October 22, 2014

Elyria
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Vermilion Township’s Don Brown made empire out of drop ceilings

VERMILION TWP. — Don Brown was a millionaire who at age 89 still loved business deals, inventing things and flying, especially helicopters and planes.

In the 1950s, he devised a grid system for mounting drop ceilings and turned that idea into a multimillion dollar empire in Westlake called Donn Corp.

In 1985 — the year before he sold the company to U.S. Gypsum — Donn Corp. had sales of about
$300 million.

The company, which was the world’s leading producer of ceiling grid and interior access floor systems, sold for about 2.8 million shares of USG stock in 1986, according to news reports.

Most recently, he was an astute land investor. In 2008, the Richard E. Jacobs Groups paid $5 million to Brown to acquire about 103 acres of property near the proposed Interstate 90 interchange at Lear-Nagle Road in Avon.

After the plane crash Monday, an employee who answered the phone for Vermilion Properties, which operates out of Brown’s 70-acre lakefront estate home at 5605 W. Lake Road, declined to comment.

The plane crash was not the first tragedy suffered by the family, comprised of the Browns and their three sons, Keith, Kevin and Kenneth.

Kevin Brown was killed while steering a 32-foot speedboat at the 1989 world championships. His friend and business partner, Jim Dyke, was at the throttle when a wall of water hit the boat, killing Brown.

Dyke and his wife grieved Monday for the Brown family while monitoring news of the plane crash. Dyke said he last saw Don Brown about a month ago and “he was still very sharp.”

“He’d come by my workshop and we’d have lunch,” Dyke said.

Business deals and constantly inventing things seemed to “keep him young,” Dyke said.

Shirley Brown was petite, quiet and “very, very nice,” Dyke said. He said Don and Shirley Brown married shortly after World War II, where Don Brown had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the Army.

Well into his 80s, Brown was interested in the world around him and constantly tinkering with inventions or thinking of new ways to do things. He also had a reputation for being very private.

But in 2003, Brown seemed to delight in telling The Chronicle-Telegram about his plans to launch a long-postponed venture — a chemical/environmental/nuclear blast shelter sleeping up to 30 that he planned to sell to anyone looking to survive the unthinkable.

“One thing — 9/11 — really woke me up,” Brown said. “It woke up a lot of people.”

During that interview, Don Brown said he first became interested in building shelters during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union and the United States came to the brink of nuclear war. He designed systems then, he said, and world events prompted him to start up again at the age of 83.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.