Beloved Aquinas teacher gets patriotic send-off to Afghanistan
by Jessica Langdon
OVERLAND PARK — One moment, Leo Brown was explaining to his seventh-hour freshman theology class at St. Thomas Aquinas all about hell.
Minutes later — thanks to every single soul inside the school — the popular teacher, who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, experienced a glimpse of what he could only compare to heaven.
A massive but stealthy surprise filled the hallways outside his classroom as Brown, a first sergeant with the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 442nd Fighter Wing Maintenance Group, taught one of his last classes before his deployment.
At 2:42 p.m. on March 11, an announcement came over the speakers for everyone to log out of Skyward, the school’s software program.
“We make this get-out-of-Skyward announcement about 35 times a day,” said Dr. Bill Ford, president of St. Thomas Aquinas.
So the request didn’t raise any alarm for Brown, but it cued everyone else in the building (except the class Brown was teaching at the time) to move.
Only hushed voices, the intermittent squeaks of tennis shoes and blasts of “Shhhhh!” sounded in the hallways as seniors and faculty lined both sides of the walkway, and freshmen, sophomores and juniors converged in the commons, where they would greet Brown with cheers, patriotic songs and a blessing.
Keeping this a secret among 1,000 people was no easy feat.
“It was kind of hard — especially between seniors — because he’s in our hallway,” said Austin Tedder, a senior at Aquinas. “And we like to talk a lot about secrets. It’s kind of what we do.”
Even Ford admits he almost let the news slip at Mass ahead of time.
But everyone somehow held it together.
When Craig Moss, principal for academic services, arrived at Brown’s classroom door — under the pretense of getting Brown to sign some documents in the office — Brown didn’t have the slightest idea what he was about to walk into.
As soon as he rounded the corner, students burst into cheers and applause, and a chorus of “USA! USA! USA!” started.
American flags and balloons added splashes of red, white and blue to what looked like a living tunnel of high-fives, handshakes and hugs.
A huge smile spread across Brown’s face.
“What I was thinking about was this must be just a little tiny window of what it’s like to die and go to heaven,” said Brown. “I wish I could do it again because you’re so caught in the emotion of all of this.”
Patriotism and prayers
When he reached the commons, shouts of “USA!” turned into cheers for “Leo Brown!”
The choir launched into “Wild Blue Yonder,” the U.S. Air Force’s song, and “America the Beautiful.”
“May he return safe to us,” prayed Father Daniel Schmitz, chaplain at Aquinas, during a blessing for the 48-year-old Brown.
Hands extended toward Brown and the crowd of more than 1,000 fell silent in prayer for him, an experience Father Schmitz had never before witnessed.
“It was giving me chills,” he said. “I was grateful to see their enthusiasm for him. I was hoping that they, too, learned a good lesson — that it left a deep impression on the students of the gratefulness we have for those who defend our country.”
Brown has served with his Reserve unit on the homefront for years, but this is his first deployment overseas — and it’s also a first for Aquinas.
Ford said it’s the first time he’s experienced a teacher being called up for service, and Aquinas wanted to demonstrate that the power of prayer will be with him every day over the next six months or so.
“I hope they take away that this is a very special project that he’s undertaking,” said Ford.
The 442nd Maintenance Group is basically in charge of “everything it takes to get the planes in the air mechanically,” along with some administrative functions, explained Brown.
As a first sergeant, he works to help members keep other areas of life in good order so they can focus on their Air Force jobs.
“A first sergeant is kind of a combination of big brother, cheerleader, father confessor and school disciplinarian — it’s all that,” he said. “It’s kind of like being a high school teacher.”
He sees life’s highs and lows.
His two jobs have dovetailed well, and he feels he is stronger at each because of the other.
Passion for work
Just as students want to know details about the Air Force and what he does, when his military colleagues learn he’s a high school teacher, they barrage him with their own questions about life as a teacher.
Brown, who grew up the youngest of six in Pittsburg, has always been fascinated by World War II — and hopes his students today will seek out the stories of veterans in their families and recognize the sacrifices many make for their country.
His father served during the war in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I latched onto the Air Force,” he said. “That’s the genesis of my Air Force interest.”
In his remarks to the student body at his send-off, Brown mentioned the message a friend from the seminary instilled in him — that “the heart of all prayer was gratitude, because everything we have is a gift from God.”
And so he summed up his appreciation of the send-off in six words.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said.
“No pun intended,” he added, “You are the bomb.”
In his 16 years at Aquinas, Brown has taught theology at all grade levels.
“There’s no kid that’s a stranger,” said Ford. “If he doesn’t know them, he asks them their name.”
And he’s known to address his students as “Doctor,” added Tedder.
Aquinas senior Annie Lind took note when she first got to know Brown of a list of life’s rules he keeps on his board. The one that struck her most says, “Life is not about you.”
Having Brown as a teacher and working with him as part of the student council to organize freshmen retreats, she has seen Brown exemplify that in his interactions with students.
“He can make any student feel like they’re the most important person in the room,” she said. “It’s almost like he says, ‘Life’s not about me,’ but it’s about the person he’s talking to.”
She will miss his booming voice outside his classroom and the jokes he shares with his students.
But Lind and Tedder know that during the months he’s serving in Afghanistan, his influence will continue to thrive in the student body, thanks to another important lesson he has instilled in his students.
One of the first things he does is pair each student with another.
“They’re our wingman,” said Tedder. “They take care of us, we take care of them — just like in the Air Force.”
“He brought that up in class almost every other day, and I’m not exaggerating,” agreed Lind. “That was something that was really important to him.”
Brown hopes the students will continue that tradition in his absence, even when change is hard to adjust to or times are stressful.
“You’re not in class for yourself, and no matter what feelings you’re going through, you’re here to ensure your wingman’s academic — but more importantly, spiritual — success,” said Brown. “We’re here to get each other to heaven in the good times and — especially [in the] bad times.”
And if his send-off was any indication, Brown has hundreds of wingmen thinking about him, praying for him, and anticipating his safe return to Kansas.
St. Thomas Aquinas is the kind of community that prays, said Lind. Intentions are a key part of it, and everyone realizes it’s a big deal that one of their theology teachers has been called to serve his country in Afghanistan.
“I know Mr. Brown will be coming up all the time,” said Lind.
Brown is expected to arrive in Afghanistan sometime this month, and to return to the United States in the fall.
He knows it will take a bit of time to “morph from Sgt. Brown back into Mr. Brown,” so it’s likely he’ll return to Aquinas to teach in January 2015.
And his family and friends inside and outside the school can’t wait for that day to arrive.
“We’re sad to see him go, and wish him Godspeed,” said Ford.
“He’s a great Catholic gentleman and a great servant to the United States,” said Father Schmitz.