Remembering Miss Ellie on the 10th Anniversary of Her Death

Me and Miss Ellie 2

With my mom on my high school graduation day from Georgetown Prep in May 1978.

On the 10th anniversary of my mom Ellen Branson Byrd’s death – October 15, 2007 – one memory recalls her enduring influence upon my life: the day Miss Ellie, as we came to call her, brought me to a red brick row house at the corner of 5th St. NW and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in June 1976.

We were there to participate in the celebration for the House of Ruth’s opening: a new community residence for homeless women.

Now a sophisticated non-profit organization with a more than a $7 million budget, which provides housing, daycare and counseling services to 1,000 women and children annually, the House of Ruth back then promised to shelter eight homeless women.

But you wouldn’t have believed this was a modest undertaking by my mom’s enthusiasm, happiness, and pride that day. Like the others actively involved with the event, mom was especially pleased Eunice Kennedy Shriver would be there for the ribbon cutting. 16 then I knew it was a boon to have a Kennedy bless your event.

But I didn’t have quite the same kind of reaction when, with an almost reverential tone, mom introduced me to Dr. Veronica Maz, who founded the House of Ruth. Miss Ellie’s attitude was understandable.

Having also helped start So Others Might Eat (SOME), she was about to launch the House of Ruth and was later instrumental founding Martha’s Table: three organizations, which still fight poverty in the District.

But I didn’t know enough then to be impressed by what Maz had done or was trying to do. I was there because service was important to my mom.

Her devout parents, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Comforter School, and the Visitation Sisters at Georgetown Visitation instilled Miss Ellie with her desire to serve.

The examples of her sisters Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC – the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Albany and a missionary in Bolivia respectively – also inspired her to act.

Years later, after my time in the Jesuit Volunteers Corps, and my continued work at Catholic non-profits, and opposing the death penalty, my mom proudly, invariably introduced me as her “peace and justice son.”

But I hadn’t necessarily revealed any inclination then to live a life of service, or expressed any interest in social justice. Perhaps, though Miss Ellie had seen something she wanted to nurture in me by including me that day.

Plus, on a practical level, young and healthy and strong, I was good for lifting and moving things. Which is what I was precisely called upon to do. I don’t possess many memories of that day, but I distinctly recall being asked to carry chairs out to the lawn for the ribbon cutting.

In more than 35 years of organizing conferences, meetings, fundraisers, forums, and celebrations, I have carried, set up, unfolded, and stacked countless chairs for numerous groups in several cities. That day, my mom’s invitation prepared me for my life’s work, and a life of service.

I’m profoundly grateful to Miss Ellie for the seeds she planted that day. They grew into a life lived for others, rooted in her kind of faith and always striving for justice. And, as the old song says: “I won’t take nothing for my journey now.”

JP and Miss Ellie Wedding 1

July 19,1949. Her wedding day.

My mom continued to serve. She was on the House of Ruth’s first Board of Directors, and soon after that she was one of the first graduates of the Archdiocese of Washington’s lay ministry formation program Education for Parish Service. For several years after that, she enjoyed teaching CCD at her parish, Little Flower.

In later years, mom’s focus turned toward re-entering the workforce, tending to my dad as his health rapidly deteriorated from emphysema, and caring for her grandchildren. That service limited Miss Ellie’s community service, but she remained curious about and engaged in the world.

She read “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” and wanted to know what the Pope, the Bishops, leading Theologians, and political commentators thought of the day’s issues.

And mom often ran late for Sunday mass because she couldn’t tear herself away from “Meet the Press,” with “that nice Catholic” Tim Russert. While others preferred reading Stephen King novels before going to bed, Miss Ellie liked contemporary Theology books, and urged her children to read her favorites.

Mom also cultivated Jesuits as friends and advisors, and was particularly devoted to the Visitation sisters, often returning to Visitation to attend alumna events, Days of Reflection, and of course, mass in their chapel.

She finally took a special interest in my work. And compiling a scrapbook of my publications, she became my biggest fan. And, I trust, as she enters her second decade in her true home, Miss Ellie roots me on still.

