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Minn. man searching for police officers who changed the trajectory of his life

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By Adelle Whitefoot
Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH, Minn. — On Dec. 23, 1957, David Brown was just 9 years old and he had made a plan to end his life the next day on Christmas Eve. But thanks to two Duluth police officers, he never went through with his plan, and now at the age of 71 he’s hoping to figure out who those officers were.

“People have to know when they do something good that changes a life,” Brown said. “It would mean the world to me to figure out who those police officers were.”

Brown grew up in a very poor family in West Duluth. He said his father was an abusive alcoholic who beat him on a regular basis and his mother was addicted to prescription drugs. The day he met the police officers he had planned his suicide. He said he had a location and method picked out.

“Life was just too painful,” Brown said.

The day before Christmas Eve, Brown said his mother had been crying nonstop. They didn’t have a Christmas tree or food or really much of anything in the small two-bedroom apartment they lived in, and at the time his father was at a hospital in Moose Lake on court order for his drinking problem.

“So my brother and I thought it would be a good idea to help mom stop crying to go and get a Christmas tree,” Brown said. “So we stole the landlord’s saw out of the shed and we went to a house about a block and a half away and cut down a pine tree in the middle of this guy’s lawn.”

Brown said he and his brother dragged the tree all the way home and told their mother that a nice man had stopped and given it to them because he didn’t need it.

“Then there were a lot of footsteps on the back stairs and a heavy knock at the door,” Brown said. “It was the police.”

Brown said a witness and the owner of the tree were with the police, so the boys admitted to taking the tree. While one of the officers stayed and talked to their mother, the other took the boys to the squad car. The boys learned how the lights worked and Brown said he even got to turn the siren on for a little bit. Then the officer picked up his radio and asked a man on the other end to say merry Christmas to them.

“So a big heavy voice came over the radio and said 'Merry Christmas' and then every squad on watch that night radioed back saying 'Merry Christmas' to us,” Brown said. “And right then it took away my desire to die. They never knew I felt suicidal. No one ever knew.”

But the officers didn’t stop there in trying to make a difference in Brown and his brother’s lives.

“The next day my dad came home from the hospital, and later that afternoon the phone rang and somebody said there were packages at the bottom of the stairs,” Brown said.

Brown said there were three big boxes of food and several other covered boxes. In those other boxes were monstrous Christmas stockings with the boys’ names on them and many, many presents.

“It’s the first time I’d ever seen my name like that in glitter on these Christmas stockings,” Brown said. “And I just instantly knew where they came from. Well, at least I had a strong suspicion.”

Brown said the stockings were filled with underwear, socks and candy as well as other items. He said the presents were beautifully wrapped and included a chemistry set, board games and CCM hockey skates, the best ones at the time.

“There was also an envelope for my brother and me for 52 movie matinees every Saturday for the NorShor Theatre. On the envelope, it said, ‘From your friends at the Duluth Police Department,’” Brown said. “Not only did it turn me away from wanting to end my life, at that young age, but I also made a decision that I was going to help people the way they helped me.”

Brown eventually became a paramedic in Duluth, and then he went out to Utah and Colorado where he served as a police officer at four different departments. Unfortunately, Brown said he developed a horrible drinking problem which cost him his job as a police officer and nearly cost him his life, at his own hands, again.

But when he hit rock bottom he decided to work hard to turn it around. Brown said he is now 28 years sober.

Brown moved back to Duluth around 2009-10 and he’s now a self-published author and has written two books about his life, starting with that December day when the Duluth police officers showed him kindness.

Brown returned some of that kindness on Tuesday when he wrote a post on social media that said, “To the currently active officers of the Duluth Police Department. Your predecessors have left a legacy that few of you know of. In 1957 a 9-year-old boy was going to take his own life on Christmas Eve. The kindness and generosity of your entire department turned that little boy away from his darkness. I am that little boy. David J. Brown. Work safe and Godspeed. Merry Christmas.”

“I received thousands of messages after that post, which I obviously couldn’t respond to them all,” Brown said.

Multiple Duluth police officers even reached out to Brown, including Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken.

“I think it was an important message for him to share, and it's certainly a message I'm going to share with the rest of my staff to remind them that people reach out to us on their worst day, hour or moment of their lives and we can never be certain about how much of an impact we can make on people's lives,” Tusken said.

Tusken said it might not ever be possible to find out who those officers were, but Brown’s story is proof of the meaningful work that police officers do every day.

“Those officers he had contact with changed the trajectory of his life,” Tusken said.