Obituary of Kenneth J. Branch
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It was in Lindsborg, Kansas, where he had gone to college and later returned to spend the last 27 years of his life, that Ken Branch was known as a professor and pastor, a business owner, a husband and grandfather, and a neighbor. Always a gardener. His daffodils and iris, lilies and lilacs bloomed each spring in the yard on North Second Street, bringing color to the spring and marking the slow change of seasons. The neighbors may not have appreciated just how deep those roots grew and how far they spread. In a letter that Ken wrote in 1963, when he was 25, to his little sister, Viki, when she graduated high school, he reflected on how his life had changed since his own graduation sent him to college out of state. “I wondered if God was God there, too,” he wrote. “But God was there, all right ... in more friends than I knew were possible, in people who cared about me and were glad for what I could return, in a rich cultural and religious heritage, in a fascinating education that didn’t neglect the reasons ‘why,’ and in other ways too numerous to mention. I hope you will discover what I mean.” Ken continued to discover it, and live it, in 60 more years – making friends, building families, guiding congregations and helping everyone and everything around him grow. The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Johnson Branch died April 29, 2023, in Lindsborg, after a long fight with bladder cancer. He was 85. Survivors include his wife, Linda L.(Smith) Branch; son Paul Branch (Kimberly) of Longmont; daughter Joan Manhart of Omaha; step daughters Kelley Menke (Royce) and Elizabeth Brooks, both of Lindsborg; brother Bob Branch (Sue) of Fort Collins, Colo.; sister Viki Samson (Rick) of Longmont; seven grandchildren and numerous nieces, nephews, godchildren, and extended family members. They are all part of a family tree and a sprawling community that Ken spent a lifetime planting and nurturing. Born in Longmont on November 17, 1937, Ken was the middle child of Lew and Esther Branch, a small-town electrician and a religious mother who helped instill in him a deep appreciation of the family’s Swedish heritage. Sundays were spent at First Lutheran Church, and Ken ultimately decided to become a pastor while attending Bethany College in Lindsborg. He paid for college with money earned from a flock of sheep that he and his brother, Bob, tended through their teenage years. He had planned to study pre-med and become a doctor, but emerged from Bethany in 1959 deciding to attend seminary. That decision carried Ken and his young family through congregations in Southern California and Arizona, then to Nebraska. Ken earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Nebraska and became a professor at Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University). He and his second wife, Linda, then moved to Lindsborg in 1996. They owned and operated the Courtyard Gallery for 20 years as Ken served as an adjunct professor at Bethany College, his alma mater. He taught courses in sociology and anthropology, and occasionally filled in as a pastor at local churches. He was an active member of Bethany Lutheran Church and served two terms on Lindsborg’s city council. In later years, Ken and Linda lived near Linda’s two grown daughters and their families. He enjoyed playing cards and board games, and created a “Winter Scavenger Hunt,” based on the Swedish folklore surrounding the Tomte, for his grandchildren. Clever and intricate hidden clues led to a burlap bag filled with treasures. “I loved how grandpa was always nearby,” said his granddaughter Avery Spencer. “And whenever he saw me chatting to Grandma downstairs, he would always go, ‘Ooooohh, Avery, hello." With his thoughtful, quiet demeanor and easy smile – rarely the joke teller, but often the first to laugh – Ken was always good company. He contemplated more than complained. He was like that from the start. ****** As a boy in Longmont, Kenny (as he was known to most) took care of his family’s big yard on the corner lot – mowing, pulling weeds, picking beans and tending to the flowers. Even as a teen, he put in the work, quietly and without complaint, a characteristic that lasted a lifetime. “He came upon his gardening honestly,” said his older brother, Bob Branch. “He got that from his mother.” Ken was less than two years younger than Bob and just one grade behind. A little sister, Viki, was born in 1945, eight years behind Ken. The family settled into a house on a big corner lot at 9th Avenue and Venice Street in Longmont. Lew Branch began a company called Branch Electric there, and one day brought home two lambs for his young boys to raise. By high school, the flock of Columbia sheep had grown to 100 ewes. They were kept in the winter mostly inside a sheep shed, wood stables at the edge of the property. Each February, during lambing, the boys had to awake every two hours to go out to check for newborns before