Building on the foundation of his predecessors, Richard S. Brownlee II built The State Historical Society of Missouri into a major specialized research library with the largest membership of any state historical society in the country. The Society's holdings of newspapers, reference materials, and manuscripts tripled in size under his tenure.
When Dick Brownlee became director, secretary, and librarian of the Society, he held four degrees from the University of Missouri: the bachelor’s degree in both history and journalism; and, the master's and doctorate degrees in history. His work exhibited the flair of the journalist and the documentation of the historian. He was the author of Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West, 1861-l865, a Civil War Book Club selection and bestseller in its field. Today Gray Ghosts is a classic study of guerrilla warfare.
With Sidney Larson, art curator, Dick expanded the Society’s unrivaled collection of Missouri genre paintings, featuring the works of George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton; developed a contemporary art collection; expanded the editorial cartoon collection; and, widely loaned the Society's artworks for exhibition. He edited the Missouri Historical Review and numerous historical publications and wrote articles and essays. He also served as director of the The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection.
The Society engaged in cooperative activities with more than 100 local historical and genealogical societies across the state of Missouri, dozens of which Dick helped organize. He served on a host of state commissions and boards responsible for preserving historic sites and state records, celebrating historical events, and expanding historical knowledge. He was a founder of Missouri Museums Association and Friends of the University of Missouri and State Historical Society Libraries and a member of the Missouri Archaeological Society.
A renowned storyteller, Dick Brownlee gave more than 900 lectures and talks to organizations in Missouri and beyond. His wife, Alice Rowley Brownlee, frequently accompanied him on his travels.
Throughout his career, Dick Brownlee cultivated a close relationship with the University of Missouri, one described by President John Weaver as “unique and mutually beneficial.” Dick frequently acknowledged how University president Richard Jesse had encouraged the Missouri Press Association and the Department of History to establish the Society.
His accomplishments earned him membership in the Academy of Missouri Squires, the State's elective organization of citizens who have rendered distinguished service
When Dick Brownlee retired in 1985, Representative Francis “Bud” Barnes III, Society president, called him “the finest public historian the state of Missouri has ever known.” The Society honored him with the Distinguished Service Award and Sidney Larson painted his portrait. The Clifford W. Gaylord Foundation and the Society Board of Trustees established the Richard S. Brownlee Fund, which awards grants to individuals and organizations proposing to publish or otherwise document the history of Missouri and its citizens.
The Brownlee Fund has supported diverse research, documentation, and publication efforts by historians, journalists, local historical societies, and community interest groups. Projects have ranged from the multi-volume History of Missouri, to short articles, formal dissertations, oral history programs, and support for traveling exhibits.