Palo Alto's popular muralist Greg Brown dies

Artist's whimsical work often featured everyday people in uncanny situations

Greg Brown, a Palo Alto muralist whose elaborate, realistic and often whimsical depictions of crooks, aliens, cunning animals and everyday people have been shocking and amusing local pedestrians for nearly four decades, died Friday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 62.

A Barron Park resident, Brown had been a prominent fixture of the city's public-art scene since 1975, when he was hired by the City of Palo Alto as an "artist in residence," a job that paid $4.75 an hour. The following year, he launched his "Pedestrian Series" -- nine trompe l'oeil vignettes that adorned the walls of downtown buildings. He pitched the idea to the city's first Art Commission and received the commission's approval.

These include the images of Spiro Agnew pushing a cat in a baby stroller on the side of the Restoration Hardware building (the cat was later transformed into an alien); a boy casting a fishing line on the side of the historic U.S. Post Office building; and the mural of a leashed pelican poking its beak into the purse of an unsuspecting woman on the side of a building that has since been demolished.

At times, the context helped to supply the humor for Brown's art. Visitors to the now-defunct Wiedeman's men's clothing store were greeted for 20 years by two "burglars" who looked like they're ready to pounce from the second story (in 1995, when the building was due to be remodeled and windows were slated to replace the mural, city officials gleefully boasted that the burglars have finally been "caught"). Someone glancing up toward the roof of a bank at 300 Hamilton Ave. might be amused to see a masked man climbing on a rope from the roof and might be temporarily shocked to see a second masked man, dressed in a jump suit and holding a suitcase presumably full of cash, forever falling near the third floor, frozen in mid-air with his mouth agape. Someone waiting for an elevator at 261 Hamilton Ave. might be less amused to see a mustachioed man flashing a mischievous grin as he cuts through the elevator cable with a hand saw.

His wife, Julie Brown, said the subjects in the murals were often modeled after friends and family members. The burglars on Restoration Hardware, for instance, were she and Greg. The boy fishing at the post office was the postmaster's son. And the man with the mustache cutting the elevator cable was modeled on the artist's brother, though it was later modified to disguise the similarity, she said.

Other murals feature humor of a lighter sort: an alien peeking out from a hauled trash can; a nun preparing to fly a toy airplane; a polar bear with a crutch consulting a doctor; and a pelican with money in its mouth (titled, "Bill with Bills in his Bill"). Regular people -- gardeners, trash haulers, doctors -- also make regular appearances, though often in bizarre situations (like the lady holding a pelican on a leash or the trash man hauling an alien). Julie Brown said her husband was always inspired by Palo Alto and the people he encountered while he worked.

"He loved talking to people and really enjoyed their input and what they had to say," Brown said.

Though best known for his public murals, Brown's work also includes drawings and paintings, including a series of 12 works that he devoted to his friends and family members as part of an "Unlikely Saints" exhibition that the Palo Alto Art Center exhibited in 2003. Subjects of the series included his housekeeper, Maria Villalobos; local pharmacist Benjamin Kwong; and owner of Accent Arts, Gil McMillon.

"He loved people," Julie Brown said. "He just thought people, with all their foibles and perfections and imperfections, should be glorified."

Greg Brown drew his first mural in 1956, as part of a second-grade school assignment on Christopher Columbus. The mural, which is featured on the artist's personal website, depicts a smiling pilgrim next to a ship that presumably has just arrived in the New World. The passion persisted all throughout his childhood. He took a few classes at the Palo Alto Art League but later opted into a less formal type of education, an apprenticeship to the Italian artist Roberto Lupetti, who had recently moved into his neighborhood, Julie Brown said.

Lupetti agreed to let Greg watch him work and clean his brushes, Julie Brown said. Little by little, Greg Brown began to grow as an artist, selling paintings to galleries on Geary Street in San Francisco as a teenager and making enough money off his sales to buy his first car, she said. He was also spending time at Smith Andersen, a gallery that used to be located in downtown Palo Alto. Paula Kirkeby, owner of Smith Andersen, recalls seeing 16-year-old Brown come in to the gallery to meet other artists and show off his work. At first, this consisted of small surreal images, often of still objects. Later, he transitioned to murals and public spaces.

"He had a fire in his belly and that's what he wanted to do ... to work on big spaces and make them bigger," recalled Kirkeby, who served on the art commission in the mid-1970s, when Brown proposed his mural projects.

Greg Brown graduated from Paly early and continued to work with Lupetti until he was about 21. He was always well-read, taking "every opportunity to learn about other artists and art," his wife said.

