While a professor at Beloit, Brown claims he was tricked into writing textbooks when a sales rep asked him if he liked the book he was teaching with. Brown said he would prefer something different because he didn’t think the current text was serving the organic chemistry audience very well. “So he asked me if I could give him three or four lines of content, which turned into an outline, which turned into a full chapter. By the time it all ended, I had the first book done,” he says.
Brown started teaching at Beloit in September 1964, when the college was gearing up for the Beloit Plan, the college’s innovative curriculum of year-round education.
“Bill’s approach to teaching was to make organic chemistry understandable, doable, and challenging, as well as something that students could reasonably accomplish,” says Brock Spencer, professor emeritus of chemistry and a former colleague of Brown’s. “He had the ability to pick out what was important, make it clear, and devise exercises that would get students to become competent and confident in their knowledge of organic chemistry.”
After retiring from Beloit in 1999, this two-time Teacher-of-the-Year turned his attention to the page, but his mind never strayed far from the classroom. During the writing process, he imagines students sitting in front of him who are having trouble with something. He asks himself what he would say to help explain the problem and why it is important for students to spend their time learning. “Once you find what the student cannot do, then you know where to begin to help,” says Brown.
To date, Brown has published three textbook titles that resulted in 40 new editions currently in print. These books are in use across the United States and internationally, where they have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Korean. Brown says he enjoys the satisfaction of explaining a complicated topic so students can grapple with it and make it their own.
Out of all of his achievements, Brown is most proud of using some of his royalty money to establish 529 savings plans for each of his grandchildren to help cover their college tuition costs.
As for retirement, Brown feels that as long as he has something to give and a publisher wants him to give it, then why not? “I enjoy it, and I have the free time.”