 

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Their Last Game, Conclusion

At five, on the day of the Senators’ final game, September 30, as JP instructed him, Bobby waited for him at the corner of 49th and Mass near the Esso. Right on time, Bobby saw the van slow, and JP said loudly out the open window, “Come on, buddy, let’s hit it. This may be the only pro team you get to see, and I couldn’t let you miss this.”

Bobby noted JP was dressed in his chinos and a yellow button down, but he wore Tretorn sneakers. The Senators’ departure disillusioned Bobby unlike anything he had known. But being with JP may take some of the sting away.

The van chugged down Massachusetts Avenue and through Rock Creek Park. They came out of the park and on to Independence Avenue, and Bobby saw the Washington Monument and The Smithsonian and The Capitol, part of everyone’s Washington. When they passed The Capitol, the city seemed alien to Bobby.

“That’s the Library of Congress,” JP said, as they waited for the light at 1st and Independence. “Our great-grandfather supervised a work crew who built it.” “And dad,” JP said, as they waited for a light at East Capitol and 3rd St., “grew up in the next block.”

They were stopped at a light near a large park when JP said, “That’s Lincoln Park. Dad told me there was a great movie theater there – The Carolina – were you could go on a Saturday, and take in a double or triple feature. All for a quarter or something.”

They continued up East Capitol, and JP said, “Holy Comforter is on the right; dad was baptized, received his first communion, confirmed and graduated from eighth grade there.”

They turned left before RFK, and JP said, “That’s Eastern High. When dad was a senior at Jesuit he hit a homer in the top of the ninth to beat Eastern in the city title game.”

As Bobby learned about his family history and their connections to the city in which he was born and raised but didn’t know, Bobby realized how limited his world had been until that summer.

JP parked the van, and they walked to the stadium, and heard the crowd chant, “We want Short; we want Short; we want Short.” The brothers reached their seats in the right field corner.

RFK

RFK Stadium.

Voices buzzed, and people moved through the aisles carrying signs that said things like, “Good riddance, Bob Short,” and “Thanks for the memories,” and “Frank Howard, will you marry me?”

Bobby marveled as JP rested his feet on the seat in front of him and sipped his beer and ate peanuts, tossing the shells aside and watched the game. It surprised Bobby when JP spoke in the sixth inning.”Holy s***,” he said, “Morganna, the Kissing Bandit. Get a load of those tits.”

Bobby started to smile and look up, but he suddenly felt he shouldn’t be in on the joke. He knew Morganna was a stripper, who snuck up on and kissed celebrities. Big as volleyballs, her breasts bounced in her tight, short dress as she ran on to the field to kiss the Senators’ best player Frank Howard, standing at the plate.

Frank Howard

Frank Howard.

But Bobby believed Hondo, as he was known, didn’t want anything to do with Morganna, but Bobby watched him bend his massive body reluctantly, awkwardly to receive her kiss. After Morganna left, Bobby saw Hondo hit a majestic homer to left center that gave the Senators the lead.

At the end of the eighth inning, fans surged to the stadium’s railings. As it did during Redskins’ games, the stands bounced and swayed and pitched like they might collapse, and the people again chanted, “We want Short; we want Short; we want Short.

As if someone had given them a signal, when ninth inning began, people went over the railings, and JP said to Bobby, “Let’s go.”

Bobby saw others run in all directions, and he wanted to run around like them, but he followed JP, who headed down the fist base line. Converging from all sides, it felt as if people were swallowing Bobby. He felt clammy, and his heart was running all of the sudden, and he panicked he could lose JP.

The crowd’s momentum carried and jostled Bobby from side to side along the first base line, and two guys ran through and knocked him down. More people bumped and kicked against Bobby as if they were stubbing their toes.

When he didn’t feel anyone else hitting him, Bobby stood and turned and saw JP, trying to elbow past four other men, as they race walked down the first base line, but the men grabbed JP from behind, and holding him from all sides, the men stretched out JP above the ground as if he were a human battering ram.

Bobby ran and knocked the man who held JP’s right leg off his brother, but the man Bobby knocked down got up and pushed Bobby back into one of the other men holding JP, and that man said, “What the f***, buddy.”

