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The wives of Paul Brown

The HOF coach was more than just a football icon

Paul Brown fishing in Canada

As Browns’ fans, or just plain fans of the game of professional football, you have to be in complete admiration for Paul Brown.

He was an innovator, a general manager, a minority owner, a majority owner, a disciple of coaches with his own coaching tree lineage, a co-founder, an organizer, a disciplinarian, a franchise builder, an inventor, a team president, a winner and a title-winning championship head coach.

The NFL currently is comprised of 32 clubs. Paul Brown is the Father of two of those teams. He has two stadiums named after him – one in Cincinnati, Ohio while the other is located in Massillon, Ohio. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He is labeled “The Father of Modern Football.”

But most of all, Paul Brown was a teacher.

He played college football at Miami of Ohio and studied pre-law and at some point assumed this would become the direction he would pursue a career. He also took as many history classes as he could and was fascinated with this field. Perhaps teaching history might become his future avenue. At some point, he was in line for a Rhodes Scholarship.

When the Great Depression hit, he was an assistant to his former high school football coach who then recommended him for a head coaching job at an academy in Maryland.

But Paul Brown, even in coaching, considered himself a teacher and was very proud of his efforts with what would be a long, fruitful career in the game of American Football.

There were many aspects of Paul Brown. Two that seldom get mentioned, or receive any ink is his family life.

Folks today know who Mike Brown is as the President, GM and owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. But Mike was not the oldest. That distinction belonged to Robin. Another son, Pete, became the last of three sons for Coach Brown.

And then there was Paul Brown’s wives. How many did he have? What happened to his other marriages? How did he meet these women?

Katy Kester

Both Paul Brown and his future wife Kathryn “Katy” Kester grew up in Massillon, Ohio. They first met during a fire drill while attending classes at Washington High School in Massillon.

The two ended up standing next to each other while standing outside the school with a lengthy stay waiting for the drill to be completed. Katy was a sophomore while Paul, or Paulie as his mother called him, was a junior.

Paul Brown at Washington High School

This was the first year that Paul was named the starting quarterback for the football team. He was also the school’s starting center fielder and previously had been a pole vaulter for the track team.

Katy was very pretty, petite with blue eyes and light brown hair. The day of the fire drill, Katy went home and told her parents that she had met the boy she would marry. Soon after, a relationship between the two began. They went to movies at the Lincoln Theater, ice cream socials and and outdoor events such as ice skating. The pair continued to date all through high school until Paul’s graduation.

Like every other high school football player in the State of Ohio, Paul Brown had his sights on playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1926. His success at the high school level seemed to stimulate him forward thinking.

However, after his tryout as a freshman he wasn’t even given a uniform after his tryout as Ohio State passed. Although considered to be bright enough to play under center, 150 pound quarterbacks don’t make the roster in the Big 10. At the same time, Katy was in her senior year at Washington.

After her graduation, they spent the summer together with Katy’s parents at a cottage the Kester family owned at Turkey Foot Lake.

After one year as a student at Ohio State, Paul transferred to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and tried out for the football team. Meanwhile, Katy enrolled at the Western Reserve Nursing School in Cleveland. The couple remained in constant contact despite the difference in geographic separation and spent every holiday opportunity together despite the four hour drive.

During this time, the question of becoming a married couple was mentioned. There was a stumbling block however. Make that two stumbling blocks.

At the time, both Miami and Western Reserve schools had policies that forbade marriage among their students until after they had graduated. But both Paul and Katy knew that the they were ready for marriage.

Paul found limited success at Miami of Ohio and became the starting quarterback in his first year at Miami.

Katy and Paul

Despite the institution’s policies, with both of their parent’s blessings, Paul and Katy were married on June 10, 1929 after Paul’s junior year and Katy’s sophomore session. Katy’s prediction had become a reality. The wedding was held in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Years later, Paul Brown would be known as a strict disciplinarian, a man of simplistic rituals and traditional rules, and a man who did not hesitate to cut a man for rule breaking or being late for practices.

But for now, the couple had a little secret that broke not one, but two agendas at schools of higher learning.

