Life goes on: teacher-turned-entertainer finds all she needs without leaving home

Carla Clark | For The Republic Donna Browne poses for a photograph during a dress rehearsal for a Lasting Impressions production of the Sound Of Music at Mill Race Center, Columbus, Ind. Monday, April 10, 2023.

Among her earliest memories, retired 34-year educator Donna Browne recalls playing with her dolls inside her family’s modest farmhouse near Petersville.

“My dolls were my students and I was their teacher,” said Browne, known then as Donna Calvin.

“I just loved school. I loved learning and I loved all my teachers. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Browne, whose inclinations proved accurate.

She began as an elementary teacher, then moved on to junior high before completing the final stretch of her career as a guidance counselor and dean of students at Columbus East High School — all in her birthplace of Bartholomew County.

Browne grew up on the family farm on Hartsville Pike, County Road 50 North, which is east of Columbus and just west of Otter Creek Golf Course.

It’s an 83-acre crop and dairy farm that has been nurtured by three generations of the same family since 1907, last month earning a Hoosier Homestead Centennial Award from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

The farm was purchased by Browne’s grandparents, Frank and Nellie May Tooley, in 1907. Her parents, Sam and Grace Calvin, owned the farm from about 1939 until his death in 1971. That’s when Browne and her mother took ownership and held onto it until her mother’s 2002 death. Today, she is the last of the Tooleys to own the working farm.

Her parents moved there toward the end of the Depression, when Donna was born. The residence had no running water or electricity, and no indoor plumbing at the time.

The only child read “Dick and Jane” books — beginner readers for elementary students that debuted in 1930 — at the kitchen table using kerosene lamps to illuminate the pages. A pot-belly stove in the kitchen provided heat for the house. Water was pumped outside for the family and their animals to drink.

Eventually, improvements edged south below 25th Street, then State Road 46, and the Calvin farm connected to modern utilities, making life easier.

But the girl’s commitment to learning never changed, shining a light on a bright future for the 1957 Columbus High School graduate as a career educator.

Had she held onto early report cards, Browne thinks she knows what teachers would have added in the comments sections alongside the chart of letter grades.

“They would have said she loved learning and was obedient and shy,” Browne said. “I just wanted to follow all the rules and also do the right thing.”

Born in 1939, the same year “The Wizard of Oz” debuted, Browne concluded over the years that she — like the movie’s lead character Dorothy — believed there was “no place like home” to spend her life.

“Why leave?” Browne said, with one chapter of her life linked to the next and having the ability to mold young minds among “wonderful cohort teachers and principals.”

Browne had lived on a parcel adjacent to the family farm — close to her mother — until moving to a new ranch house on the north side of Columbus in 1991.

Feeling the aging process take hold, Grace Calvin, at age 89, went to stay with her daughter the following year.

“It was just going to be a few days, but she never went home — and that was fine with me,” Browne said, sharing the residence with her mother over the final 10 years of her life until she died at age 99 in January 2002.

Later that year, Donna Browne and fellow tap-dance enthusiast Dawn Hauck began spending more time performing in front of local crowds, then expanded the size of the group and their repertoire to become Dancing D’s and Co.

That group morphed into The Lasting Impressions dance, song and drama troupe in 2004.

Early the next year, the late Janene Plumm suggested to fellow performer Browne that they consider adding a male singer she had gotten to know.

Plumm and Edmond Browne, who had lived in Columbus since 1966, had sung together in the Sandy Hook United Methodist Church choir.

“We needed a man singer and she said he had a really good voice,” said The Lasting Impressions cast director, who also learned that Ed Browne had experience in barbershop groups.

Plumm also shared that Ed Browne, after 47 years of marriage, had lost his wife to cancer three years earlier and seemed to be kind of lonely.

“We chatted for 45 minutes or more,” Donna recalled of that initial February 2005 interaction with Ed, a retired salesman, who attended a few Lasting Impressions rehearsals before agreeing to join the group.

A few months later, at a get-together for Donna’s 66th birthday, Ed — then 74 — commented: “I’m too old for you,” hinting interest in a possible relationship.

“No, you’re not,” Donna replied, sending her own signal to Ed that she may also have a personal interest in him outside of The Lasting Impressions.

On their first date, Ed and Donna had coffee and sandwiches at The Fiddlers Three restaurant and pub in Shelbyville, where Ed’s brother and sister-in-law lived, prompting a visit.

“It scared me to death that he was taking me to meet family on the first date,” recalled Donna, laughing.

Later that year, Donna Calvin — who had been single for 34 years — tied the knot with widower, Ed Browne.

Music brought them together and has kept them close these past 18 years.

Ed Browne said he admires Donna’s “drive, her intelligence, her ability to get things done and her compassion for others.”

From dreaming up shows to arranging publicity and sponsor recruitment, Donna devotes “hours and hours and hours” of time to their mutual commitment to The Lasting Impressions, Ed Browne said.

“She does it all. All I do is sing and memorize lines,” he said.