Bobby stepped back and away, and the men, who had been holding JP dropped him and punched and pushed and elbowed each other.

Bobby saw JP wanted the first base bag. Bobby sensed JP’s experience lining the fields at Friendship served him well, as he loosed the base from the ground, and Bobby saw JP stand and come toward him with the base under his arm. “We’ve gotta run,” JP said.

Bobby struggled to keep up with JP, who held the bag close to his chest, and took two or three steps at a time, and he didn’t stop until he reached his van. Back in the parking lot, Bobby’s stance mirrored his brother’s: bent over, hands on knees, sucking air.

The base lay at JP’s feet, and Bobby looked at JP and felt they felt the same thing: that they couldn’t believe they had gotten away with it. Bobby watched JP stretch and shake out his bad knee, and he rose to his full height. And his brother smiled and raised the base high over his head.

With a depth of wonder and affection and gratitude he hadn’t experienced, Bobby beheld his big brother, who, like his hero Muhammad Ali, shuffled his feet, his prize held aloft.

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Their Last Game, Chapter Five

Two weeks later, Bobby sat in his unlit basement and watched the Senators-Indians game. At three- thirty just as the ninth inning was about to begin, Bobby saw JP walk in with an open Budweiser and stand over Bobby’s chair and say, “Watching the Senators?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like they’re playing The Tribe. Is that Sam McDowell?”

“Yeah.”

“Sudden Sam, he’s something. How’s he doing?”

Sam McDowell

Sudden Sam McDowell

“Pitching a shutout. The Senators have two hits.” Bobby thought the sunlight seemed weaker in the black and white pictures, and the players seemed smaller and the late afternoon shadows seemed grayer. He watched the Senators’ second baseman Bernie Allen flail away at and swing under an incoming fastball.

“High gas,” JP said, “no way Bernie Allen is going to catch up with that.” Bobby noticed JP’s tired eyes, and brown smudges covered his white t-shirt.

“How was your job?” Bobby said.

JP’s not going to college was a touchy subject around the house. His dad seemed angrier about it than his mom, who believed JP would come around in time. Bobby didn’t know what to think, just not to bring it up.

“I’m learning a lot,” JP said, “about working for a living. The guys I work with don’t make it into Spring Valley that often.” Bobby turned to pay better attention to JP, who looked far away beyond the TV and took a healthy swig of beer.

JP appeared to snap out of it and looked at Bobby and said, “Did you know dad worked his way through Georgetown playing piano at The Carlton?”

Bobby had a difficult time seeing his dad doing something like that. “Nope,” he said at last. “What’s the Carlton? Where is it?”

“It’s a swanky hotel on 16th St. near Dad’s office. And get this: he once saw Howard Hughes there.” Bobby kind of nodded, and opened his mouth, but didn’t hear any words come out of him. He had heard the name Howard Hughes, but didn’t want to let on he didn’t know how significant that meeting was.

“He was pretty good,” JP said, “and those swells tipped well, and he made a lot of money. More than enough to pay his tuition and some left over to take mom out to a nice restaurant from time to time. His buddies envied him.”

“They couldn’t treat their girlfriends as well as dad. But dad had to work; granddaddy lost so much money at the track.” Bobby wanted to know about how and why granddaddy lost the money, but thought better about asking.

“He’ll tell you,” JP said, “he learned more about living at The Carlton than he did at Georgetown. I’ll go to college some day, but I want to find out how the world works.” Bobby heard Warner Wolf recapping the game, and Bobby got up and turned off the TV.

Warner Wolf

Warner Wolf

He didn’t know why JP told him these things, but he was glad he did. JP said, “I’ve got to let you know something, which may be hard for you to take, but I’m going to move out on my own, but don’t worry; we’ll still see a lot of each other.”

He knew JP had his reasons, but it was going to take some time before Bobby understood them. “And tomorrow,” JP said, “I’m going to buy a VW van. If you’re lucky, I’ll take you for a ride. Listen, buddy, I’m going to get out of these duds and hit the shower.”

