In the fall of 2008 I became aware of a remarkable friendship between Anthony Brown and a Madison man named Matthew. I met with both at the Perkins restaurant on the Beltline one morning in October. It was one of the most remarkable stories I've ever heard, and certainly the most remarkable one I've never told. Until now.
Brown, who died on Saturday at age 59, headed the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission from 1994 to 2004. Matthew, a social worker, had become his dear friend; indeed, he was, in a very real sense, a part of Anthony.
Both men were members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation on Madison's south side. That was an especially peculiar thing for Matthew, who was not only white, but Jewish. But the church welcomed him, and made him feel at home.
In December 2007, Anthony related, Mt. Zion pastor Richard Jones gave a sermon about the importance of giving. He also mentioned perhaps coincidentally that parishioner Brown was ill, and he needed a kidney. Matthew, who at that time had two of them, wondered if he might be a match.
"I didn't know this person at all," Anthony told me. The two men had never even met. Yet Matthew went to the hospital to get tested, and was told it was a match. In early January, he and Anthony met at the Perkins on the Beltline to talk it over. Says Anthony, "The only thing he asked of me is that the kidney transplant be done on Valentine's Day, as an act of love."
The transplant was done as planned on Feb. 14, 2008. Some of the nurses cried when they heard the story behind it. Anthony and Matthew became "soul mates," welcome in each other's homes and lives.
What amazed me most about my meeting with the two men was that Matthew seemed every bit as grateful as Anthony over how their lives had entwined. He was not just okay with his decision; he was enriched by it. He came to know Anthony Brown as others have: Smart, funny, caring, generous.
The power of this story was clear to me; I saw that it might prompt others to acts of generosity and kindness. Matthew was willing to have the story be told. Anthony, facing ongoing health problems, asked me to hold off.
Word is that Anthony was in the process of having another operation when he passed away. But the two years of life he owes to a one-time stranger named Matthew were, like the rest of his years, rich beyond measure.