they froze to death. They often brought them inside or under heat lamps and bottle-fed them. During warmer months, the boys shuttled the flock to various pastures at the edge of Longmont, sometimes blocking street traffic along the way. They were members of the 4H Club and showed their sheep at the Boulder County Fair, winning blue ribbons. They would sell the young rams and keep the ewes, saving their money for college. “When they would feed them, I would tag along and invariably when the sheep were lined up along the trough, they would throw me on top on them and I couldn’t get off until the sheep started to walk away after eating, and I would finally fall to the ground and be able to get up,” Viki said. “When it was shearing time, Dad and the boys would do the shearing,” she added. “We had a shed that they hung a gunny sack from to collect the wool. I remember them putting me up on the roof of the shed and making me jump into the bag to pack down the wool, and then tossing more wool on top of me to pack it down. The bags were at least 7 feet tall.” Much of the responsibility for the sheep fell to Ken as Bob got more heavily involved in sports and Boy Scouts. “He was just salt of the earth, a guy who put his head down and did the work,” Bob said. “I was the bossy one, the noisy one, as far as the kids were concerned. He was the quiet one who just did the work.” The boys learned to fly fish and hunt from their father, and Ken usually got Bob’s hand-me-down gear. Fishing trips often took them to the Poudre or Little Laramie rivers, sometimes with the Friedstroms, who were close family friends. “Just about every time I went fishing with him, he’d end up with more fish than I did,” Bob said. “He’d put his head down, no griping, and just did it. That’s how he was.” In the fall, on late afternoons, the boys hunted ducks or pheasants on the farmland that surrounded Longmont. They lay side-by-side in the brown cornfields, silent and still, holding their .410 shotguns – Bob with a new one, Ken with Bob’s old one. “A .410 would hardly kill a duck, so you had to wait for them to get really, really close,” Bob said. “We’d wait until they’d drop, with their wings out, and then get up and start shooting.” One time, Bob wondered why he didn’t hear Ken shooting next to him. Ken’s gun had jammed, and he was waving it in the air over his head, trying to knock the birds from the sky – a memory that makes Bob laugh 70 years later. Bob often worked alongside their dad on electrical projects, and later became an electrical engineer. Ken was more likely to stay home with their mother, tending to the flock or working in the yard. Ken played football as a teen but was bothered by what he called a “trick” knee. He was deeply involved in DeMolay and Luther League activities, his family once driving to Calgary, Alberta, for a Luther League conference. He graduated from Longmont High in 1955. On a visit to Bethany, he had heard the choir’s rendition of the Messiah, helping spark a lifelong love for singing in choirs. He lived in Bethany’s Kalmar Hall and became a member of Gamma Kappa Alpha fraternity. He shipped his laundry home every couple of weeks in a black box that Viki still has. Ken spent college summers working in Estes Park, Colorado. One job was at a sandwich shop on Elkhorn Avenue, the town’s main street. Another was running the Rustic Theater with a cousin, Bill Branch. The two lived in an upstairs apartment. While studying at Bethany, Ken met Janice McCormick. The two married on Dec. 27, 1959, at Assaria Lutheran Church in Janice’s hometown of Assaria, Kansas, not far from Lindsborg.Ken graduated from Bethany earlier in 1959 and planned to attend the University of Colorado, Boulder, for pre-med classes. Janice got a teaching job in Arvada. But things changed when Ken received a Rockefeller Scholarship to attend Augustana Lutheran Seminary in Illinois. They moved to Moline, Illinois,, where Paul, the couple’s first child, was born in 1960. The third year of seminary took them to Des Moines. After seminary, Carl Segerhammar, a regional bishop who was a former pastor at First Lutheran in Longmont and a longtime mentor for Ken, placed Ken at a church in Corona, California. It is where a second child, Joanie, was born in 1965. As Bob noted, Ken had found a flock of a different sort to lead. As a pastor, Ken officiated many of his own family’s weddings, including that of his sister, Viki, to Rick Samson, and those of his step-children, nieces and nephews. In 1967, the Branches were on the move again, to Tempe, Arizona. Ken became pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, adjacent to the campus of Arizona State University. They lived in a flat-roofed house on Ventura Drive, just a couple of blocks away, with a date palm in front and a grapefruit tree in back. “Behind the grapefruit tree in the back was our carport,” Joanie said. “The carport was open to the alley and the park. In the carport was a contraption, a compost mulcher that my Dad built