Paul gave up baseball at Miami in order to devout more time to his studies but was once again the starting quarterback his senior year. By the end of the 1928 season, Paul was named to the Second Team All-Ohio small college team. With Paul under center, Miami had gone 14-3-0 in two seasons. In his senior year, he made straight B’s in all of his courses and graduated with a B.A. degree.

While at Miami, Paul had studied pre-law and history. His thinking was to become a lawyer or perhaps a history teacher. Then the Great Depression hit in 1930. Now, any job would be acceptable.

Paul took a trip to Pennsylvania to assist his former Massillon high school coach, Dave Stewart, for a short spell. It was there that Paul was informed by Stewart that a prep school was looking for a head football coach after the young coach they had previously hired had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

Severn School was an elite school laid out in Severna Park, Maryland just minutes off the Severn River that rolls past Annapolis. Paul didn’t have a coaching resume, but got the job at age 22 off of Stewart’s recommendation. The purpose of the institution was to prepare young men for acceptance into the U.S. Naval Academy through discipline and academic excellence.

In the meantime, Katy had graduated from Western Reserve with her nursing degree. What sealed the deal for Paul to take the job at Severn School was the fact that Katy was offered a job in the school’s infirmary. Paul was now the head coach making $1,200 annually plus use of an apartment. The Browns were now residents of Maryland.

The couple would relocate back home to Massillon, Ohio where Paul was named head coach at Washington. He subsequently transformed a shoddy program into the state’s finest that saw six state championships and four national championships. From there, Paul coached at Ohio State and won a national championship before entering World War II.

Browns head coach Paul Brown with QB Otto Graham
AP

In 1946, Paul started the Cleveland Browns of the NFL rival league the All-American Football Conference and won the league titles all four years. The Browns, along with two other AAFC clubs, merged into the NFL in 1950 where the Browns won that league their first year. In all, Paul won three NFL titles.

The couple had three sons: Robin, Mike and Pete. Katy was the perfect coach’s wife and made her peace with the single-mindedness. She took care of their three boys with cooking, laundry, helping with homework, birthday parties to attend and trips to practices and games. At Paul’s various games, she understood when to cheer and when to not show doom and gloom when things weren’t quite going the way it should.

In 1967, Paul was part of an ownership group who started the expansion Cincinnati Bengals of the American Football League. He was also the head coach and GM just like when he was the head coach at Cleveland.

It was Katy who dealt with their three sons and was the taxi for little league and high school games. But in Cincinnati, her health began to deteriorate when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Her sight was almost gone when the Bengals began training camp in 1969. Paul would get her food at the school’s cafeteria, help her to her chair and then feed her.

Katy passed away from a heart attack in July at the age of 59.

Paul took her back to Massillon for the services to be held in the church they grew up in at St. Timothy’s. The loss was crushing for Paul Brown, a man who was emotionless for most of his coaching career. At the funeral, he had to have assistance to his pew.

Robin died of cancer in 1978. Pete was the Senior Vice President of Bengals’ player personnel until his death in 2017. Mike became principal owner of the Bengals when Paul passed away in 1991 and remains in that capacity to this day.

“Behind the Lines” book about Katie Blackburn, Paul and Katy Brown’s granddaughter

Mike’s daughter Katherine “Katie” Blackburn is named after her grandmother. Katie went to law school and was working for a Cincinnati law firm. Two months after her grandfather’s death she was hired by the Bengals. At the time, Katie was the only woman in the NFL who was involved in the negotiations of player’s contracts. She is an expert on the league’s complicated salary-cap composition. Katie is also the first woman in the league to become a chief contract negotiator.

Paul and Katy were married 40 years.

Mary Rightsell

The American Football League (AFL) still had eight teams, and only two had relocated to new cities but none had folded like in the past in other NFL rival entities. The league was doing well with their financial reports especially with a new five-year $36 million TV contract with NBC. So, the AFL decided to expand beginning in 1966.

In the winter of 1965, there were 35 different ownership groups that had hoped to invest in an AFL franchise as an expansion club. Some of these cities were even in metropolitan areas that already had an NFL team.

