Robert J. Branham, 45, professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Bates, died at his home in Lewiston on Oct. 29, 1999, 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 recognized scholar, Branham revitalized the historic Bates debate program over the past 25 years 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 President Harward.
The recipient of numerous awards and prizes during his academic career, Branham was honored in November 1997 with the American Forensic Assn. (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 College's 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 1998, 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 .
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 Univ. in Pennsylvania. The Univ. 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 1901-1953, 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 , winner of the New England Historical Assn.'s Annual Media Award in 1993, and The Phantom Punch , about the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight in 1965. Both events took place in Lewiston. Along with his Ella Knowles: A Dangerous Woman , the documentaries were broadcast on Maine Public Television.
Branham-coached debaters 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 and former Bates debater Paul Rosenthal '85. "Bob brought his own great integrity to bear in argument, and taught us to do the same."
Born in 1953 in Bremerton, Wash., and raised in Oklahoma City, Okla., 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 UNC-Chapel Hill and his doctorate at the Univ. of Massachusetts. In 1974, at just 21 years of age, Branham was appointed instructor in the theater and speech department (now theater and rhetoric) and director of debate. 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; a 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.