"He didn't feel like he'd fit in with the Postmodern Expressionism that was going on in the early 1970s and didn't see himself going to art school to fit in and do that," she said.

As Palo Alto's artist in residence in 1975, Greg Brown started with paintings but quickly changed to murals. He increasingly began to think of his early paintings for the city as a "waste of time" and feeling like "people should be able to see and appreciate" the art being created. He began to create murals, many of them featuring a biting edge that begs for a double-take. Julie Brown called her husband funny and described his attitude as "nothing was sacred."

"He was not afraid to go to the dark side a little and poke fun at things," said Brown, an art teacher at JLS.

Paula Kirkeby said she always appreciated Brown's sense of humor.

"He saw the world as sort of an upside-down place, which is basically the way the world is," Kirkeby said. "We both saw the dark side of the world and thought it was very funny."

City Councilwoman Karen Holman, the council's liaison to the Public Arts Commission, called Brown a "community treasure" and said he will be "greatly missed." She said she was gratified by a recent decision by the commission to restore some of Brown's work.

"His work has for decades been a part of our community. It's integrated in our downtown buildings and admired by many," Holman said. "He himself has been respected and highly regarded for decades, and deservedly so."

Mark Weiss, a concert producer who has long been involved in the local art scene, was one of many residents who were saddened to hear about Brown's passing over the weekend. Weiss said he briefly teamed up with Brown last year to urge the city to preserve the large bagel display at Izzy's Bagels on California Avenue. The display, which violated the zoning code, was ultimately taken down by the bagel shop's owner, putting a halt to Brown and Weiss' "short-lived battle to save the bagel."

Upon hearing about Brown's death, Weiss bought some flowers and helped create a memorial for the artist near the Restoration Hardware building. He recalled Brown's "off-the-cuff" sense of humor, as well as his ability to appeal to artists and laymen alike. While he was at the memorial site, Weiss said he saw a boy walking across the street and, seeing the Spiro Agnew painting, pointing at it and exclaiming, "Parece a un hombre!" ("Looks like a man!").

"This was probably the first time he's seen a trompe l'oeil," Weiss said. "His art really does appeal to a wide range of people."

Brown never stopped working, toggling between public and private realms. He created art for Palo Alto's centennial celebration in 1994 and traveled to Linkoping, Sweden, (one of Palo Alto's "sister cities") to do a mural on a concert hall. The mural depicted a violinist intently playing a piece while seemingly falling down from the balcony.

"He doesn't look like he will meet some horrible end," Julie Brown said. "He looks like is actually enjoying falling out and meeting a peaceful end."

Though he made his final mural for the city about 15 years ago, Greg Brown continued to work for private clients, including homeowners in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, Julie Brown said. His most recent mural, which he didn't have a chance to complete, was for Georgie Gleim and George Schumann, owners of Gleim the Jeweler. The piece was called "The Georges" and features a Last Supper-style arrangement in which every guest is a famous George -- Costanza, Orwell, Carlin, Harrison, Eliot and George Herman "Babe" Ruth. The guests are flanked by Gleim at the left end of the table and by Schumann on the right. Carlin stares bug-eyed from the center of the painting, Babe Ruth's right arm slung snugly over his shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie. (View a photo of this mural in the photo gallery accompanying this story.)

Several elements remained to be finished, including the image of George Washington looking down from above and a partially eaten eclair on the table near George Costanza, a reference to a famous "Seinfeld" episode, Julie Brown said.

Even after he was diagnosed with cancer on Aug. 1, he continued to think about his art. Julie Brown recalled seeing her husband the night before he died: in hospice care, heavily medicated by morphine, articulating brush strokes in the air with his fingertips.

"I could see the kinds of brush strokes he was making," Julie Brown said. "Either he was thinking about his project, or he just had the energy."

Elise DeMarzo, Palo Alto's public art manager, said she was saddened to hear about Brown's passing but heartened to see the notes and flowers people have left behind at his mural sites.

"His works are a significant part of our downtown public art collection and are treasured by the City, Public Art Commission, and the community ... Greg could always put a smile on my face -- and he will be missed," she said.

Brown's family plans to hold a private funeral service, with a public memorial to follow at the Art Center at a later date. Donations in his honor can be made to support children's art programs.

Brown is survived by his wife, Julie, of Palo Alto, and his son, Justin Brown of Redwood City and his daughter, Whitney Brown of Palo Alto.