with two-by-fours, chicken coop, and a crank. He was making compost and we were eating alfalfa sprouts and making homemade bread and granola before anyone knew or could say ‘organically grown’ or Whole Foods.” Ken used a downstairs room in the basement to write his sermons and study for a Masters degree, working under a buzzing fluorescent lamp. A closet held barrels used for wine making, with friends from the church, with grapes that Ken grew in the back yard. The family had no television. Family time was spent with Ken playing guitar and telling stories. “It’s the house and time I best remember,” Joanie said. “It was a crazy time with the Vietnam War going on and a large, active university campus. The church and many of its members were acting as the ‘peace center’ – evidently, to the dismay of many of the church members.” The upheaval shaped Ken’s perspective, but also nudged him away from leading a congregation. Ken earned a Master's degree and almost completed a PhD in anthropology from Arizona State during his time in Tempe, with the idea of becoming a college professor. (The ties to Tempe were never completely torn, however: Ken’s granddaughter Samantha, raised in Nebraska, enrolled at Arizona State.) In 1973, the family moved to Fremont, Nebraska, where Ken became a professor at Midland Lutheran College, a position he held for more than 20 years. “He was a much loved professor at MLC and I was able to take his classes when I was a student there in the mid 80’s.” Kelley said. Viki’s daughter Jennifer also attended at that time, “Being homesick became a real thing for me as we got further into the school year and I started getting to class early to see my mom in Uncle Kenny’s eyes,” she said. “He’d give me that knowing smile and a wink or an occasional hug to help me reel in my emotions, without ever making me feel ashamed for missing home.” Joanie recalled the family going to movies at the Westroads 8 theaters on Sunday afternoons, and Ken taking her to dance lessons. “He would reward me for memorized routines and we would go have Mexican food (our favorite) together after class,” Joanie said. “These traditions continued when I moved to Omaha and are probably the reason dance has been so important to my girls.” Both Joanie and Paul remember their father for the quiet, creative talent he had. “My father was at his best when he was designing and building a garden or the dollhouse he made my sister when I was about 8, or if he built a desk,” Paul said. “When he made things, the end result felt like they were touched by some divine spark. I was always amazed by what he did when landscaping or gardening. You can approach horticulture through science and you can approach it like an artist and designer. My father was both. You could go to him to learn about how to grow things, the science of composting, the use of cover crops to regenerate the soil. You could also go to him for inspiration on how to make something beautiful.” Joanie recalled the dollhouse: “It was beautifully designed, all wood, multi-floored -- it was even foldable for easier storage. It was hand-painted with shutters painted on the outside of the windows. It had retractable wooden staircases. It was absolutely incredible workmanship and artistry.” She called her dad “the master of everything.” “He could build anything, fix anything, draw anything, play anything, grow anything – perfectly,” Joanie said. “He could play piano by ear and seemingly draw, fix, and build by ‘ear,’ too. ‘Dad, can you draw a horse for me? Dad, can you draw this house for me? Dad, can you play Moonlight Sonata?’ How one single beautiful human could have all this talent is still astounding to me.” “My Dad was also a natural counselor. Many of our conversations involved him listening and giving advice. One of the most profound was the conversation we had after my first daughter, Sam, was born,” Joanie said. “He and Linda drove through a record-breaking snowstorm to see her on the day she was born. Afterward, he told me that she would change everything for me the way I felt about my life, my job, my husband ... everything. I still smile at how right he was.” Much of that creative talent came out in music. Besides participating in choirs at every place he lived, Ken was an accomplished pianist, known for playing by ear. “When he was home in Longmont, he would play and we’d all stand around the piano and sing,” Viki said. A favorite was “Mood Indigo,” the Duke Ellington classic. He inherited his parents’ upright piano, and kept it at his homes in Fremont and Lindsborg. Ken kept strong connections to Colorado, coming often for summer vacations to visit his parents and siblings. He and Janice spent a summer restoring a dilapidated lodge and cabins in Allenspark, putting Ken’s handyman skills to work. It is in Colorado that Paul has some of his strongest memories of his dad – backpacking to Thunder Lake, using his fly rod to catch cutthroat trout for dinner, climbing across snowfields to the top of Mount