Virginia Mae Brown

Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail
May 29, 1966

'First Lady of Transportation'

What's Next for Virginia Mae?

By Harry Ernst

WASHINGTON - She has dined with President Johnson, Adlai Stevenson wrote a poem about her and she is one of the highest paid women in government ($27,000 a year).

What will Virginia Mae Brown, native of Pliny, Putnam County, do for encores?

Well, she may become the first female chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), possibly in 1969 unless Congress agrees to change the present system of rotating the chairmanship among the 11 commissioners.

She already is among the few women who are known to have inspired Adlai Stevenson to write a poem. At a National Democratic Women's Club banquet here, Stevenson parodied Edgar Allen Poe's "To Helen:"

"Peaches, thy beauty is to me
"Like thy decisions on the ICC."

The Wall Street Journal agreed with Stevenson in an editorial last year that praised her dissent in a case denying the Monon Railroad a combined rail-water route for transporting coal to steel mills in the Chicago area.

". . . She is certainly giving her male colleagues some powerful competition in the art of common sense," the Wall Street Journal observed.

Mrs. Brown, who was called the first lady of transportation by a trade magazine, this month began her third year as an ICC commissioner. President Johnson appointed her to a seven-year term in 1964.

It was another first for Mrs. Brown who has gone far beyond the wildest dreams of the suffragettes. Her other female first include serving as insurance commissioner and as a member of the Public Service Commission in West Virginia.

Mrs. Brown's pioneering rise in government can be traced to her being a highly educated woman in the right place at the right time.

"My parents (Felix and Hester Brown of Putnam County) were extremely interested in getting a good education for all of their children," she recalled. "A lot of doors open if you have the educational qualifications."

Mrs. Brown received her bachelor's degree (majoring in political science and history) and law degree from West Virginia University where she acquired her nickname, Peaches, and her husband with the same last name, James Brown.

She gets up about 6:45 a.m. in her Alexandria, Va., apartment (which offers swimming, tennis and even golf greens on a 26-acre layout) and send her two young daughters off to school. Her work day usually ends about 6 p.m. if she doesn't have an out-of-town speaking engagement.

By 9 a.m. she is in her spacious office in the ICC building on Constitution Avenue. She chose the striking colors that dominate her office - red carpets, red and white drapes, off-white walls and white furniture (red is her favorite color).

Mrs. brown now is assigned to the ICC's division 2, which regulates the rates charged by railroads, trucking companies and barge lines. They propose the rates and the ICC determines if they are just and reasonable.

She also served on the commission's planning and policy committee, which is concerned with the ICC's future role. And she implemented a new approach aimed at speeding up railroad merger cases in administering the prehearing conference involving the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.

"The United States is the only country in the world with a privately owned transportation system and it's the biggest and the best," Mrs. Brown commented.

She said there is little danger of the ICC losing sight of the public interest because of its intimate relationship with the transportation industry.

"I'm vitally concerned about how cases affect the public and so is the ICC," she explained. "We may differ on how a case will affect the public because so much of the work here is judgment . . .

"President Johnson is extremely interested in transportation, which is so basic in our lives. This is what I do from early in the morning until late at night.

"But it is only part of what he does. He instills in all of us a desire to do more than we think we might be able to do."

Mrs. Brown has spoken throughout the country (she has been introduced by song and verse) and she frequently speaks at luncheons of organizations meeting in Washington.

Where will her career lead her after the ICC? "Everybody thinks I have a plan," she said. "But there is so much work to do that I have no time to make plans."

On the wall of her office is a picture of President Johnson which he inscribed: "To Mrs. V. M. Brown, a lady of charm and tact."

Those qualities, along with her legal training and varieties of government experience, should assure an even brighter future of 43-year-old Virginia Mae - even if she has no time to plan it.


West Virginia Archives and History