by Thomas Foley
On my last visit with Bob, I spent a few moments sitting in his writing chair — perched in front of his PC, with photographs of Celeste and Noah and his family and the utensils of his profession arrayed before me, his collected writings and the works of his friends on the shelves behind me. It was a very humbling experience to sit in Bob’s writing chair, and it brought back a rush of memories of other chairs and earlier times with Bob.
Twenty-seven years ago, I sat next to Bob on two of those big, black Dartmouth chairs in front of a huge slab of a desk in the old Dartmouth Forensic Union, sorting through piles of what we debaters called “evidence” — four-by-six note cards fresh with the aromatic dew of a blue-ink mimeograph machine. We had “evidence,” on everything from the FBI to the CIA, from communicable diseases to computer borne pathogens, from national health care — two decades before its time — to international terrorism.
Bob led the original motley crew, as we turned those evidence cards into ideas, the ideas into arguments, the arguments into contentions, and the contentions into full-blown Herb James proofed debate cases. I at least knew I had a good thing going: Bob thought up all our debate cases and most of our arguments, while I was off playing basketball with my roommates. He then carefully explained to me — on the plane on the way to our next debate tournament — why we really should eradicate venereal disease, or forbid insurance company driven health care, or protect personal privacy.
Over the next few years, I sat next to Bob on a lot of airplanes going to far flung destinations: places like Atlanta, Lost Angeles, Houston, Louisville, and the heartland of America, Kansas; places where we kicked around ours and other people’s ideas like so many footballs in a high school game. We kicked off the ball — at the beginning of the debate — and it sailed, end over end high into the lights and then back to earth, to closer inspection, into the hands of a waiting receiver.
Bob was a pretty good kicker. His first-affirmative rebuttals were classics of the trade and first proof of his lifelong talent with the economics of language — at once precise and poignant, a difficult combination in any form, let alone the rapid-fire riposte of intercollegiate debate.
But Bob was at his best as a receiver — catching onto the opposition’s argument, then sifting it, finding the seam in even the most well-conceived debate formations, and then racing through the holes he created in their arguments with his oratorical skill, his often brave ideas, and his tight logic. Bob was one of the very few debaters I can think of who often had the round won before the last two speakers even got to the podium.
During that same time, I also sat next to Bob in the back seat of the Dartmouth debate coach’s deuce and a quarter — his Buick Electra 225 — on the way to and from no-less-daunting destinations: MIT, Harvard, West Point, Georgetown, and, of course, on the most important trip of his life � to Bates’ sister school in the state of Maine, Bowdoin College, where Bob first laid eyes on the fair Celeste.
Many of those destinations were like foreign countries to the two of us, and our earliest opponents from schools like UNC and Georgetown, Harvard and Emory — were like foreign dignitaries who had deigned to engage in a debate with us. We were 17 and 18 years old when we first hit the national debate circuit together. Bob was a long-haired, goateed, mirror-sunglassed, hardscrabble, only-child boy genius from Oklahoma — with one coat, one pair of shoes, and one tie (the “cow spots” tie that lasted three years). I was the straightlaced, sideburned Catholic high school neophyte from a family of 12 that was one generation off the boat from Ireland — and I had the other tie that we traded off every other day.
We were an odd couple at first united in awe at the current and future legends we encountered – Herb James, Larry Tribe, Glen Pelham, Bob Shrum, Loveland and Maguire, Perkins and Beales, Jay and Sirianni, Melissa Maxcy, Tuna Snider. I had an inkling then that Bob would surpass all his contemporaries, and even those legends a generations before us.
But the ride home from Bowdoin was without question the most memorable of our trips — not because we actually won the tournament (that we did) — but because lightning struck that weekend. We had gone to the Bowdoin tournament out of wanderlust and friendship — wanderlust for me, because I’d heard that the top speaker got a trip to France; and friendship for Bob, because one of his high school chums was a student there. Bob and I were confident that first day — perhaps because we were wearing each other’s tie, I’m not sure — anyway, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves at the very moment that Francine Celeste Saucier walked on by. I say lightning struck because Bob did something I’d never seen him do before or since — he turned around to look at the woman who had just passed him. I turned around too — I think because it was just so uncharacteristic of Bob, I wanted to see who he was looking at. And I can always say because I turned around at that moment, I was watching them at the very instant that the lightning struck.
