Collage of St. Lawrence images

Brushes with History

One Dollar, One Family, and 100 Years of Candlelight

Deborah Dudley and Jonathan Brown

What started with a gift of $1 in 1930 from a young entrepreneurial couple has become a 100-year Laurentian legacy woven into the fabric of the institution. 

There are few, if any, Laurentian families who can boast being involved in bringing both the Internet and Eartha Kitt to St. Lawrence University. A person cannot walk across the campus without encountering a work of art, a learning environment, sports venue, or an academic enhancement not supported in one way or another by a member of the Brush family. From John D. Brush’s enrollment in 1918 until today, he and wife, Edna Jeanne Brush ’24, along with three generations of their descendants, have a deep and multifaceted connection to St. Lawrence. 

One of the family’s first contributions to the University would prove among the most enduring. In 1919, John ’22 and classmate Stuart Winning ’21 helped organized the first Candlelight Service. John Brush was also a prolific lyricist, penning the words to “A Tribute” and most of the other pieces composed by Harry Shilkret, also a friend of John’s and Class of 1921 graduate. 

Like a lot of men his age, John Brush, spent much of 1918 training for war. He should have come to St. Lawrence in September of that year, but he enlisted in the Army and served as a private, first class, in the 338th Infantry’s light tank division. After the November Armistice ended the Great War in Europe, Brush came to a campus that had only a handful of buildings, but a lot of opportunity.

As he dug into his academic work, he supported himself by shoveling snow and tending furnaces. He was also, at times, a lumberjack, bellhop, and fisherman, and he helped build the Alpha Tau Omega house in Canton. Somehow, Brush found time and a car for a trip to Potsdam. Along the way, he also found Edna Jardine Jeanne. Before she passed, Edna shared the story of their meeting with University staff.

“I was hitchhiking with a girlfriend,” Edna said. “John and another fellow stopped and gave us a ride to Potsdam, and then a ride back to campus. Soon after that, John sent me flowers, which was
very extravagant.” 

Brush earned his bachelor’s degree in geology in 1922 but continued working toward a degree in divinity and, with 15 credits for his wartime service, completed the St. Lawrence divinity program just one year later in 1923. 

In 1925, John and Edna were married. Brush served as a Universalist pastor for eight years in Massachusetts, but decided to switch careers and along with Edna and his brother-in-law started the Brush-Punnett Company in 1931.

Launching a company that made safes was a big risk at the time. The partners did not take a salary during the years of the Great Depression, and the Brush family survived through Edna’s investments and savings. Business began to turn around in 1934, and by 1936, started to grow.

With each decade, John found new ways to innovate and supply clients with safes and other products. By the mid-’50s, John and Edna became the sole owners of John D. Brush & Co., Inc., later named The Sentry Group. 

The couple had three sons, all attending St. Lawrence, Jack ’50, Dick ’52, and Robert ’61, and all played important roles in the family business: Jack developed new products, Dick focused on administration and Sales, and Robert helped expand sales on the West Coast.

Beginning with their $1 donation in 1930, the Brush family commitment to St. Lawrence expanded exponentially over the years, and they found clever and creative ways to impact the lives of countless Laurentians as well as welcome a third and fourth generation of graduates. John and Edna’s grandchildren, Jim ’77 and Suzy ’80, attended and had Laurentians of their own: Jim’s son, Davis, graduated in 2008, and Suzy’s sons, Connor and Brendan, graduated in 2007 and 2011, respectively. 

According to Jim Brush, the connection to St. Lawrence for each runs deep, as each in their own way discovered a love for learning, important personal insights that a fine liberal arts education can inspire in young adults, and took away lifelong friendships and a strong connection to the school.

“My sister and I were both third generation and there is some pride in that legacy,” says Jim and adds with a chuckle, “Some of us like my brother, who went to Wooster College, were the black sheep, but some of us liked the idea of that legacy.”

That legacy included their mother and father giving much of their time and energy to their alma mater. Their father, Jack, served as a member of the board of trustees from 1970 until 1989, while their mother Nancy VanVoorhis Brush ’53 has continued to be a steadfast supporter, having served at times on the alumni council and as a reunion volunteer for decades. 

Each family member’s commitment has been a combination of service and support. John, Jack, Dick, and Jim have all served as University trustees. Like her mother, Suzy has also invested hundreds of hours and traveled thousands of miles to serve on various committees and alumni boards. 

Each one has matched their expenditure of time and energy with generous financial commitments, and the array of giving has impacted every facet of University life. In cases such as Dick Brush’s passion and understanding of the arts—his gifts of public sculptures and his support of the art gallery—it is difficult to quantify the number of lives enriched by the beauty and sophistication that he has added to the environment and the campus collections.

“I think we all share an affinity with this small, private, liberal arts college focused on learning,” says Jim. “Everyone found their own way, did their own unique thing, and got a lot out of it.”

Along with named endowments, the family has exhibited unwavering support of the St. Lawrence Fund. They have also supported scholarship, travel, the arts, cultural events, student services, student and faculty resources, new technology, capital projects, and athletic teams. 

All one needs to do is take a walk through campus—visit the Brush Alumni House, enjoy an art exhibition at the Brush Gallery, feel the grass between your toes as you traverse the Brush Quad, or experience the emotion of the Candlelight Service—to understand the texture and feel the threads of this 100-year legacy.

100 Years of Giving

The generosity of the Brush family has transformed St. Lawrence in many ways. They have contributed to a stunning array of initiatives, everything from original construction of Appleton Arena and Owen D. Young Library to innovation in the form of new technologies for communications, science research, and early access to the Internet. Their cultural contributions include supporting visiting scholars and artists such as author, Wilson Fellow Hilma Wolitzer, and performer, Eartha Kitt, as well as art acquisitions, music festivals and campus literary publications. Their generosity has extended to every facet of living and learning at St. Lawrence.

Giving card, side 1
Giving card, side 2