Related content:

Photo gallery: the murals of Greg Brown

Greg Brown mural in downtown Palo Alto restored (August 2010)

Muralist Greg Brown named Artist of the Year (August 2007)

An abiding sense of whimsy (September 2007)

Off the wall (July 2003)

Humor, whimsy and humanity (May 2003)

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2 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 2, 2014 at 8:21 pm

A real loss. My first impression and continued enjoyment of Palo Alto, has been through his work.

My full condolences to his family.


2 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2014 at 8:55 pm

Dear Brown family - just wanted you to know, we've always enjoyed discovering his whimsical art all around Palo Alto. Our kids love the pieces too.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 3, 2014 at 12:34 am

Mark Weiss, I didn't understand your recent "good bye" comment on the 2010 thread until I walked by the Spiro Agnew mural this evening and saw the flowers (before this article was published). I did not know Greg personally, but appreciated his local art since it first appeared.

3 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 8:37 am

Since my early childhood and now as a parent I get a smile whenever I see his work. "There's one!" is said every time we spot one of his works.
Thank you

3 people like this
Posted by Ken Heiman
a resident of another community
on Sep 3, 2014 at 9:08 am

Greg Brown's whimsical artwork always put a smile on my face. His murals were unexpected and groundbreaking, in a way. His passing is a huge loss for not only Palo Alto, but the artistic community as well. I hope that the city preserves his legacy and gives him the recognition that he deserves.

3 people like this
Posted by Joyce McClure
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 3, 2014 at 9:20 am

There is a beautiful film on Greg Brown, discussing and working on the "Spiro Agnew" mural. It was made by a very talented 17 year old Paly student, Haelin Cho, as part of the MidPeninsula Media Center's student intern project.

Web Link

I hope everyone watches it. It will give you the most wonderful view of Greg Brown. I am broken hearted at his passing.

2 people like this
Posted by Georgie Gleim
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2014 at 9:36 am

Only one minor correction...the mural Greg was working at the time of his death on was commissioned by my husband, George Schumann, and me, rather than by our store Gleim the Jeweler. This was the origin of the name "Dinner with the Georges." Working with Greg, who was also a long-ago Walter Hays classmate of mine, was great fun. Little did any of us realize at the time that it would be his last project. We will miss our friend greatly.

2 people like this
Posted by geraldine k
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 3, 2014 at 11:06 am

Thank you Greg for all the smiles you passed on to our will be missed greatly. Condolences to his family, being blessed to have lived with such a talented artist.

1 person likes this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2014 at 11:43 am

I join the long list of admirers who will miss this man's artistry and humor. Kudos to whoever it was that thought to have him do murals throughout town.

1 person likes this
Posted by Theresa
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 11:50 am

I am so sorry to hear of Greg Brown's passing. My condolences to his family and friends. I used to take our visitors on a downtown walking tour to show them Brown's whimsical paintings, and have always felt that they add so much to the ambiance.

Thank you to Joyce McClure for posting the link to the short film made about Brown. That is lovely.

1 person likes this
Posted by UC Davis Grad
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 3, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Greg Brown's work was wonderfully whimsical -- and put color into the everyday.

So glad for his work, and a shame he will not be around for more.

1 person likes this
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 3, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I met Greg a few times in the early days. A REALLY nice guy, and talented. RIP Greg, you made our little City a lot more interesting and unique.

1 person likes this
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 3, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I met Greg a few times in the early days. A REALLY nice guy, and talented. RIP Greg, you made our little City a lot more interesting and unique.

1 person likes this
Posted by Paul McBurney
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Hi Julie and all the brown family,
I met Greg many times while having music lessons at Muriel's and Vern's.
He always made me laugh, and the Colonel run.
So sorry to hear the news about Greg's passing.
Would like to attend the gathering if possible. Please let us know,
Thanks, Paul

2 people like this
Posted by Ellen
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm

So very sad.
I've loved Greg's murals since I first spotted the burglers over what was then Wideman's Mens Clothing store. All the best to his family.

I hope there will be a continuing effort made to preserve his wonderful art.

4 people like this
Posted by Hudi Podolsky
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Greg did a wonderful mural for my late husband Joe and me in 2004. It is a joy every day, for everyone who enters the house - especially the grandchildren. It is a daily reminder for me of this wonderful artist, and of how much fun it was to have him here working on it. Julie, my heart goes out to you and your family.