Proust wrote that “love is space and time made directly perceptible to the heart.” It happened that way, that day, at Bowdoin and I think it was the last time that Bob and Celeste were ever glad that any high school chum (this one’s name was Richard Petard) chose Bowdoin over Bates.
And so it was that Bob came home — to Celeste. To Maine. And to Bates. There was a wonderful two-year detour — a year as house parents to the Phi Psi tribe at Dartmouth, where Bob finished his last two years of school in about six months, and then a year living on pennies and poetry while they both worked on graduate degrees at UNC. But home for good after that, and I got the chance to take the seat next to Bob again, only this time it was in Maine, at Bates, behind a long table on the stage of the auditorium in Pettigrew Hall as we exchanged last-minute confidences before kicking off the first ever Brooks Quimby Summer Debate Institute.
Over the next decade, Bob and Celeste opened up the seats next to them for a wide variety of characters and a generation of students. The characters were their fellow institute instructors who came from all over America and at least one foreign country to enjoy the company of Bob and Celeste and often Priscilla and Willie and to revel in the special camaraderie that flourished there. John Meany from California, Jungle Jim Myers from Georgia, Robbie Cox from North Carolina, Big Pierce from Oklahoma, Jack McMillan from about three different states, Rich Lewis from Boston. Eventually, some of Bob’s best Bates students graduated to the faculty (and won the honor to play with our once-defeated faculty basketball team): Tom Connolly, Chipper, Barry Boss, Dan “Nuke” Lacosse, Paul Rosenthal, Eric Fuchs.
Celeste calls those days “the formative years” as she watches the players from that arena move onto bigger stages, bigger platforms — all buttressed, reinforced at the joints if you will, by what Paul Rosenthal, Linda Horwitz, Lauren Popell, and others will recognize as Bob’s defining influence in those early years.
And what was the defining influence? The great intellect? Absolutely. His appreciation for spoken language, the exactitude of his expression, his passion for the integrity of public speech? Yes, yes, and yes. His knack for knowing what people were capable of, and encouraging it? Without question. His love for words, his own or an Eberhart poem, the snazzy slang of a great jazz recording, or a Haiku? Yes, many were drawn to him for that. Or maybe it was just his personal genius for simplifying complex ideas — he wanted his aunts Rosa and Flossie to understand what he had to say, not just Einstein. It is all of those things but it’s more than that, too.
Someone once said that “time has a way of weeding out the trivial,” which is a shame, really, because the trivial is often so much more fun than the stuff that does make it into the history books. Bob shared that view and used his prodigious intellect and oral and writing skills to great, humorous, and altogether trivial effects. Many of Bob’s finest moments won’t make it into the biography but tell lots about why he is held in such deep affection by so many.
Bob took up basketball when he was about 20, mostly I think because he liked the idea of being a teammate. Yeah, he admired the balletic artistry of the game, he loved Larry Bird and passed that particular gene to Noah, and he knew that Celeste (she a former CYO player) and I couldn’t keep winning those faculty-student basketball games all by ourselves. He knew all that, but most of all he loved the physicality and the jovial, rude, hilarious, and affectionate spirit of the game as played by true amateurs. Most men’s friendships are too inarticulate — basketball was a means of expression for Bob and me, as it is already for Noah and his buddies.
Bob was a great man for the practical joke — once persuading Celeste that something called a non-flatulating bean had finally been developed, just so he could hear her drop that figment of his imagination into cocktail conversation with some Boston baked-bean head a full six months later.