The first city the AFL wanted was the growing city of Atlanta and had an agreement to place a franchise there. But the NFL and their commissioner Pete Rozelle got wind of the situation and then asserted the more established league’s muscles and snatched Atlanta away for themselves. That is another story.

The AFL had on its short list Miami, Columbus, New Orleans, Seattle and Cincinnati.

Miami was awarded the first AFL expansion city to begin play in 1966 and were christened the “Dolphins.” The league wanted to add another franchise for 1967 and even out the number of clubs.

New Orleans was the front-runner but Tulane Stadium was still segregated. Seattle didn’t have a stadium large enough for pro football, so Cincinnati or Columbus was shifted to the front burner.

Paul Brown was about to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. The AFL knew Brown was an Ohio man and what a bonus it would be for the league to have a Hall of Famer in their midst. Brown had stated he wanted to become a franchise owner and coach again.

Long story short, through meetings with Ohio governor Jim Rhodes and the AFL, Brown was selected as a minority owner of the next expansion team but would become the man in charge. Brown chose Cincinnati over Columbus because Cincinnati already had the baseball Reds which meant they were an established professional sports city. Brown knew the two leagues were going to merge beginning in 1970 and that he would once again become a working member of the NFL.

He named his new club the “Bengals.”

Ever since Katy had passed, Coach Brown had immersed himself deeper into his football club. He found the atmosphere and the work now a sense of comfort instead of a grind and became more of his daily focus.

Rarely did he go to any social gatherings and only made public appearances on behalf of the Bengals. On one exception, Coach Brown attended a party in September of 1970 and was introduced to a widow named Mary Rightsell. She was a pretty, vibrant blonde who was at least 20 years his junior, but the two hit it off during the evening and that was that. Oddly enough, Mary had lost her husband just weeks of Katy’s passing.

Several months after their initial meeting, Coach Brown had a secretarial opening. A mutual friend of the pair suggested to Mary to apply for the position. Which she did and was hired. Her presence instantly gave the Bengals front office some new life.

Paul and Mary

Mary’s husband had been a Browns fan, so she knew of Coach Brown but wasn’t aware of his stature as a head football coach. Now, she just knew him as “Coach.” She also was not aware of his personal life and found it odd that Coach Brown would ask her to perform many personal duties such as do his Christmas shopping. One of the other women in the front office finally informed her that Coach Brown was a widower.

One evening after a hectic day, Coach Brown asked Mary if she had eaten anything as he was about to leave the office. She replied that soup was her main meal so far. Coach Brown then offered to take her and the other ladies to dinner. That dinner would be followed up by other dinners, just without the others.

Born in 1930, Mary had four children of which two were twin 13-year old girls.

On the Bengals day off, Coach Brown liked to play golf. One week, he invited Mary to play within his foursome. Oddly enough, the game of golf would become the catalyst for many other days off and was a common passion for the pair. The two definitely were beginning to enjoy each other’s company.

One day on a return trip from a round of golf, he asked her if she would stop calling him “Coach” and instead refer to him as “PB.” Shortly thereafter, he told her that they should merge households.

Mary wasn’t sure that marriage to a man 20 years older than her was the right move even though they got along beautifully and he was charming. She did believe there was something hopelessly romantic about him. But marriage? She told him she needed to sleep on it.

The next day she informed PB that the answer was “yes.”

The couple was married at a small ceremony on June 19, 1973 at the California home of one of Coach Brown’s golfing buddies. The chaplain was from the Great Lakes Naval Training school that Brown had coached during World War II.

Mary Brown (right)

Mary remained by Coach Brown’s side until his passing in 1991 at the age of 82. The couple never had any children together. Mary passed away in 2013 at the couple’s home after a courageous battle with breast cancer. She was 83. Mary had been diagnosed with the disease for a decade but had finally spread to her bones.

Mary Brown did a lot for a number of local charities such as The American Red Cross, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund and the Boys & Girls Club. She was known as a lovely lady who did everything she could for anyone she could help. She was also the social aspect of the pair of herself and Coach Brown. Mary was also an active member of the Ohio to Erie Trail and served on the board of trustees.

Paul and Mary were married 18 years.