AMHERST — H. Oldham Brooks, who advocated as a Select Board member and longtime Town Meeting representative for affordable housing and money to support human service needs, died at Care One Rehabilitation in Northampton on Saturday afternoon.
He was 82.
“His philosophy was as a champion of the oppressed and those who needed help,” said his long-time friend Robert Weiner, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant who was a Clinton White House spokesman and congressional committee chief of staff. “His life was public service; that’s what he did.”
Known to everyone as Harry, Brooks served a term on the Amherst Select Board from 1990 to 1993, was a Town Meeting member for more than 20 years and was a chairman of the town’s Housing Review Board and Human Services Funding Committee. He was a retired operation researcher with Spalding Sports Worldwide who earned degrees in educational policy, research and administration and biomedical engineering from the University of Vermont.
Town Meeting member Carol Gray said she had great respect for Brooks, having served with him on the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, which educates members about topics coming before the town’s legislative body.
“Harry had a great sense of humor, loved track and field as much as he loved local politics, and he was once a Select Board member during a tumultuous time, showing much courage, dedication and integrity,” Gray said.
His Select Board tenure included a romantic relationship with a resident that caused the board to adopt a policy prohibiting board members from appointing spouses and significant others to town committees.
Later, there were public calls for Brooks to resign from the Select Board after he accused then-Town Manager Barry Del Castilho of a cover-up related to a $1.1 million debt owned the town by a trash hauler. While one fellow board member described him as employing tactics similar to those of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, others saw him as being like Socrates, who was asked to commit suicide.
After leaving the Select Board – choosing not to seek reelection after what the Gazette at the time described as “three stormy years” – Brooks assisted in the campaign to create a charter commission to study town government in 1994, though he was not elected to the commission.
“I found him to be extraordinary, really selfless,” said Adrienne Terrizzi, a fellow Town Meeting member.
Terrizzi recalls that Brooks helped to continue the legacy of the late Kenneth Mosakowski, the founder of the long-running Focus public affairs radio program on WMUA, the University of Massachusetts radio station, including serving as one of the rotating hosts.
In 2003, Brooks married Paulette Henderson, who was chairwoman of the Amherst Republican Committee. To observers at the time of marriage, they saw this as a local version of GOP consultant Mary Matalin and Democratic strategist James Carville.
“They were the Carville and Matalin of Amherst,” Weiner said.
Both remained in Amherst until the early 2010s, when the Brookses moved to Maryland to be close to her job as an attorney for the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Gray said she became friends with the Brookses and stayed with them at their Maryland home when attending Washington, D.C., rallies and President Obama’s inauguration.
Paulette Brooks died in 2014 and Harry Brooks returned to Amherst, being elected again to Town Meeting in 2015, winning a three-year term.
“Despite his failing health, he got to be a Town Meeting member and made a point in being active right to the end,” Weiner said.
During their most recent talk, Weiner said Brooks was looking forward to the presidential election and was aware that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for their parties.
With Town Meeting electronic voting being introduced this spring, Brooks was one of the first to advocate for its use, bringing the concept to the coordinating committee.
“He was a pioneer in pushing for electronic voting,” Weiner said.
Terrizzi said she remembers Brooks showing how this could improve Town Meeting. “When Harry had a plan he dug in and tried to make it happen,” Terrizzi said.
Brooks was also an avid runner, and past president of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club.
Town Meeting member Jeff Lee, another former club president, said in a statement that he remembers Brooks as a runner who gave back to the running community.
“But beyond his running, he helped guide me in running for Town Meeting and in my first years as Town Meeting member,” Lee said.
Brooks leaves two daughters, Jerusha and Samantha, who reside in Virginia.
A memorial service for Brooks will be held during Memorial Day weekend at a time and place to be announced.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.