He was so persuasive, not just the deep voice, but the sincere eyes, the pathetically raised eyebrows, the open face, the supplicant hands and fingers. He once convinced me (alright, only for about 10 seconds) that he’d been an all-state high school quarterback — just by affecting this pose, and asking me without words how I could not believe him. I did. For about 10 seconds (not six months, for God’s sake, Celeste!) when he gave up the ruse.
Much of Bob’s humor, his affection for the trivial, his capacity to enter that moment of wild abandon, I can’t mention here in the Chapel. In fact I can’t mention it anywhere ever again, now that I and others told so much of it to Celeste. She forbids it, at least on the Bates campus while she is still the dean. But take my word for it. Bob did all that and more of what W.H. Auden had in mind when he said that “college students should wear funny clothes and talk a lot of nonsense.” And not only in college.
If you can imagine this — and I’ve edited for the Chapel — Bob and I spent an entire debate season convincing the debate world that what the United States most needed was a national campaign to eradicate venereal disease. Yeah, yeah, people were catching it left and right back then, and we had a plan to eliminate it all right, and we even won almost all our debates on the subject. But none of that was why Bob decided that we should debate this topic at every opportunity. He did it because it meant we could talk about VD (read “SEX”) in public, or “in pubic” as we used to say, and we could force a lot of other people to talk abut it, too, whether they wanted to or not. Bob mined the humorous possibilities of the topic way beyond the old “pubic- policy” laughlines. He actually found one study by the British Journal of Venereal Disease (there is such a thing) in which the control group was an order of nuns, and he insisted on reading it in every debate whether it was relevant or not. Bob loved irony.
Dr. Ferguson, the fictitious physician in a Good Housekeeping story on the subject of VD, was a “short, rotund man” who took a major league beating in Bob’s stentorian-toned re-rendering of the original quotes, as Dr. Ferguson divulged the facts of life to his about-to-be-married, venereal-diseased patient, the innocent Sheila. Bob once put the esteemed coach of the Harvard debate team on the floor, doubled over with laughter and literally fallen out of his chair. He was a pretty weird guy, as I remember, whose first name was Mark for all you old debaters out there and who is now probably some huge muckety muck who will savage my memory for calling him a pretty weird guy (which he was!). Anyway, he never seemed more normal than when Bob’s rendition of Dr. Ferguson’s speech left him paralyzed with laughter.
At the Bates Summer Institute, Bob emceed an often tasteless and always hilarious variety show by the faculty, hosted a Fourth of July barbecue (where he insisted on serving a mystery meat that turned out to be a piece of “Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse”), and he judged the winner of each year’s best National Enquirer headline contest. My all-time favorite came courtesy of Jack McMillan: “Jackie O has Elvis’ love child on UFO.” Thank God that Bob’s intellect didn’t insulate him from the trivial — I can still get belly laughs out of Klaas and Celeste with some of these stories about Bob.
Russell Baker meant to be humorous when he once opined that “a family is a group of people united by nature in unnatural relationships.” Bob and Celeste, Maine and Oklahoma, could easily have been accused on their wedding day of trying to put the truth to Baker’s definition. Willie, the career army veteran, was getting a son-in-law with rebel roots, hair longer than Willie’s whole family put together, and a pack of wedding guests who looked like castoffs from the local Goodwill store. But good families are never too focused on the externals, and Bob’s relationships with his family, his extended family, and with his beloved Celeste and his precious Noah were tested and true and ultimately as natural as the rainbow after the rain.
Celeste’s parents, Priscilla and Willie, entertained a generation of their son-in-law’s students and debaters at cookouts and softball games, badminton contests in the backyard and quiet afternoons inside watching the Red Sox. Willie — a former professional baseball player and still hard as rock at 68, short on formal education, long on common sense and know how, and smart enough to marry himself a teacher and build his own home — bonded famously with his Ph.D. son. The professional degrees never separated them, but the Celtics, the Red Sox, and the occasional bottle of beer in the basement sure joined them together. And I’m sure they are cackling up in heaven now, because they know they’re finally going to see the Red Sox win the pennant.
