Byron R. T. Brittain (1919-2020)
Contrary to his intentions, Byron Brittain (101) died in the early morning hours of August 29, 2020. His mind was ready for additional years but his heart was not. Born to Roy and Nina Brittain in Newton, Kansas on May 15, 1919, Byron attended Newton Public schools through his formative years and experienced the deprivations of the Great Depression and the height of the Midwest Dust Bowl.
Graduating from Newton High School with the Class of 1937, he moved to Wichita to seek his fortune and found it flipping patties in a burger joint where he made the acquaintance of Elizabeth (Betty) Kirk of Fredonia, Kansas, who had also come to Wichita to find work. There was a spark between them and they married in the summer of 1939 much to the surprise of both sets of in-laws and siblings.
After a brief attempt to sell appliances to resistant West Texas residents and after Betty went back to Fredonia in early 1941 to have their first baby boy, Byron eventually caught on at Boeing in Wichita where he was trained as a metal plater, fashioning hardened parts for combat aircraft as the country produced war materiel.
Byron enlisted in the U.S Navy in 1944 when a Naval officer and a Boeing manager approached him on the shop floor about the Navy wanting to put Byron’s metal plating skills to use right after completing boot camp in Idaho. Having a Navy base in Idaho was a point of amusement when Byron recounted his early Navy experience. Soon, however, he found himself and his small family in Norman, Oklahoma at another landlocked Navy base, this one a training center for carrier pilots. Byron set up a plating operation on the base and eventually, after adding another baby boy to the crew, he was sent to Memphis, Tennessee to set up yet another plating operation for the Navy. So much for the “Join the Navy and See the World” recruiting slogan.
Following his hitch with the service, Byron and family returned to Newton in 1947 where he launched a lifelong career in finance and insurance. In the summer of 1949, he and Betty added another baby boy to the family, apparently not figuring out the “x/y” chromosome secret to producing baby girls.
During a 60-year career, Byron was active in many civic groups in Newton. He was a Mason, an Elk, a Lion, a member of the American Legion and a Rotarian. At one point in the 1980’s, he was President of the Kansas Association of Insurance Agents. For the last two decades of his career, he was owner and President of The Suderman Company, which he took over from his mentor and the retiring founder, Carl Suderman.
Byron was a fixture on Main Street in Newton where he never met a stranger, a good trait to have in the insurance business, because no one really wants to buy insurance. But sell it he did and he stood by his customers in times of need. He made many friends in the process. While visiting Newton, his grandchildren decided he was a celebrity since he introduced them to everyone they met headed to the drugstore soda fountain.
He obtained his private pilot’s license in the mid 1950’s and, along with two other businessmen who loved to fly, bought a sleek four-seat single-engine airplane. It took very little for Byron to find a reason to go fly somewhere, often taking one or more of his sons to “run an errand”. He eventually founded and became a Captain in the local Civil Air Patrol, which was based out of the Newton Municipal Airport. He once made a successful emergency landing in a farm field, much to the relief of the passengers and once skidded to a stop on the runway after failing to engage the landing gear. Oops!
One of his other passions was golf and for over 70 years he thrashed around the Newton Country Club (later Fox Ridge) and other courses far and wide, losing dozens of golf balls to the water and weeds. Undeterred, he spent uncountable dollars on new golf equipment, sure that the next great thing would be the solution. While his game never reached the level he wanted, he collected some trophies along the way, taught his sons and grandsons to play and continued to hit the links for a few holes well after his 100th birthday.
A talented baritone, Byron discovered the joys of Barbershop harmony in the 1950’s. Forming and re-forming various local quartets. Byron and three equally talented singers eventually formed the “Cavaliers” and became one of the top competitive quartets in the nation. Rarely without a pitch pipe in his pocket, Byron would toot the appropriate note and the group would burst into song in the most unlikely places, often to the shock and/or pleasure of the other diners or fellow elevator riders. The quartet became a popular show group throughout the Midwest and they would pile into Byron’s plane and be off to Omaha, Des Moines, Tulsa, Kansas City or wherever the aficionados of barbershop harmony were gathered. Byron’s somewhat corny humor and instinct for “hamming it up” were the perfect match for their well-rehearsed headliner shows. The Cavaliers also went on an extended tour of the Far East for the USO during the Vietnam War, entertaining the wounded in hospitals across the region.
A fastidious wood carver in his later years, Byron created many beautifully wrought pieces of wildlife which he proudly gave to his loved ones and friends as gifts.
Byron is preceded in death by his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth, (1915-2000), an infant son, Barney (1944), his younger brother Robert Brittain of Houston and his younger sister Maurine Rutschman of Wichita.
Among others, Byron leaves a hole in the lives of his wife of 17 years, Janet (Jan) Brittain of Newton who Byron married April 26, 2003, his sons and daughters-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. William Brittain and their sons Aaron and Ben of Chesapeake, Virginia, Mr. Bruce Brittain and his wife, Mimi Breeden of Atlanta, Georgia and their children, Adam Brittain of Houston, Texas, Brooke and Ty Yount of Stafford, Virginia, Lindsay and Travis Thomas of Savannah, Georgia and Mr. and Mrs. Barry Brittain of San Marcos, Texas and their children, Jessica and Johnathan Burda of New Braunfels, Texas and Abby and Brady Johanson of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas plus six great grandchildren, each one of whom Byron thought was great and grand and worthy of his love and support.
Due to COVID-related travel restrictions, a graveside memorial service will be scheduled some time in the future when those who want to remember Byron, tell stories on him and give him the farewell he certainly deserves can come together. Said service, when scheduled, will be announced via the Newton media.