2 people like this
Posted by former 38 year resident
a resident of another community
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm

I am so sorry to hear this. I so enjoyed his work throughout the decades I lived in Palo Alto and loved to point them out to visitors. My condolences to his family. I hope another muralist is found to carry on the tradition and I'm going to suggest that my new town of McMinnville, OR (2nd place winner in Parade magazine's recent contest for "Best Main Street in America") consider finding a local artist to do some of these here in town.

While I'm boosting Mac, might as well add that although Napa's wine country has taken a hit from the recent quake, the Willamette/Yamhill Valley's wine country is going strong so come on up!

Posted by lerned
a resident of Midtown

on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:39 pm

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1 person likes this
Posted by UFO 223
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Thanks Greg for bringing your joy and humor into a community that definitely needs to step back and relax. Your murals always brought a smile to those who would take time from their busy day and enjoy the everyday surroundings of our city. Thank-you!

1 person likes this
Posted by Marlene Prendergast
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 2:31 pm

This is very very sad news. What fun, happiness and joy Greg Brown brought to our city and everyone around him. He did a marvelous mural in the Board Room of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation when we moved into our new offices at Alma Place on Alma Street. His presence for many days working on the mural was source of great fun. We had such appreciation for his art and his personality. He was known to participate in our Board meetings as we were talking and he was painting. As anyone would know, they were quips that added laughter to the day. A great loss for the world.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Nice touch with the flowers. Its sort of sad when you learn who did these fun murals, but it's too late to say thanks. His work brought a smile to thousands daily. Well done Greg!

2 people like this
Posted by Barbara Stern
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 3, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Our family always enjoyed Greg's murals and although we moved from Palo Alto in 1989, we brought two of Greg's works with us. I still smile at the images of various vegetables cavorting at Greg's "Club Veg" and "Salad Bar" which hang in my kitchen. And my guests smile too.

So now Greg has many fans in the Sacramento/Fair Oaks area. May his unique vision and playful heart endure.

1 person likes this
Posted by Julie Sevastopoulos
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 3:42 pm

We are so sad to hear of Greg's passing. The Big Ride Mural that he painted for us puts smiles on our faces every time we return home. His work will continue to be enjoyed. He will be missed. Best wishes to his family in this difficult time.

Like this comment
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

His work reminds me of the mural on the side "street" of Stanford Mall where there is a cat, etc. Do folks know what I'm referring to? Did he do that? I like his work.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Very sad news. Greg's work brought smiles all over Palo Alto, and he is so appreciated for it.

While Greg had no public art in the Cal Ave district, he came out to support artists that do, a few years ago when there was a special walking tour of their pieces.

He livened our walk, entertaining those that walked alongside him, with his colorful personality, good humor and his very unique imagination.

He will be missed by all that knew him. This is such a great loss.

1 person likes this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Ever since Greg Brown's first murals first appeared downtown I never fail to smile and step a little more jauntily every time I glimpse one. Over the years so many smiles. Thank you Greg Brown for sharing your delightful sense of humour with us all.

1 person likes this
Posted by John Monroe
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 3, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Greg did a portrait of our family in the 1990s to capture our memory of taking a trip with Grandad to play our trombones into the Grand Canyon. It is absolutely wonderful. The process took five years because he worried we wouldn't like it, it delighted us at the start and delights us to this day. Our condolences to Julie and their children. Greg will be missed.

1 person likes this
Posted by Noel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 6:24 pm

His work has added so much joy and personality to Palo Alto. I am sorry to hear he has passed.

1 person likes this
Posted by Colleen Flood
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I grew up in menlo and worked in palo alto, so know the area quite well - and I love murals!

I am an artist myself but not to the talent of the dearly departed, sadly.

He did a great job with shading - shadows, showing three dimension, those are things I have yet to master (and don't think I will).

Sad, another "artists are never famous 'til their dead" story - I hate that!

well, he is looking down and reading all our posts and feeling great comfort! Know that he is at peace!

1 person likes this
Posted by art tourist
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2014 at 6:51 pm

For twenty years, whenever foreign friends and family visited us, we would take them on a tour of Greg's local art. His work brought levity and amusement to so many people from so many far away places!

1 person likes this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I'm glad that Greg and I were able to build a beautiful fence between our two houses, with the help of my brother-in-law Fred.

My deepest sympathies to the Brown family.

2 people like this
Posted by Grateful resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Greg Brown's murals added so much to Downtown Palo Alto in terms of
artistic value and interest, and uniqueness which gave Downtown a sense
of place. They were surprising and somehow also belonged in a community like Palo Alto. The Downtown Barbie Doll museum which was redeveloped out 15 years ago was,in a sense, along the same lines - it was surprising in Downtown Palo Alto but really did belong here. Greg Brown represented the best of Palo Alto. His legacy should be not just his great murals but
a renewed sense of the importance of artistic and aesthetic values in
this City.

