By Wayne Dawkins
Baltimore native Kip Branch had swagger.
He would talk about his friend “Jimmy.” That is James Baldwin to the rest of us. The iconic American novelist befriended Branch and mentored him. The result was “Gnawing in My Soul,” the pupil’s debut novel.
Then there was Branch’s other friend, “Chief.” That is Miles Davis to me, and to you.
“What’s your lick?” Branch would ask me. I’d nod knowingly, but truthfully, I thought I knew what he meant, yet I wasn’t sure. Either way, I didn’t want to appear uncool to my colleague.
Kip Bernard Branch, 74, joined the ancestors Oct. 23. Whether perceived as hip and cool, or eccentric and odd, people who knew or engaged him universally agreed that Branch was a master journalism educator and a caring soul.
For decades he taught HBCUs, North Carolina Central University in Durham, then Elizabeth City State in rural eastern North Carolina. Branch cared so much about his students he would frequent thrift shops so he could buy used clothes so his students could be appropriately dressed for interviews or jobs.
One of those students was Ernie Suggs, who said he had no dress clothes then, or a car, but what he had was raw talent that teacher Branch nurtured. And in Suggs’ words at Branch’s memorial service, when he goofed off at school, Branch the mentor admonished Suggs the student and the pupil heeded his counsel. Suggs is a senior writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In addition to NCCU and ECSU, Branch took a semester-long detour a dozen years ago and taught with me at Hampton University. He dropped in and instantly raised the writing and reporting skill of at least a dozen students. Branch was an all-in-type teacher/coach who had the patience and empathy to convince students to understand and thrive.
“Show up for someone,” counseled Branch’s grown-up niece at the memorial service. She recalled that her uncle would travel out of town at the drop of a hat to lend support to family, friends and students.
And Branch so loved Baltimore. He, a voracious reader, would check on the city. It’s Dickens’-like swings of beauty and then depravity could make Branch swoon, or give him the blues.
What myself and other HU faculty colleagues shared was we were all graduates of Columbia University J-school. We remembered our yellow writing papers bloodied with professors’ red-ink critiques that included guiding notes in the margins. We all finished with Master of Science degrees.
Gleefully, Branch tweaked a cohort of Ph.Ds – a small, yet pompous group that are all foam, no beer, to quote U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – who thought they were superior to us news professionals turned teachers.
Branch would remind those social science doctors that we came from “Joe’s House” at 116th & Broadway. That’s Joseph Pulitzer and no, we don’t defer to their kind.
Branch, son of a local jazz pianist, adored Miles Davis, aka “Chief.” When Davis put his trumpet down for seven years because of a mouth injury, Branch served as Davis’ go-fer and confidant. Once when a mutual Columbia J-school female colleague/friend was with Branch and in front of Miles’ apartment, Branch said wait, let me go inside and make sure everything is OK. Miles fans should know what I am suggesting.
It was fitting that at Branch’s Oct. 29 service in Norfolk, Va., a sax soloist played Miles’ “All Blues.”
Sometimes when Branch was about to finish writing or editing an article he might say, OK, we can play the “Theme,” a nod to the two-minute tune that Davis’ quintet would often play to signal the end of a nightclub set.
See, told you Kip Branch was cool.
The writer is a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.
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