Before JP left the room, Bobby felt JP place his hand on his back and smile at him in a way that told Bobby nothing could ever come between brothers.

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Their Last Game, Chapter Four

When Bobby arrived, the Tornado wasn’t in the driveway; his folks and Anna hadn’t returned from Uncle Finn’s. The Vista Cruiser was there, and if JP was home, he could drive Bobby to the hospital. But if JP was out, Bobby was screwed.

When Bobby entered the kitchen he saw JP standing by the stove, barefoot and in his boxer shorts and wearing an Ali- Frazier Fight of the Century t-shirt.

Ali Frazier fight

Poster for Ali – Frazier Fight of the Century.

In his left hand, JP held “The Washington Post,” creased and folded over, most likely to the sports page. Bobby knew JP paid too much for his shirt off a guy in Georgetown, but, for his hero, Ali, he said it was worth it.

Watching his brother turn strips of bacon in a large cast iron black pan filled with scrambled eggs, Bobby noted the lit cigarette resting on the countertop, and he watched JP bend and take a drag from it, drawing the paper closer to burner’s flame.

“Oh, crap,” JP said, and Bobby saw his brother look everywhere. The pan was on fire, and his brother sprinted toward the pantry door and opened it and threw the pan into the backyard. The door slammed, and Bobby saw JP, the fire apparently out, return to the kitchen.

“What the hell?” JP said. “Weren’t you supposed to be at Uncle Finn’s?”

“I … ”

“Jesus; I’m sorry. What the hell happened to you?”

“I was in a fight.”

“I guess so,” JP said, and Bobby saw JP approach him. “Take your shirt off so I can get a better look.” It stung Bobby when JP ran his hand over his wound. “You’re going to need a couple stitches. Keep that shirt on it. I’ll be right back.”

When JP returned, he held a tube of Neosporin, a gauze pad and some scissors and tape, and he was dressed in a navy golf shirt and chino shorts.

Bobby removed his shirt from his head and let his brother rub the ointment into his wound, and accepted the gauze pad JP handed him, and JP said, “Hold this on the cut while I cut the tape.”

Bobby said, “How do you know to do all this?”

“Guys at my job are always getting hurt, and they think I’m the smartest so it’s my job to patch them up. Okay. You can take your hand off.”

With the tape now applied to the gauze, JP said, “That ought to hold until I can get you to Georgetown. Hang on while I put this crap away. Then we’ll hit the road.”

Bobby sat in the station wagon’s passenger seat and waited for JP to adjust the seat. “Sorry,” JP said, his shifting the seat jarred Bobby. “I don’t know where anything is in this boat, and my legs are longer than mom’s.”

“Now. Tell me how all this happened. I’m not going to yell at you. I just want to know what happened.” They were waiting for the light at Nebraska and Nebraska to change, and when it did, JP turned left down Foxhall.

“I was shooting buckets at Friendship, and Harrison Bentley, the kid I slugged at Friendship and his buddy Rick Jenkins and these two goons I had never seen before ganged up on me. They got me down and started slamming me into the blacktop.”

Bobby’s voice was shaking, but he saw JP smile, and he said, “Take it easy.” They were at Foxhall and Reservoir now, waiting for the traffic on Foxhall to clear, and when it did, JP turned left down Reservoir.

“Okay,” Bobby said, “the worst part is this little weenie Bentley just stood back and let the others take their shots. After they’re through, the little snot acts like he’s been wailing on me all along.”

He looked up at JP, who smiled and said, “That Bentley kid was a girl to get other guys to do his dirty work, but that’s what guys like him always do. And no matter what, when you get into it with other guys, pay back is going to come, and you’ve got to ask: is it worth it?”

“And there’s nothing you can do about rich jerks like Bentley. They’re the worse kind. But jerks come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and you can’t beat sense into them just because they look funny at you at a bar or you don’t like the pants they have on or something.”

When they pulled into the lot at Georgetown University Hospital, Bobby observed JP turn to him and look at him as if to ask if he got it, and Bobby smiled and nodded. JP parked the car. “Okay; we’ve got this boat docked,” he said. “Let’s get you patched up.”

