Top Florida Writer, Michael Browning, Dies at 58 — Draws Tributes

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By: E&P Staff

In his column at, Marc Fisher calls Michael Browning of the Palm Beach Post “the most elegant writer in American journalism.” Browning died this past weekend at 58.

Fisher advised that readers of his paper who in recent years “enjoyed the writing of David Von Drehle, Joel Achenbach, or Gene Weingarten–or any of a hundred or so other Washington Post writers who came here from the Miami Herald–or if you’re a fan of the novels, columns or reporting of Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Madeline Blais, Barry Bearak or Michael Winerip, you’ve nonetheless missed out on the work of the guy who was by general acclamation the best writer of all of us who worked in the creative caldron of the Miami Herald in the 1980s.”

A large section of The Palm Beach Post obit by Scott Eyman follows.

Michael Browning died of liver failure Saturday at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. He was 58 years old.

“Michael was one of a kind, an extraordinarily gifted writer,” said Palm Beach Post Editor John Bartosek. “You read anything under his byline because he had that rare ability to make anything and everything interesting. Writing from the Herodion outside Bethlehem, Florida’s Death Row or his mother’s deathbed, Michael was clever, funny, erudite, insightful and authoritative, all with an amazing vocabulary. We will miss him.”

Mr. Browning began his career with The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville in 1975, but spent 20 years at The Miami Herald, nine of them in Asia, where he served as the newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief. As such, he traveled extensively in the Asia-Pacific region, reporting from India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka and South Africa. He retained his passion for China all of his life.

He joined The Palm Beach Post in 1999. He liked to joke that, early in his career, he had made a pact with the powers of darkness: In return for an abbreviated lifespan, he would never win the Pulitzer Prize. His luck on both counts held firm.

That said, Mr. Browning earned more than his share of accolades over the years, including Florida’s top honor for newspaper writing, the Paul Hansell Award, in 2004 for his stories in The Post. Among the articles in his body of work were two about caring for his ailing mother until her death.

He was a lapidary writer, never afraid of complex-compound sentences and arcane references. One editor at The Miami Herald, in a year-end evaluation, called his stories “breaking literature.” His own watchwords were less lofty: “One non-sue-worthy error per article,” and “On to the next disaster.”

Mr. Browning was born in Valdosta, Ga., on Oct. 28, 1948, and spent his first two years on his grandmother’s farm in Lovett, in Madison County, where his father, W.H. Browning, had grown up. The family moved to Jacksonville in 1950, and he attended Bishop Kenny High School there, winning a scholarship to Columbia University in 1966. There he received both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s.

He majored in Latin, minored in Greek and planned to become a teacher until the U.S. Army drafted him out of graduate school in 1972. He was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., with the 11th Engineering Battalion. When his unit was disbanded, he landed a job at The Castle, the Fort Belvoir post newspaper where he worked for five months. It was his first taste of journalism.

After teaching Greek and Latin for a year in Rome at Stanford University’s Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, he returned to the U.S. and applied for a job at The Florida Times-Union. He worked there three years before joining The Miami Herald in 1978.

Mr. Browning used to joke that his period in the military was the safest two years of his life. As a soldier, he never heard a shot fired in anger; as a reporter, he covered the riots in Delhi following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1985, the coup that overthrew Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the Tiananmen turmoil of 1989.

In 1994, with the late Dr. William R. Maples of the University of Florida, he co-authored Maples’ autobiography, Dead Men Do Tell Tales, which he was very proud to point out remains in print.

Behind his back, people who loved Mr. Browning called him The Panda, because of his figure. Six and a half feet tall, with a girth to match, he was one of those large men who somehow manage to seem dainty. He twinkled.

More accurately, Mr. Browning was a very Dickensian figure ? Old Fezziwig, because on his worst day he was brisk and bright and on his usual best day he was positively merry. When he would tromp into the office lugging a canvas bag, there were sure to be treasures within, from rare books of medieval philosophy, to DVDs of obscure spaghetti westerns that Mr. Browning had seen 35 years before in a northern Italy hill town and never forgotten.

He was not a Rabelaisian figure. Until he was overwhelmed by his illness, his language was full of words and phrases from a more genteel era, and he was terribly shy with women. Actually, like many people who live their lives strongly through the protective scrim of a passionate attachment to literature, he was terribly shy with everybody.

Mr. Browning knew everything. He spoke fluent Latin, Greek, Mandarin, and a few other, less exotic, languages. Once, when a co-worker was playing around with a mock family crest and inquired as to the proper wording of a Latin phrase, he responded with a long article of possible declensions that, with very little polishing, could have been printed in a magazine of Latin usage.

He loved movies and often had insights granted to very few professional critics. Once when discussing DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, he pointed out the profusion of animals throughout the film, and how much that related to the world that DeMille grew up in, the world of D.W. Griffith, where the visual reality of the natural world was so important, because there was no soundtrack to communicate the wind in the trees.

A newspaper staff is a lot like a large, typically disfunctional family, with its share of cranks, bust-outs and perennial children. Every once in a while, there is a responsible adult. In the large, extended, oddly loving family of The Post, Mr. Browning was the eccentric uncle that both the children and the adults adored.

When he first came to work at The Post, he arrived in a rustbucket car that . . . well, let’s just say that Tom Joad drove a better car than Mr. Browning. That wasn’t the worst of it; the worst of it was that he drove it for five more years. Although his clothes were always impeccably cleaned and pressed, in all other matters Mr. Browning believed in stringent economies, the better to spend money on the things that really mattered: rare books.

It was all part of what made him such a quietly endearing man. In a typically whimsical request, he asked his children, in lieu of flowers, to scatter popcorn on his grave.

In one of our last communications, we were talking about a recent book we had both read: Suite Francaise, the novel of a French woman who died during WWII. The book, he said, struck him “plangently, like the last, the highest note of a violin, heard while its strings break. It is terrible. You wish you could see the end, you wish the end could be happy. The light recedes. Night falls. Book and narrator are swept away. There just wasn’t enough time.”

We both knew he was talking about a lot more than a book.

He is survived by two sons, Matthew, 25, a freelance colorist for Marvel comics, and Noah, 21, a John Jay scholar studying at Columbia; by a half-sister, Barbara Brown, who lives in Dunedin, and by a sister, Eve, who teaches philosophy in Duluth, Minn.

Besides his relatives, Michael Browning is survived by dozens of distressed friends and thousands of sorrowing readers.

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