A Tribute to Dan Branch

DANIEL NELSON BRANCH, age 70, died peacefully on January 5, 2022, at his home in Juneau. It can be a cliché to say a man lived a full life, but Dan did that and more. He left an indelible mark on people across Alaska with his work as a state attorney, his passion as an artist and writer, and the quiet strength and listening ear he provided to many a friend and colleague.
-From obituary by son-in-law Robert Montenegro. Dan Branch’s full obituary will be published in the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Daily News.

 

Dan Branch recently stepped down from the 49 Writers Board as he dealt with brain cancer. Dan was a sharp 49 Writers blog editor and contributor, poet and author of the recent memoir essay collection Someday I’ll Miss this Place Too. He held an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage and was a respected member of Alaska’s far flung writing community. Here are some of their heartfelt thoughts on Dan. As per his wishes, there will be no public memorial event. Dan’s family encourages your thoughts, stories, or memories emailed to jnubranch@gmail.com

 

I remember you, Dan. The way you wept in Eva’s workshop over the dogs you mushed to a red lantern in a Kusko 300 eons ago. The stoop of your back beneath a hoodie as you walked across the UAA campus during our summer MFA residencies. How you enjoyed the taste of whiskey at the Blue Fox, but just the one, despite my badgering. But these were shared moments, observed in sense and time, something anyone could have also observed had they been at the right place at the right time. But the feel of you in my memory is something different—and I would tell you, now that you are gone. You, Dan Branch, will always be to me a deep and beautiful quiet.

When did I arrive at this conclusion? I suppose it was when you presented your MFA thesis. An unremarkable UAA classroom filled with remarkable people, including our beloved Sherry Simpson. You read from your thesis—that beast we’d only begun to maneuver past the claws of the lady in charge of formatting whose name doesn’t bear repeating—as I sat fixed to my uncomfortable seat. You were as soft spoken as ever. And yet your words hit me like a freight train. I never told you, but when you read from your creative work, I asked myself, Will I ever be this good? Sherry was so proud of you when it was all over. God, I miss her. I wonder if the framed word cloud of your thesis rests atop a shelf or desk in your Juneau home. I hope it does.

I asked you what was next. You said you didn’t know, but you might try to come back for a second MFA, this time in poetry. I asked what you planned to do with your essays, said I hoped you’d try to turn them into a book.

You did just that. Some Day I’ll Miss This Place Too.

When I heard you were sick, I emailed you. You emailed back, just three lines. “Health troubles” you said. But the last bit, about enjoying our time at UAA together: somehow I knew what you wouldn’t say. This was it.

And now you’re gone. I think about that title. You were telling us something, preparing us for what was coming, weren’t you? In that Dan Branch way of turning our eyes towards the beauty you encountered over a remarkable life, while quietly leaving room for the hard edges that accompanied the soft glow. You are remembered, my friend, and that memory will forever remain a blessing for anyone whose life was graced by your touch.
-Matthew Komatsu, Writer/Nonfiction Editor, War, Literature and the Arts

 

Dan Branch was a delightful man and an unsung hero of the Alaska writing community. I got to know him as a steady participant at North Words from 2016 on through 2020. Dan was kind of in the background for much of it, taking in the wisdom of other writers as he worked hard to craft what would become his recently published memoir, Someday I’ll Miss This Place Too. In 2016, Dan accepted keynote author Brian Doyle’s challenge to us to share our stories. It’s sad that both Brian and Dan were taken from us by brain cancer, because there was so much more for them to share.
-Jeff Brady, Co-Director North Words Writers Symposium

 

I read “I’ll Miss This Place Too” as a praise song—Dan’s way to honor the Yupik people and the culture that he found in Bethel and the Y-K Delta. But I also read the book as a testament to who Dan is: a man who both in his life and through his writing demonstrates that he understands the complexity in people’s lives, that he sees beyond the veneer of people’s challenges and pain to what is underneath. I am certain that Bethel and the villages that Dan served benefited greatly from his nonjudgmental and compassionate self.