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My Fairfield Years

In the fall of 1978, when I arrived at Fairfield University – a small Jesuit school in Connecticut – wanting to learn how to write I joined the staff of the school newspaper “The Fairfield Mirror.”

Interviewing Head Baseball Coach and Athletic Director C. Donald Cook about the upcoming baseball season was my first assignment.

Unproven and unqualified, having been on campus two weeks, I went to meet one of the more influential persons there. But, in Cook’s modest office in the Fairfield gym, an obscure freshman and the Athletic Director were on equal footing.

After years of playing their “home” games off campus, Cook’s enthusiasm furthermore for the baseball team’s new on campus home field taught me the first Ignatian lesson I learned at Fairfield: always cultivate gratitude.

Confident yet grateful after my experience with Cook, I covered the baseball, soccer, and rugby teams, and after a month, Sports Editor Steve Motta ‘79 gave me my own column, “Athlete of the Week.”

While writing for “The Mirror” was an education, I also appreciated the formal education I received.

Walter Petry’s Western Civilization classes my freshman year were my most memorable academic experiences at Fairfield.

His legendary quizzes were learning crucibles, unlike anything we had ever experienced. My heart sank when I received a 63 on the first quiz, but my mark was stellar compared to another classmate’s 29.

Mr. Petry paced the floor, pleading with us for a good answer, with his left hand scrunched up as if to snatch up the first decent one, which came his way.

His ardor for knowledge impressed my increasingly restless soul. One spring night freshman year, unable to concentrate on the books assigned to me, I walked to Nyselius Library and took out Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

thomas wolfe

Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe’s writing about a young writer establishing himself in Manhattan fueled my desire to take advantage of Fairfield’s proximity to the city. I visited my brother Jim and sister-in-law Susan there a couple times a year.

Accompanying them to art galleries, museums, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants dramatically enlarged my world. I wanted to absorb the visual, gustatory, and auditory sensations I experienced even if they almost overwhelmed me.

I studied Jim’s practical lessons. When you hail a cab, step off the curb and shoot your arm straight in the air. And he taught me how to handle cabbies to get where I was going without being taken for a ride. Jim finally taught me one last memorable lesson: never eat at a Needick’s.

Better equipped to live in the “real” world, I didn’t feel like an adult until I was the “Mirror” Sports Editor my senior year.

Striving to achieve the high standards “Mirror” Editor-in-Chief, the estimable Michael “Doc” Dougherty ‘79 established our freshman year, my good friend Carl Gustafson ’82 nonetheless carved his own trail as Editor-in-Chief.

Brimming over with enthusiasm, always running at full speed and volume, challenging us to reach higher, Carl brought out the best in us.

Encouraging us to play softball, go to dinner, support fundraising efforts, enter group academic and athletic contests together, Carl fostered a camaraderie, which brought us closer to each other than we had been to any other group of people.

That camaraderie informing us, and doughnuts, pizza, and Coke fueling us, each Sunday we worked into Monday morning and put out one of the best college papers nationally.

My time as a “Mirror” Editor finally prepared me to live in the world, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Although journalism seemed a natural progression, I sensed I wanted to do something else with my life.

What that could be began to emerge during my senior year when I rediscovered my profound appreciation for what I took for granted; Fairfield is a Jesuit school. Its Jesuitness drew this Georgetown Prep graduate to it.

And the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ (JVC) Jesuitness encouraged me to apply to the JVC: to do a year of service living and working alongside poor people.

But I believed going into the JVC was buying me time until I figured out what I wanted to do.

However, after a year working at a Latino parish in San Antonio and second year working at a homeless shelter in New Orleans, I was on a journey I couldn’t have anticipated taking as a white male, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances.

This journey has taken me from the St. Thomas Housing Projects in New Orleans to lean-to shacks in Pickens County, AL, from marching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty alongside Sister Helen Prejean to working to overcome racism in Birmingham, AL with people, who marched with Dr. King, from working with undocumented immigrants in Houston to working with African Americans in Washington, DC’s storefront churches.