2 people like this
Posted by Sue
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2014 at 7:46 pm

A truly lovely whimsical artist. RIP
My thoughts and condolences to his grieving family.

Greg your art brought cheer and joy to Palo Alto. Thank you

2 people like this
Posted by Howard
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 3, 2014 at 8:14 pm

I have a signed copy of his 1988 calendar, "Vegetables on Vacation." Greg wrote, "Eat Food Regularly!"

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Hi, Mrs. Podolsky. You were my teacher at Beth Am years ago, 1977 or so. I'd love to see your mural.

The cat mural is by Pugh not Brown.

2 people like this
Posted by Steve Curl
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2014 at 11:07 pm

As a local artist here in Palo Alto, I had the pleasure of getting to know Greg Brown over the years. He had a fantastic imagination and a wonderful, insightful sense of humor. To this day I take time to look at his local murals whenever I pass by them here in downtown Palo Alto, and they still make me laugh out loud. Despite his quirky sense of humor, Greg possessed a sensitive and generous spirit, and I sure enjoyed our association whenever our paths crossed. My heart goes out to his family. He was a wonderful guy, and we've all lost a gifted artist and a local treasure..

2 people like this
Posted by Sammy W
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 11:41 pm

I will never forget his charm, biting wit, and most importantly, his gruff and constant kindness. Greg made this world brighter and was proof of the value of the path less taken. His legacy is etched on the face of the city and will continue to inspire for generations. He was truly a gift to us.

2 people like this
Posted by scooper
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 4, 2014 at 8:53 am

Long time Palo Altans might remember one of Greg's most loved murals marching down Lytton Avenue accompanied by a Dixieland band. THE ALIEN was honored, lovingly restored to the wall of the newly completed University National Bank. Properly named, the "Alien's Saucer Crash", he can still be seen still, bursting from the wall of from what is now the Commerce Bank. Greg Brown's murals gave Palo Alto an air of lightheartedness and most importantly, a sense of community, a fond remembrance of a simpler and more personal Palo Alto.

His murals can be seen here. Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Mariam Nayiny Radjy
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 4, 2014 at 12:13 pm

My husband and I had the good luck of getting to know Greg this year. we were hoping that he would do a mural for our daughter but the plan fell through. It was such a treat to get to know Greg. He was not only unbelievably talented, but also very funny and intelligent. The news of his passing comes as a shock to us and we are very saddened by it. Our deepest condolences to his family.

Mariam Nayiny and Nader Radjy

3 people like this
Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 4, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Greg Brown was a talented artist and a fun person to visit with. He will be missed. Palo Alto is fortunate to have many of his great murals as part of the city's public art exhibits. Thank you Mr. Brown for making Palo Alto a better place! Your memory lives in your artwork and our hearts.

2 people like this
Posted by Pat
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 4, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Greg could make an ordinary happening into an event, just as he could make a piece of old furniture into a tribute
and celebration of the owner's life. His talent for making the "ordinary" extraordinary was astounding and we have
the proof, as we enjoy the gifts he left for us. Thank you, Greg, Julie and family!

1 person likes this
Posted by Jo
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm

I almost had an accident, doing double takes when I first saw these strange works, when I moved here in the '80's. I thought it was terrific that Palo Alto was a place that had the sense of humor to commission these paintings. They still make me smile when I see them. A life well-lived, indeed. Bravo!

1 person likes this
Posted by Linda Stone
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 6, 2014 at 8:05 pm

So sorry to read about Gregg Brown's passing. He was a wonderful artist and
a very kind man. His works are vignettes of poetry scattered around Palo Alto
and they give us a witty reflection of ourselves and our neighbors. Anyone
can identify with them. His is a universal language and his skill, talent and vision set the standard for public art. Those who know his work will remember
him fondly and treasure his images. My condolences and best wishes to the Brown family and thank you for sharing him with us. We are enriched by his art.

1 person likes this
Posted by yossi
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Seems that the elevator cutter got painted over during the renovations going on in that building right now. It's a real shame.

Like this comment
Posted by Sandro Lane
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 6, 2015 at 8:11 am

Condolences from Alaska. Greg was inspired by my step father Michele Cascella. I only met him briefly in the early 60's, but he left a long lasting impression on me.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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