City historian Harry Brawley dead at 82

Charleston Gazette March 26, 1992

By Bob Schwarz
Staff Writer

Harry Brawley, who did more than any other person to chronicle Charleston's past, died Wednesday afternoon at Dunbar Health Care Center. He was 82. The city's unofficial historian had been in poor health since suffering a stroke last month.

Several years ago, the city fathers named the downtown's Brawley Walkway in his honor.

A graduate of West Virginia University, Brawley worked as a high school and college teacher, radio and TV broadcaster, and served as a Charleston city councilman. He was best known for his detailed knowledge of Charleston history. He share that knowledge through frequent talks, complete with slide shows, and later, through videos.

Brawley was active in radio and television for WCHS from 1945 to 1965, serving as the station's director of public affairs. He introduced John F. Kennedy at a nationally televised presidential debate with Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 presidential primary campaign.

He left WCHS to become the first executive director of the W. Va. Education Broadcasting Authority. Ten years before the county's 200th birthday, he became the first chairman of the bicentennial and remained the guiding force through the 1988 celebrations.

He wrote for the state historical magazine Goldenseal about the Kanawha River, Kanawha Boulevard, and 1921 - the Capitol and Governor's Mansion were on Capitol Street then. He was a boy of 11 when on a cloudy January afternoon the fire bell at City Hall rang out. "We children knew the fire code well, and this time the bell told me the fire was in my home district," he wrote in a 1986 Goldenseal article. "That meant excitement close by.

That fire changed the downtown forever, he wrote. With the loss of the Capitol and with the departure of the governor from an adjacent residence, the district began to change from a fashionable middle-class residential area to a place of retail shops.

"I heard him speak eight or nine times and you'd think it would always be the same talk, but it wasn't," said Mayor Kent Hall, who served on council with Brawley. "He had such a wealth of information one thing would trigger another.

Brawley could go down a block building by building and tell something about each family going back several generations, Hall said. "This is where old man Popp had his livery business," he would say.

In one lecture, Brawley would show a contemporary street scene, then show a slide of the same spot 20 years earlier, then another slide another 20 years back, Hall said.

As local historian, Brawley stepped into shoes earlier filled by Julius DeGruyter.

Anyone doing research on Charleston's last 150 years called Brawley for details about places, events and people, said Fred Armstrong, director of Archives and History for the state Division of Culture and History for the state Division of Culture and Hisotry.

Brawley added to his collection as people brought him old photos from their attics, then turned many of his slide programs and videos over to the state in his final years, Armstrong said.

Brawley overcame a near-fatal bout with polio that left him crippled when he was 2, his daughter Harriet Nottingham said. Doctors told his mother he wouldn't survive, then that he wouldn't walk. Determined to prove the doctors wrong, his mother worked constantly to rebuild the muscles. Her hope and work, combined with a doctor's surgery when Brawley was 6, enabled him to walk with a cane.

A stroke about seven years ago confined Brawley to a wheelchair, but he continued to accept speaking engagements, turning more and more of the actual talking over to his wife, especially in the last year.

He wrote historical pieces regularly for The South Hill Journal, and when he was stricken in February, he had two columns ready to go, according to Nottingham. He suffered the stroke while watching for the first time a movie he had always wanted to see, "Casablanca." As the movie ended and the credits rolled, his wife Betty turned and saw him slumped in his chair.

Surviving: wife, Betty Carson Brawley; daughters, Sarah Stebbins of Alexandria, Va., Harriet Nottingham and Ann Reeves, both of Charleston; sister, Mrs. Virgil Frizzell of Charleston; nine grandchildren; one great-grandchild.

Service will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Village Chapel Presbyterian Church with the Rev. W. F. Mansell Jr. officiating. Burial will be in Spring Hill Cemetery. Friends may call from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Barlow-Bonsall Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers the family suggests donations to West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority, 600 Capitol St., Charleston, W. Va. 25301, or to Village Chapel Presbyterian Church.

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