Walking with Joan: Dave Brown Keeps Wife’s Memory Alive, One Step at a Time

By Spencer Morgan

As darkness fell on Dec. 30, 2008, Dave and Joan Brown stood overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, their eyes fixed on a lighthouse. For Joan, it was a moment of triumph, having finally completed the American Volkssport Association’s “Lighthouse, USA” special program – a challenge to complete 12 sanctioned walks with a lighthouse before midnight Jan. 1, 2009. She could now have the sweet satisfaction of putting the final stamp in her special program walk book, submit it to the AVA and receive an unique limited edition badge.

For Dave, the moment represented a different satisfaction:

“So, she had her walk book, I didn’t,” he said. “But I was with her…I benefitted too.”

It was Joan who had led them to join the AVA back in 2000, and while Special Programs never clicked for Dave – too much paperwork! – he would come to understand the benefits of a group more than he could have known then.

Joan had found an advertisement in a local newspaper for a walking event at a park not far from their home in suburban Philadelphia, where they’d settled after Dave’s service in the Navy. They showed up late and missed the group walk. But they met some nice people who invited them to another walk happening in Norristown Farm Park a couple weeks later. Thus began their connection to the Liberty Bell Wanderers, setting them on a pathway filled with new friendships and thousands of miles of walking and biking all over the country. For Joan dozens of special programs and badges; for Dave, a support network that would save his life.

The appeal of a walking club, as Dave describes it, is as simple and natural as getting out in the open air, doing physical activity and socializing. But it’s the human connection piece that drives most people to the club.

The Liberty Bell Wanderers’ regular activities consist of group walks, known as Traditional Events (TEs), on Thursdays and Saturdays. These walks are typically along one of more than 30 YREs (Year Round Events), defined routes maintained by the club. As an example, this Thursday they’ll be doing the Perkasie – Sellersville YRE. The event consists of “two 5K walks through historic Perkasie and Sellersville, residential areas, and parks, mostly along paved trails and sidewalks.”

For those not averse to paperwork, the Perkasie – Sellersville walks count towards a handful of Special Programs, including: Par-For-The-Course, Rails-To-Trails, Town Halls / City Halls.

Like any great organization, the AVA is rife with its own lexicon and traditions. In exchange for a $3 fee, walkers receive an AVA Walk Credit and are able to record their events and distance in special log books which are then sent into the higher-ups at AVA headquarters for review and recognition in the form of an endless array of special patches. (AVA membership is $25, club dues vary – both covered for eligible Grouper members.)

In every state, there stretches a network of AVA YREs, a latticework of opportunity for those wishing to expand their collection of walking experiences and AVA badges. The group also organizes at least one bus trip every year.

“Every year, we would go on bus trips, and we would fill buses and you pick it, we go to the Midwest, we go to New England, we go down south, we go anywhere,” Dave recalled. Planning for the Fall 2024 bus trip to Williamsburg VA is currently underway.

For over a decade, Dave, now 72, experienced the AVA and Liberty Bell Wanderers in the comfortable role as Joan’s companion. Dave met Joan Chermack during his sophomore year at the Naval Academy. The Navy was playing Notre Dame. Dave’s friend signed him up for a dance at Chestnut Hill College. Just as he was getting ready to call it a night, he noticed Joan, standing in the middle of the gym directly under a flood light. It was a sign. He asked her to dance. They would dance, and walk, for 40 years. When Joan died in 2011, Dave leaned on the passion they had enjoyed together. He attempted to walk 3,000 miles and maintained a blog along the way to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund – he stopped after walking 1,234 miles in 10 states. He also leaned on the group, stepping into leadership which brought him closer to the community, which continues to be a source of inspiration.

“I can look at so many people in our club, in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and they’re what I want to be when I grow up,” he says with a smile. “There’s a woman in our club that’s one of the best walkers we got going. She’ll be 90 this summer.”

An IT professional by trade, Dave brought a more analytical approach to his new role in the club.

“When my wife passed, then all of a sudden I was available and I became president shortly after that,” he said. He took a survey of the members. “And 80% of the club members were women, 80% were retired, and 80% were alone. By alone I mean single, divorced, widowed, never married, you know, whatever. That’s our demographic. I know that for a fact for our club, and that’s probably true of most clubs.”

​​What drives the average Wanderer?

“They’re just looking for people to go out and do stuff with. And they pretty much have a bent on physical fitness, getting out in the air and just on our typical walks,” he said. Noting that to observe an LBW walk is to understand what’s really going on. “If there’s 20 people, in six minutes it’ll be five groups of three, and they’ll keep changing. You know, you break up this group and start talking about that. And that’s just how it goes.”

Dave is hopeful about the opportunity for more people to find walking groups through their health plan and the Grouper directory. Newspaper ads for walking groups are not a thing anymore. For various reasons, Meetup and Facebook have not been a good fit for finding new members. And connecting people with a great group can be a matter of life and death.

“I had one gentleman tell me that it saved his life,” he recalled, midway into our conversation. “He was recently … widowed and he was lost. And here’s a whole other family in addition to his family. Here’s a whole other social family that he would go on trips with and go on walks with.”

As we were wrapping up our interview, I asked Dave if the sentiment the gentleman had shared resonated with his own experience, did he feel the Liberty Bell Wanderers had saved his own life.

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “And I would say there are a lot of people in our club and other clubs that probably feel similar, that it’s something to do. You’ve got a huge hole and something to help, you know, be out with people, get some air, fresh air, get some exercise.”

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