There could have been no more apropos choice of music for Sidney Branch’s funeral than the joyous old paean to nature and love that the congregation joined in singing:
“For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies … hill and dale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light … Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.”
As I sat in the lovely sanctuary of the century-old Moore Memorial United Methodist Church, late afternoon sunlight streaming through magnificent stained glass windows onto his flag-draped casket, memories came flooding of all the Sundays, more than four decades ago, that my wife, squirming young son, and I were on one of those pews looking up at Sid’s smiling face in the choir.
Hardly had we arrived in small town Winona, Miss., I to be the new editor of the newspaper, my wife to teach in the high school, than a visitation team from the church came knocking at our door.
Introductions were barely done when six-foot-plus Sid proceeded to plop down on the floor, long legs akimbo, and joined our rambunctious son in pushing toy cars around. They immediately bonded.
He was just that kind of guy. Throughout his long life, he was constantly involved with youngsters, teaching them to fish, taking them (and adults, too) on nature outings to teach them about the trees and plants and flowers he knew so intimately. A yearly day camp he conducted for community kids was a must on everyone’s calendar.
A true renaissance man, Sid’s interests were broad, his abilities many: farmer, patriot — he was a National Guard officer for years after his active military service ended, and delighted in teaching flag etiquette to youngsters — pillar of the church, community servant. Above all, he had a genuine interest in and love for the world around him, and a consuming desire to know all he could about as many things as possible.
Over the years, he raised sheep and cows, grew grains and cotton, planted a pecan orchard and pines, was a pioneer in all manner of conservation measures, built a beautiful home in a wooded area that was itself a sanctuary, and added azaleas, flowering bulbs, unique shrubs and trees (including sugar maples that now are glorious splotches of color in autumn).
In the turmoil that beset many small towns in the South in the late 1960s, as a member of the county school board Sid’s was a quiet, calm, voice of reason. In my reportorial capacity, I spent many an hour observing him in board meetings and in federal courtrooms, his keen intellect cutting to the heart of an issue as he worked to help resolve problems confronting the community.
Gracious, thoughtful, with a gentle good humor, I never once saw him angry or flustered, even in public meetings that often turned confrontational. He was the consummate southern gentleman.
Well into his 80s, even though progressive eye disease had reduced him to almost total blindness, he continued to be involved in community, church, and youth-oriented programs, and I would still get the occasional note from him, in the large, slanted scrawl that he managed with a magnifying device, commenting on something I’d written or passing along information he thought I would find interesting.
In the days just before his sudden death, he was out and about, at Sunday School and church, at an American Legion meeting, making a talk at the planting of a memorial tree.
The church packed with Sid’s friends, the military burial, the many loving reminiscences, were testament to a life well and honorably lived in his small corner of the world.
“Friends on earth and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild; Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.”