The Bates Student - November 6, 1998


Robert J. Branham, Bates professor of rhetoric, succumbs to illness at age 45


Robert J. Branham, 45, professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Bates College, died at his home in Lewiston early Thursday morning surrounded by his family and close friends. The cause of death was colon cancer, precipitated by a 22- year struggle with Crohn's disease.

A Lewiston resident and recognized scholar, Branham revitalized a historic debate program at Bates over the past two and a half decades and led the team to many national and international honors. A widely published author, he was an expert on the history of debating and in various areas of communication theory and practice.

"All of us who knew Bob were aware of his courage, his love of his family and friends, his commitment to his students and to the College, his intellectual clarity and professional achievements, his grace and gentle kindness, his passion for principle and his decency," said Bates College President Donald W. Harward.

"Bob Branham was an extraordinary scholar, teacher and friend whose dedication to his students was admired by everyone who met him or them," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "His death is a loss for Bates, for the field of rhetoric, for his family, and for all of us touched by his generosity, good humor and commitment to the highest ideals of the scholarly life."

Those sentiments were echoed by Tamara Bucknell-Pogue, a member and officer of the Brooks-Quimby Debate Council, "Bob was a friend as well as my adviser. He was not only a fantastic human being, he was also an amazing mentor and coach."

The recipient of numerous awards and prizes during his academic career, Branham was honored last November with the American Forensic Association (AFA) Daniel Rohrer Award for his publication, Stanton's Elm: An Illustrated History of Debating at Bates College, published in 1996 to commemorate the centennial celebration of the Bates College intercollegiate debate program.

Two years earlier, Branham received the same AFA research award for his 1994 article, "Debate and Dissent in Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan," which appeared in the journal Argumentation and Advocacy.

In June, Branham received a Roger C. Schmutz Faculty Research Grant from Bates to present a paper at the International Conference on Argumentation in Amsterdam on the uses of national symbols by American anti- slavery activists. At the time of his death, Branham was completing a book, Sweet Freedom's Song: `America' and American National Identities.

"Beyond his masterful teaching and sustained scholarship, Robert Branham was a powerful presence in the common life of Bates College," said Carl B. Straub, the Clark A. Griffith Professor of Environmental Studies, professor of religion at Bates and former dean of the faculty. "His clear voice of reason in service to the highest ideals of liberal education made his years among us a season of institutional hope and of collegial good cheer."

The author of a number of scholarly articles, Branham's most recent work before he died, Lift Every Voice: African- American Oratory, 1787- 1900, is an anthology of more than 150 speeches -- many never published before -- from historical African American orators. The project was a collaborative effort of Branham and the late Philip Foner, a professor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The University of Alabama Press published the 925- page book, which features such historical African American figures as Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as background information about the era and context of each speech. Library Journal called the book "essential reading for every American."

Branham was at work on a second volume of Lift Every Voice, covering the period 1901 to 1953, when he died. Branham taught a course on documentary videomaking and collaborated with students to produce such efforts as "Roughing the Uppers: The Great Shoe Strike of 1937," which won the New England Historical Association's Annual Media Award in 1993, and "The Phantom Punch," about the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston

in 1965. Both events took place in Lewiston.

See Branham on page 5

Along with "Ella Knowles: A Dangerous

Woman," the three documentaries were broadcast on Maine Public Television.

Debaters coached by Branham regularly distinguished themselves and their college in national and international competition. "Bob coached his debaters not simply to compete effectively, but to be principled advocates, taking positions we could commit to and defend," said attorney Paul E. Rosenthal, a 1985 Bates graduate who twice earned trips to the National Debate Tournament and who later served as Branham's assistant. "Bob brought his own great integrity to bear in argument, and taught us to do the same."

Continued Rosenthal in the section of Stanton's Elm about Branham: "He teaches, occaisonally by word and always by example, that the most gifted advocates are the those who have something to say.... He believes that ideas matter and that advocating them carries personal and political consequences."

"He's the reason I applied to Bates, he's the reason I stayed at Bates, and he's the reason that I came back," said Eric Fuchs, who graduated in 1992 and returned to serve as the Assistant Debate Coach.

"He could not only demonstrate that he had what seemed to be all the answers, but he could also draw that knowledge out of everyone around him." added Mark Boudreau `99, President of the Brooks Quimby Debate Council.

Born in Bremerton, Washington, and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Branham entered Dartmouth College in 1970 and graduated cum laude three years later. He was a member of the Dartmouth varsity debate team and served as president of the Dartmouth Forensic Union. He earned his master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1974, at just 21 years of age, Branham was appointed an instructor in the theater and speech department at Bates (now theater and rhetoric) and director of the debate program. Branham received his doctoral degree at the University of Massachusetts. He rose through the academic ranks at Bates, becoming a full professor in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, F. Celeste Branham of Lewiston, with whom he would have celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary on Dec. 16; son, Noah, at home; his mother, Gloria Branham of Farmingdale; and his mother- in- law, Priscilla R. Saucier of Lewiston. He was predeceased by his father, Ralph Lamar Branham, in July 1971.

A memorial service will be held on Nov. 15 at 1 p.m. in the Bates College Chapel. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be sent to either the Robert J. Branham Memorial Fund at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine 04240, or to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America Inc., 386 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 100168804, in Branham's name.

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Last Modified: 11/08/1998
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