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Brothers in arms create business

September 8, 2011

Ray Brown and Don Denisia on active duty during World War II.

The year is 1945. The world is at war. Back in Norfolk, Virginia, standing in a Navy chow line, Ray Brown steps out and shouts, "Hey! Anybody here from Nebraska?" With a hand in the air, one man out of hundreds answered Ray. With a loud "Yah! Right here!" Don Denesia would become one of Ray's closest friends and , later, successful business partner.
On a troop train loaded with thousands of military personnel bound for Houston, Texas, Denesia would again run into his friend "Brownie" (as Don would nickname him).
With little else to do, the two whiled away the long hours on the train swapping stories and sharing dreams. Months would pass before they would meet again.
Denesia headed next to Galveston, ready to board his ship and head out to sea without knowing a single person. Walking towards the gangplank, Don spotted Brown as part of the cleaning detail. "What are you doing here, Brownie?" said a surprised Denesia. "This is my ship," replied Ray with a grin on his face.
Once again, it seemed these two men were destined to be friends. From Texas, they sailed for the Panama Canal then on to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Docking at port in Hawaii, the order was given that there was to be no liberties. No one was to leave the ship. Don and Ray didn't think much of that idea, so Don made up a story for the Captain that he needed to get some new parts in town. Those parts might be heavy, so he would probably need someone to help him. Of course, he was talking about Ray Brown and the two were sent off on their mission. After a short stop at the Supply Depot, Don and Ray headed straight for the USO.
After a too brief dance with a couple of pretty USO volunteers, they headed back to the ship and from there, Ray and Don would head into the war zone, first the Philippines and then finally Okinawa, Japan. Never seeing action, the war would end soon after the friends arrived in Japan.
With Japan's surrender, Ray and Don began to take a closer look at their future or, at least, how can they make some money. In their possession, the pair had a large supply of Japanese kimonos. They would sell the finely crafted dresses at a nice profit to soldiers and sailors for seventy-five to an hundred dollars a piece. They sold every one of those kimonos and saved it for, although they didn't know it at the time, what would become the seed money for their new business back home in Nebraska.
Ray Brown would be discharged from the Navy a few months before Denesia. When Don returned to Nebraska, he had a few ideas of what he might want to do.
He grew up on a farm but wanted to do something with numbers like work at the bank or be an insurance actuary. He even thought about being a court reporter.
Ray had other ideas and immediately looked Don up and offered him a proposition. They should be in business together. With a year of business school under his belt, Denesia drew up a contract between the two. The plan was to form a construction business down in Fort Worth, Texas. Neither one knew anything about Fort Worth but it sounded to Ray like a good place to start something.
Circumstances would put things on hold for a few months as Ray and Don were forced to meet obligations outside the country.
Returning to Broken Bow, the pair was asked to finish work on a school in Pleasant Hill. So they did it all: poured the foundation, laid the brick walls, carpentry, plastering, putting on the roof.
On the north side was an opening for the windows, which required a twenty-two foot I-beam to be installed. In the days before front-end loaders, Ray and Don muscled the 600-pound slab of iron up an inch at a time, lifting one side then the other, resting the beam on a rig of wood and nails.
In 1947, Ray bought himself a new Dodge pickup. Painted on the door in cursive were the words “Brown and Denesia Contractors.” Purchasing a good cement mixer, they started with sidewalk work. The first job they had required tearing out the old concrete by hand, making the forms and pouring the concrete. Their second job didn’t require any removal of the old sidewalk, but Brown and Denesia charged the same price as before.
After making a very decent profit, the two were eager to do more of the same. The whole summer was spent doing sidewalk after sidewalk. A tidy profit was made and the company purchased a new truck to haul gravel.
The next year, Brown and Denesia won the bid to build the new Thedford school. Shortly after starting the school, they were asked to build a warehouse in Ainsworth. Don went to Ainsworth to build the warehouse while Ray stayed to complete the school in Thedford. The following year, Brown and Denesia Contractors built the Airport Administration building in North Platte winning the bid by only $400. More and more jobs would follow, most of them profitable.
Always the optimist, there was nothing Ray Brown was afraid to try. If Ray or Don didn’t have the qualifications to do a job, they would take it on anyway and hire someone with the know-how to get it done. "Build!" was Ray's mantra.
Some of their accomplishments include Odd Fellow Lodge, Off-Broadway Retirement Center, Becton Dickson, JMMMC and later additions, Adams Land & Cattle, McMean Physical Therapy building, the original concrete runway for the airport, John Sennett Law Office, Prairie Eye Care building, Nebraska State Bank, Arrow Hotel renovation (saving it from condemnation) and starting Cash & Carry Lumber in 1956 which they owned until very recently.
Brown and Denesia designed and built their own products. At one time, they had six architects working for them at their office in Cash & Carry Lumber. When they were ready to replace their original Xerox copier in the office, 15 million copies had been printed.
In business together since 1947, Don and Ray stuck it out throughout sickness, deaths and even retirement. The partnership started by two Navy buddies with a trunk full of cash from selling kimonos and a lot of optimism will finally end in January of next year when their last project is completed.
Ray Brown passed away in August of 2011 at the age of 89.

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