There’s a section in the book where Dan, in his role then as a magistrate, accepts the proposal of a traditional council when he’s sentencing a village client. And that reminded me of advice Dan once gave to me in his role as an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau. At the time, I was a state bureaucrat trying to perhaps be too careful to ensure that the State didn’t incur liability by being too lenient with kids who broke the law. Dan was tactful but quietly insistent, in assuring our agency—me—that yes, it was possible, legal and in fact, advisable, that we craft a memorandum of agreement with this small village that really wanted meaningful, culturally appropriate diversion options for kids who were committing minor offenses.

As a fellow Catholic, Dan has also patiently listened to me for many years lament our church’s limitations, all the while quietly offering his spiritual gifts and nurturance, both to me and to our community through his service as a local hospital chaplain.

And last, I want to thank Dan for being a persistent supporter and mentor to me in my own writing journey. He met with me very early on when I was first starting to write. He offered guidance, told me about his own process and above all, told me never to stop. Whenever I saw him, he would stop me to ask, what are you working on? It’s because of Dan that I joined the Burn Thompson poetry group and also because of Dan that I became a member of 49 writers.
-Patty Ware, Poet, Member of Burn Thompson Memorial Writing Group, Juneau

 

Dan Branch was a wonderful presence in the MFA program at UAA: a good student, a good friend and above all, a good person. I’m grateful that he asked me to write a blurb for his book, Some Day I’ll Miss This Place Too. I’m grateful because so often, particularly in these pandemic times, we lose touch with folks before they leave us; we wonder “Did they know how much we valued them? How much we’ll miss them? What a pleasure it was to know them?”

Here’s what I wrote about his book: Someday I’ll Miss This Place, Too is a stranger-in-a-strange-land memoir, the story of a newly minted California-educated lawyer who finds himself doing legal aid work in the remote Yukon Delta. The year commitment stretches to twelve. To say the author comes of age there is both a given and an understatement. His profound respect and compassion for the people he serves, mostly troubled Yup’ik Alaskans, haunts both him and the reader. Branch invokes in me a curious sense of fernweh, a feeling of longing for a place I have never been. This is as Alaskan as any book we have, both culturally significant and deeply moving. Godspeed, Dan, you did good work here.
-David Stevenson, Program Coordinator, UAA CWLA MFA

 

I met Dan when I worked for the Department of Law some years ago. One day our conversation turned to the topic of writing. He told me he “dabbled” in it. I shared that I was part of a writing group that was mostly focused on poetry. Dan said that writing poetry baffled him but he was curious about maybe exploring it more. He eventually joined the writing group and proved himself to be a gifted poet and wonderful contributor to our discussions. I always thought that the poetry genre fit his gentle, thoughtful personality. Now I have read his memoir and realize he did much more than “dabble” in writing. And who knew that our soft-spoken Dan had run the Kuskokwim 300 and was an expert on extending the precarious life of broken-down skiffs? He was a man of many talents that he shared so generously with all of us.
-Diane DeSloover, Poet, Member of Burn Thompson Memorial Writing Group, Juneau

 

