how to react to his witty ways and unique sense of humor. You never knew what was going to fly out of his mouth — embarrassment was not a word in his vocabulary although he did quite a job embarrassing others. He told it like it was, no sugar coating involved. However he always enjoyed giving and doing things for others. He loved a good conversation, even though he did most of the talking! He would leave a lasting impression on everyone he came into contact with. Smart and talented, he enjoyed a challenge — there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do once he set his mind to it. Everything he did, he did with perfection. He never ceased to amaze people. He was a fighter and never gave up, even when odds were against him. Like a cat, he seemed to have 9 lives, actually more like 10. He left this world proud, satisfied and ready.
Bob was a lifetime member of the NRA, member of the Black Hills Pioneer Society and a Mason as well as many other organizations throughout his life!
He is survived by his best friend and wife, Shirley Brownell; devoted son, Robert J. "RJ" Brownell; trusty companion, Jacques the Russell of Rockerville; loving daughter, Betsy (Greg) Brose and uplifting granddaughters, Kaia and Lily Brose of Hill City.
A Celebration of Bob’s Life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Rockerville Community Hall. Come one, come all and get your stories ready!
In lieu of flowers and to acknowledge his love for animals, a memorial has been set up at the Humane Society of the Black Hills, Rapid City.
Family and friends may sign Bob’s online guestbook at kirkfuneralhome.com.