Alice. “Some of my best memories of my father come from when we were backpacking or fishing. I have to go back 20-30 years now for those memories. He was a talented fisherman.”, Paul said. “Once my father and I backpacked to Thunder Lake, in Rocky Mountain National Park in June. We got a bit lost the final half mile to Thunder Lake, because the trail was lost under huge drifts that often were 6 or more feet high. After we set up camp, I remember my father heading out with his fly fishing rod. He came back later with cutthroat trout. It was the first time I had ever seen cutthroat.” “On one backpacking trip my father took with my friend Sam and I, my father would sit down at night at the camp stove, get out his pocket knife and begin to work on a piece of wood,” Paul said. “Soon a face started to emerge in the wood. I would look over and he would be deep in concentration, as if that piece of wood had absorbed his entire mind.” Ken and Janice divorced, and Ken began dating Linda Brooks. They married on Thanksgiving 1981 in a small ceremony at their home in Fremont, Nebraska. Linda’s school-aged daughters, Kelley and Elizabeth, came to know Ken as a father figure. “Ken was always very health conscious,” Kelley said. “And I recall being quite worried that we would never see anything good again! No sugar or even chocolate. We had a replacement of some sort, but eventually we found a compromise of food staples in the fridge and pantry. ” “As kids, we traveled with Mom and Ken to visit family, usually by car and with NPR on the radio!” One summer road trip memory was to Michigan’s Mackinac Island. “We had to stop at every battleground or fort and could not leave until they had the cannon or gun re-enactment,” Kelley said with a laugh. Another was to a lake resort in Okoboji, Iowa, to visit a friend of Ken’s who played in a big band. “We dressed up for dinner and later, Ken taught Elizabeth and me basic waltz steps,” Kelley said. Colorado, to visit family, was a routine destination. Later, after Ken’s parents died and left behind an Allenspark cabin, Ken, Linda, and and his sibling’s extended families used it for summer vacations – fishing at Wild Basin or hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. The couple traveled internationally, too – Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Sweden and Russia (as chaperones for Bethany students on choir tour, including their niece and nephew), Scotland, Greece and Turkey. “I planned many of our trips since Ken always ‘just wanted to finish another project at home,’” Linda said. When Ken and Linda became empty-nesters, they designed and built a home on an acre outside of Omaha. Ken continued to participate in the music groups he loved such as Die Meistersingers, a semi-professional choir. He also honed his gardening and design skills here creating many flower beds and prairie areas. A few years later in 1996, when visiting Lindsborg for Bethany Homecoming, they decided to buy the Courtyard Gallery and Bakery upon hearing it was for sale. They sold their Nebraska home and bought a 100 year old house in Lindsborg that they renovated over several years. Ken continued as a professor at Midland College and commuted for a few semesters after. Once retired from Midland, Ken became an adjunct professor at Bethany College, teaching courses in sociology and anthropology. Ken served as a pulpit supply pastor for area ELCA churches, and was involved at Bethany Lutheran Church where he and Linda were members. But church was always much more than the gospel. It was community. Ken started an adult fellowship on Sunday mornings called “Forum” that focused on current events. He brought in speakers and encouraged dialogue – an echo of the kitchen-table discussions he moderated informally with his children. He served on the Bethany Church Council and on the town’s city council for two terms. He sang with the church’s men’s choir and Lindsborg’s Messiah Oratorio Society. He volunteered with the Sunflower Rails to Trails Conservancy and was an original board member of the Central Kansas Conservancy. Ken and Linda had 80 acres of farmland southwest of Lindsborg – mostly prairie grass, walnut and oaks, with some tillable areas and, later, a pond – that they bought in 1992. The initial plan was to build a home and move there from Nebraska, but that changed when the gallery and bakery went up for sale in town. The acreage became a quick out-of-town getaway. Ken and his grandchildren fished and set up trail cameras to capture the wildlife in the area. His grandsons were last there with Ken over Thanksgiving 2022, to hang bluebird houses that Ken’s friend from college had built. “He believed in native plants that played into the world of bees, butterflies, birds and healthy food,” Linda said. “Our yard here in Lindsborg was to have little grass with native plants and fruit trees. He wanted a pond for fish, frogs, and birds. Landscaping choices were mostly perennials with herb and vegetable garden. He loved to