BAY MINETTE, Alabama — “I love students.”
In an emotional address to Coastal Alabama Community College employees, during which he announced his upcoming retirement, President Gary Branch …
BAY MINETTE, Alabama — “I love students.”
In an emotional address to Coastal Alabama Community College employees, during which he announced his upcoming retirement, President Gary Branch said that simple statement summed up what he hoped would be his legacy after 37 years of leadership.
Branch, soon to turn 76, noted he has spent half his life as president of the college, going back to when it was known as Faulkner State Junior College and consisted of only the Bay Minette campus. In contrast, Coastal Alabama now includes 10 campuses, and overall 16 instructional sites.
And his Sept. 29 retirement will conclude a career of more than 50 years as a higher education.
With his wife seated a few feet away in the L.D. Owen Performing Arts Center on the main campus, Branch remembered his first act as president of the school, back in 1981: the removal of a Confederate flag prominently displayed behind the desk in the president’s office.
“I wanted this institution to be a place where every student felt welcome,” he said, fighting back tears.
When he was first hired at then-Faulkner State, Branch said he had the unenviable responsibility to balance the budget which, for a school in the midst of a financial crisis, involved a “reduction in force” which cost 13 employees their jobs out of a total staff pool that included less than 50. After a short period, Branch employed nearly all those employees back.
“I’ve never had another one,” he said. “And I’m very proud of that.”
Branch humbly downplayed many of his accomplishments over his four decades leading the college, at times pointing to the faculty and staff sitting before him, saying it was their professionalism and dedication that served Coastal Alabama's students in the way they deserved.
“I give you the support that you need, the encouragement that you need,” Branch said. “But I don’t do it, you do it.
“And I’m so proud that I had the wisdom and the ability to offer you a career.”
When he was hired, Faulkner State had barely 1,100 students, all reporting to the Bay Minette campus. And there were so many potential enrollees who could not register, because the school was just too far a drive once the responsibilities of jobs and families had been met on any given day. Thus campuses in Fairhope and Gulf Shores were established to serve the people of Baldwin County and expanding the enrollment by thousands.
Now, throughout Coastal Alabama Community College’s total footprint in south Alabama, enrollment is nearing 8,000 across 10 counties, he said.
As he considered his legacy in the days since deciding to retire, Branch mused on several initiatives he helped bring about during his tenure. They included the annual Student Leadership Retreat, known as the Gatlinburg Getaway; the Black Ministerial Dinner, with its accompanying scholarships; the Counselor’s Dinners, welcoming high school counselors; and the creation of a women’s intercollegiate softball league, which later included the construction of one of the most impressive softball stadiums in the state. He also helped start the College’s Scholar’s Bowl, which brings students from 34 high schools to the college each year and is “the best recruiting tool we have.”
Perhaps the three most significant initiatives Branch has been involved in throughout the last few decades are his appointment as chair of the committee that created STARS (Statewide Transfer Articulation & Reporting System), which allows two-year college students to transfer to universities across the state; Coastal Alabama’s inclusion as a beneficiary of state sales tax revenue in Baldwin County; and the merger of three independently accredited institutions into Coastal Alabama Community College.
The latter has coincided with the emergence of some health issues for Branch, which have required three major surgeries, with another possible in the coming months.
“The past two years have been the most difficult of my life,” he said. “Not because of the consolidation, but because of the health issues that I’ve had.”
His family, as well as his doctors, have implored him to simplify his life, or else the consequences could be dire, Branch said. So he penned a letter to Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker, announcing his retirement.
Pausing throughout due to overwhelming emotions, Branch read the letter to his employees, chronicling how a once-broke junior college now enjoyed unprecedented financial health and enrollment, with an annual operational budget of $128 million.
The letter ended with Branch writing, “Thank you, and I do accept your kind offer to continue serving our System under your leadership by working with you on special projects.”
He explained that Baker has given him the opportunity to work with institutions around the state who are having issues, primarily with student services since his passion and background are in student affairs.
“It has been a high privilege and honor to have been a part of thousands of students' lives for all these years,” he read.
Branch then addressed his employees, likely for the final time en masse, confident that they will show his successor the same loyalty and dedication that they showed him.
“I know you will, because I’ve experienced that,” he said. “So to whoever it is who follows me, I can just say that I’m leaving this college in a whole lot better shape than it was in when I arrived.”
“And this is considered to be one of the crown jewels in our system because of the things we do together.”
At a standing ovation from employees, Branch waved to those who he has spent so many years with. Those same employees will continue the culture Branch established – to love students.