If Campus Minister, the late Kim McElaney, herself a JVC alumna, hadn’t invited a JVC recruiter to campus in the fall of 1981, none of this would have happened.

But when you promote justice in the service of faith, you encounter more opposition than support, more defeats than victories, and you rely upon your steadfast friends’ unconditional love to remain faithful.

In my case, I rely upon my “Mirror” family. We’ve celebrated weddings and births. We’re happy when our friends’ children do well, but listen compassionately when our friends’ children struggle. We comfort each other as our parents’ health declines, and consoled each other when these parents finally gave up the ghost.

Numerous reunions have strengthened our bonds, and our Fairfield experience just gets better. At our most recent reunion in October 2015, something magical happened when I re-connected with Mary- Margaret Walsh ’84. A past Alumni Association President, she was a “Mirror” Arts and Entertainment and Executive Editor.

Dilly and Dally ClevelandJPG

Mary- Margaret and I in a Cleveland Hotel, en route to Chicago for Jim and Susan’s oldest son Ian’s July 2016 wedding.

We took a chance. And traveling between Connecticut and Washington, DC, 35 years after we met, we fell in love, and are engaged to marry.

In the end then, after all these years, Fairfield gave me love and companionship. Who could ask for more?

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Their Last Game, Chapter Three

friendship photo

Friendship Playground where the fight takes place.

Before his parents and Anna went to his Uncle Finn’s for the Fourth of July, Bobby sneaked out of the house. He picked up his basketball and went out the garage and hopped on his bike and rode to Friendship.

This was Bobby’s first time back there since he punched Harrison. Bobby entered the basketball courts and shot jumpers. His thin lowcut black Chuck’s weren’t much protection against the blacktop’s heat, and the sun stung his eyes, and sweat flicked off his forehead.

After maybe ten minutes, Bobby saw Harrison Bentley, his friend Rick Jenkins and two other, bigger kids advancing toward the courts. Bobby didn’t take Harrison seriously, but respected Rick. He was small and wiry, but didn’t run from a fight. But Bobby wasn’t sure about the big kids.

He bent to shoot again, and felt a hand slap the ball out of his hands and push his back, and Bobby turned and saw Rick Jenkins. Grabbing Rick’s arm, Bobby spun him around, and said, “What’s your problem?” Bobby applied more pressure and said, “Had enough?”

“Yeah,” Rick said, and Bobby let him go. Bobby bent to retrieve the ball, and one big guy slugged him in the jaw and the other big guy came from behind and knocked Bobby to his knees and pinned him to the blacktop with his right knee. Bobby endured Rick stomping and stomping and stomping on his chest.

Everyone except Harrison kicked him in the ribs from both sides, and Bobby prayed they would let up. But he endured one final indignity. Harrison spat in his face and in his little girl’s voice said, “Had enough?”

They started away, and Bobby heard them laugh and say, “That was great.” He lay there oblivious to the scorching blacktop. The greasy sweat stung his eyes, and his face throbbed and his head buzzed.

Bobby winced and stood, and blood dripped off the back of his head and hit the blacktop creating a smudge resembling a child’s crayon shading. Bobby felt the the back of his head. It was warm and sticky, but he couldn’t tell how just how bad it was.

Bobby took off his sweaty shirt and tied it twice around his head. He got on his bike and rested the ball on his lap and pressed the ball against the bike’s frame. Queasy, Bobby rode slowly home.

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My Grandfather, Leader of the Marine Band, Part One

Editor’s Note: this is the first post in a series of posts about my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson.

pete and sousa blog

On the occasion of the Carabao Wallow in 1932, my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson (right) shakes hand with John Phillip Sousa, 43 years after the Marine Band Leaders’ first meeting.

On May 2, 1927, 90 years ago today, my maternal Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson received his warrant to become the US Marine Band’s 20th Leader. A native Washingtonian, and the first Leader born to parents born in the United States, my grandfather led “The President’s Own” until he retired in 1940.