dig in the dirt. You always could find him transplanting one plant to another site. Even though he didn’t have the ‘certification’ as a master gardener – he was one.” Ken spent parts of his last 20 years writing a book that he tentatively titled, “Wild Ecology,” which reflected his views on environmentalism and land preservations and which he hoped might someday serve as a college textbook. His stepdaughters, Kelley and Elizabeth, moved their young families to Lindsborg in large part to be close with Ken and Linda. Royce Menke, Ken’s son in law, recalled Ken as an outdoorsman with a love of cards and cribbage. Christmas was always a special holiday. “Grandpa Ken would always read the Christmas story from Luke as part of the Christmas Eve tradition,” Kelley said. “If we couldn't be there in person, they would call and we’d sit and listen on speaker phone. Ken would also play carols on the piano” – always by ear, without sheet music – “and we’d all sing.” But the grandchildren carry a big part of Ken, too. He and Linda were a constant presence in their lives – attending school and sports events, sharing holidays and everyday happenings. “When we would sing Johnny Appleseed before most every dinner while the family held hands – my favorite – or when he would read the Christmas Story to us every Christmas Eve, you could tell he poured his whole heart into all those things he did with us,” Jackson, one of Ken’s grandsons, said. But most of what Ken did was quiet – dignified and selfless. Elizabeth recalled a time when her daughter Cassidy was a baby, crying until Elizabeth was near her wit’s end. “I heard a knock on the door and just knew it was my neighbors coming to complain about the crying baby,” Elizabeth said. “I opened the door and Ken was there. I burst into tears. He said something like, ‘It’s O.K. I got her. You take a break.’” When Elizabeth worked weekends, Ken would sometimes drive four hours each way, alone, to get Cassidy and take her to Lindsborg for the weekend. “He was always there for the kids,” Elizabeth said. “He played games with them, he taught them to plant things, to pick cherries from the cherry tree and veggies from the garden. He cleaned the pool to have their friends over to swim. He made a special Tomte hunt for Logan’s graduation party – he was so worried about it that he left her graduation right when it ended to get it out. Elizabeth and her family lived next door to Ken and Linda, and the grandchildren remember the million little moments that make up a life. One of Cassidy’s earliest memories is having chickenpox and missing two weeks of school – two weeks spent with Grandpa. “We sat on the floor and played with animals, read books and reapplied anti-itch medication until we were both tired and needed to rest,” she said. Another memory reflected something Ken had done for Joanie decades earlier. “When I was a little older, I remember telling him how much I wanted a dollhouse,” she said. “A couple of months later, I had a custom, one-of-a-kind dollhouse.” So many of the memories flow to the outdoors – the picking of cherries and peaches, the cutting of flowers, the moving of plants and digging of soil. “My grandfather devoted his life to bettering others and his family. Through his kind words of wisdom he helped others grow and open their minds to the beautiful world around us.” said grandson Trevor, “ We can give thanks to my grandfather who had a hand in shaping each one of our own lives” Ken learned it in Longmont. He lived it in Lindsborg. The value of quiet contemplation and community, of getting your hands dirty for the chance that something meaningful will grow from it. It’s an easy metaphor for a life, but perfectly appropriate when applied to Ken. “People asked how life could be desirable on the hot plains of Kansas,” Ken wrote, at age 25, to Viki. “But the Swedes there had a better idea of what life was than the people who raised the question. I can think of no place having more values and ideals to offer.” Said Linda, following Ken’s passing nearly 60 years after he wrote those words: “We were blessed beyond anything we could have imagined here.” A memorial service and Holden Evening Prayer will be held 7:00 pm on Friday, June 16 at Bethany Lutheran Church, 320 N. Main St., Lindsborg, KS with Pastor Chris Deines officiating. Private family interment of the urn will take place at Smoky Hill Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Lindsborg Community Hospital or to the Leopold Landscape Alliance of Burlington, IA. Memorials may be sent in care of Crick-Christians Funeral Home, 103 N. Washington, Lindsborg, KS 67456.
Friday, June 16, 2023
Bethany Lutheran Church
320 N. Main St.
Lindsborg, Kansas, United States
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1937 - 2023
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Crick-Christians Funeral Home
103 North Washington Street
P.O. Box 386
Lindsborg, Kansas 67456
Phone: (785) 227-2400
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