Priscilla, who is nothing if not straightforward, wasn’t too sure about Bob’s subtle twang or his goatee and was definitely not impressed by the denizens of Phi Psi and the Wig dorms at Dartmouth who showed up at her daughter’s wedding. But she knew it said something about her new son-in-law that we’d all fought through a hardy Maine snow storm just to get there, and she was shortly won over by Bob’s profound and generous love for her only daughter and later for her grandson Noah.
And then there’s Noah, the best example of Bob’s total understanding of the meaning of life. He is Bob and Celeste’s finest work, to be sure. Did you know that little man can swing a bat, catch a pass, shoot a jumper, play a piano sonata, write an interesting paragraph, hook and unhook a fish, and talk to his Dad’s old buddies without being the least bit intimidated. Some of those things his dad couldn’t do at his age, but all of these things he learned form his mom and dad, who put family first in their lives together.
Bob’s mother, who raised him from the fourth grader who broke the curve on the I.Q. test (they actually tested him twice), raised him to the man who found and married Celeste, and moved here a decade ago to be near her son, her daughter-in-law, and her new baby grandson Noah. Yes, Bob Branham was a true genius, in the pure and unadulterated way of his upbringing. And yes, Bob Branham was a fine teacher, in the vein of Henry Adams who once remarked that “a great teacher is like eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” And Bob Branham was an astounding scholar, not bound by the traditions and mores of his chosen field. But most of all, Bob was a complete person, a man who loved his family above all else, a man who pursued excellence in his profession without losing his capacity to enjoy the trivial in his daily life, and a man consequently whose life represents far more than the simple sum of its parts. I think it makes him most happy today to know that we appreciate these qualities about him best of all.
I sat in one more chair next to Bob, this time at the Central Maine Medical Center just down the road, on two visits during his last autumn. Bob wasn’t seated next to me this time; instead, he was lying spent on his hospital bed, a kiss for his old pal each day that I arrived, and a small smile whenever I moved back into his line of vision. We weren’t side by side in student-sized desks at a debate tournament or in front of an auditorium in Pettigrew Hall, but he was still teaching, to anyone who came into that room. Only this time, the lessons weren’t about the power of Malcolm X’s rhetoric of the topicality of a particular debate argument. This time the lessons were about life and death, and how you leave one and face the other.
Michele and I come from a tradition that always looks for the positive message, for the way forward, not back. It’s a way of survival, really, and the Irish, with their tragic history, have perfected it. The ancient Irish believed that those the gods love most die young, that grief in those moments most forlorn is really just the measure of love, and that when one leaves this world, you only die, you don’t disappear. I’m not sure about all that. I’ve got plenty of brothers (seven altogether), but I still feel like I just lost another.
Heroism they say is endurance for one moment longer. Bob endured for a decade’s worth of last moments and he did it with tremendous courage. He used his own lifelong passion for keeping things simple to save others from his pain, literally lifting himself into a meditative state, slowing down his body, moving somehow with an otherworldly spirit and grace. He approached the end of his life on this earth with incredible equanimity — his chief concern was how to move on in a way that allowed Celeste and Noah to go forward.
In the end, that was Bob’s last message. Celeste never left his side in the last two months. And Bob got tremendous relief and courage from the presence of his most beloved one, from the simple act of her hand folded up in his, to the nightly ritual of unfolding her cot so that she could lay her body next to him. Just as Bob believed strongly that his life and his values changed course the moment he met Celeste, so he believed that death comes most easily to those who have given their love in this life.
That was Bob’s message, the message from a complete man who led a fulfilled life. “Love one another or die,” Auden said at the end of the most famous stanza in his poem, “September 1939.” I think that Bob’s message, and the example of his life together with Celeste and Noah, is love one another now, in every way you can, before you die. Go fishing, read together, make love, cry at a movie, listen to the blues, go to the ball park, visit a friend, shag flies, write a letter, hold a hand. Only then will any of us be ready to leave this world with anywhere near the grace of father, son, husband, lover, friend, brother � Robert James Branham. I love you, buddy.