Born on the Feast of St. Ignatius July 31, 1881, my grandfather was the fourth child of the ten born to Serena Arnold and James Taylor (JT) Branson, and the oldest surviving son. Referring to himself as a “country fiddler,” JT encouraged his namesake son to take up the violin at an early age.

Good naturedly calling his son “Pete” after “Pete Tumbledown,” a 19th Century comics’ character known for his clumsiness, JT wanted his son to experience a better, more refined, and peaceful life than the one he knew doing the hard, violent, and dangerous work as a mounted policeman for the District of Columbia.

On June 15, 1899, in an astonishingly prescient moment, the father and son saw a significant glimpse into the future of which they dreamed.

On that day, not quite 8, Pete, as his grandchildren affectionately came to call him, was recognized as one  of eleven schoolchildren, who won the Washington Post Amateur Authors Association’s essay contest.

25,000 people attended a ceremony on the Smithsonian grounds, where Pete received his gold medal from John Phillip Sousa, then the Leader of the US Marine Band. And, according to family lore, the future Leader of the band sat in the then current Leader’s lap.

As if that moment wasn’t enough to predestine my grandfather’s fate, as pure lagniappe, he and JT were there when Sousa premiered “The Washington Post March” written for the occasion. Next to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Post March” was “The March King’s” most popular march.

Nine years later, after graduating from Eastern High School in 1898, Pete joined the band as an “Apprentice Musician.” But thanks to JT’s influence, Pete’s apprenticeship began much sooner than that, and like many musicians, he learned in secular and sacred places.

Reminiscent of a latter day Harry Connick Jr., who, as a boy, played piano with legendary New Orleans’ musicians, Pete, as a child, was also good enough on the violin to play with adults.

At 9, according to the “Washington Evening Star,” on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1890, Pete performed with adult musicians at Gray’s Hall in Anacostia.

30 persons heard this performance, which the local branch of the fraternal insurance association the Catholic Knights of America sponsored. “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “Mickey Brannigan’s Pup” were among the numbers featured in the show, which lasted until one in the morning.

A Knights member, JT created this great, heady moment and opportunity for Pete to prove himself among more experienced players while assuring he played in a safe, friendly environment. And Pete returned home likely feeling confident, grateful, and well loved and with quite a story to tell.

Pete also grew as a musician at St. Teresa of Avila Parish. JT and Serena were charter members of the parish, which was the first Catholic church in Washington established East of the Anacostia River. It was founded in 1879, five years after the Bransons were married.

Anacostia was a multiracial community then, and with African Americans contributing significant funding and labor to build the new parish, St. Teresa’s first congregants were African American and White. But White families pre-dominated parish life, which limited African Americans’ roles and say in parish affairs.

The Bransons likely accepted these divisions as the way of life. But we shouldn’t judge our ancestors too harshly because they didn’t live up to our more enlightened ideals, especially when our own racial relations are imperfect.

Nonetheless, Pete’s participation in St. Teresa’s life positively influenced him. According to the “Star,” Pete soloed on the violin many times and occasionally played clarinet: at Sunday masses, on feast day celebrations, at organ recital fundraisers and during Vespers.

Along with his older sisters Lizzie and May, Pete was also a member of the church choir, singing tenor.

His singing ability set Pete apart from other Marine Band Leaders. Audiences particularly enjoyed it when he sang the “The Marines’ Hymn,” but like a latter day Pete Seeger, my grandfather insisted on singing all the verses. And the band couldn’t keep up when Pete got deeper into the song’s more obscure verses.

Pete’s all-in approach to singing characterized the way he lived. When my grandmother Marie urged him not to be so intense, Pete said he couldn’t help it. He believed a person should “to do well what one has to do, and to do it with one’s entire self.”

JT’s encouragement, his close-knit family’s love, and his parish’s influence shaped Pete’s philosophy and more significantly formed him as a musician, and a man, who loved his Church, and possessed an ardent faith, which later informed his daughters Serena and Anna Marie’s extraordinary lives of service.

Nourished with great love, and with a strong faith in a musical future, which he saw clearly and for which he had well prepared, Pete, at 17, took his next step toward that promising life. On September 21, 1898, he enlisted as a Private in the Marine Band.

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