I didn’t meet Dan Branch right away when I joined the Alaska Legal Services office in Fairbanks in the early 1980s. But I felt like I knew him because his name came up often in the company I kept back then, spoken with a reverence and respect that caused me to place him in the category of legend. By then, he had been a poverty lawyer in Bethel for many years and had made a name for himself as a compassionate and capable advocate who cared deeply about the people he served. For the next three decades, that reputation never changed, and I counted myself lucky to have known and worked with someone so quietly and firmly committed to doing good in this world. After we both retired from law and began pursuing our mutual interests in creative writing, we found ourselves serving together on the board of 49 Writers. Dan was a steady supportive influence on the board, offering his perspectives in a manner that was always helpful and reassuring. And when we needed a blog editor after the pandemic hit, he stepped up for over a year to keep the postings current, even as he struggled with his illness. I feel deeply indebted to Dan for his generosity of time, expertise and passion for Alaska’s writing community, and he is much missed. But my most treasured memory of him – the one that to me revealed the most telling glimpse of his unique spirit – didn’t arise in the legal or writing context. After our board retreat one year, I was driving Dan through an Anchorage neighborhood on our way to his friend’s house when we passed a huge half-frozen puddle in the middle of the road where a flock of birds had broken through and were raising a ruckus. At least a dozen birds swam and splashed in the water, shards of ice shining between them in the sun. Dan asked me to stop. With barely a word between us, we sat there for a long time watching the birds as they dipped and dove and chattered. Unusually for me, I felt no need to speak. Dan had that effect: reminding me through his quiet calm that the wonder of the moment would be lost if we tried to put it to words; that one hallmark of a good writer – and a wise person – is to recognize when words fail. I can still feel the peace of that moment, and I’m grateful for the lesson it gave me. It’s a lesson I take to heart today, Dan, at this time that passes understanding, when you are beyond words. Thank you, and rest in peace.
-Barbara Hood, Board President, 49 Writers

3 thoughts on “A Tribute to Dan Branch”

  1. InMemoriamDanBranch_01132022
    I am terribly sorry to hear of Dan’s Passing. I had few opportunities to get to know Dan in any depth, but I know I will miss his quiet participation in the work of 49 Writers. He was so quiet, in fact, that when he spoke I kept hoping he would speak more loudly, so that my own not-so-good-as-in-years-past hearing can pick up the important nuance in what Dan had to say. Eventually, I learned not to worry about Dan’s quiet voice. Given his list of superhuman achievements in dog mushing, mountain climbing, trekking and bike-riding during his time in Alaska, and the number of people he influenced – not by anything Dan said of himself but what others have said of him – his presence and the bits and pieces of those of his words that came through to me were good enough for me to greatly value his presence with us. I had hoped that the pandemic would abate enough by now so the good work of 49 Writers could regain its’ role in connecting Juneau’s writers with writings and readings and critiques and we could have more of the benefit of Dan’s presence and participation. Alas, that is not yet to be. We are all the poorer for it. Rest in Peace, Dan. Jerry Smetzer, Juneau.

  2. My memories of Dan are quite different than those expressed by his writing peers. I was associated with Dan during his time in Ketchikan while he was Attorney General for Social Services cases, as well is giving the Probation Dept. a hand with technical issues of Court matters when necessary. I was a supervising probation officer, an artist and associate of Dans’ nearly all his time in Ketchikan and took his first native carving class with him, at the beginning of his becoming a recognized native carver. We studied Native Carving and its history, and I must say his work impressed much more than his earlier Duck Decoy carvings ( though both types were marvelous.) He was a great help to me workwise, and we had many hours together Kayaking, fishing and one one trip we took for a fly-in fishing jaunt for a remote trip. On that trip I had an small outboard motor which we used instead of rowing around the lake, and at one point we went to the streams origin and Dan stunned us all by forging up the river, jumping sand bars, and we only stopped when the amount and depth of the water ran our toward the source of the rivers entry of the lake. None of us had ever tried this action and learned from Dan that he learned the method in the North prior to his move to Ketchikan, from his close native friends in that community. Both Dan and this author also spent a lot of time discussing University of California (Berkeley) and Cal State at Hayward (now East Bay) which I attended about the same time he attended Berkeley. I enjoyed many valuable hours with Dan though we were generally worlds apart in our philosophies of living our lives – from my point he seemed very quiet with a “liberal” approach to life, while I tend to be more outspoken and “conservative” in approach. In closing this, I regret that I did not stay in closer contact after I retired in 1997 and returned to California because he often caused me to consider the broader issues of life, and I do believe it has helped me be a better rounded person as a result. Am also pleased that I have some of his carvings to keep my warm memories of him in tact. Richard Roberts

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the loss of Dan Jerry. The book he left behind serves as both a testament to his life and an inspiration to fellow Alaskan writers. Rest assured Juneau writers will connect in person, again; perhaps when the global science experiment of which we are all a part, abates.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top