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Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 7:49 a.m.
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Bill Branch

Living the dream: Lyon College’s interim chaplain combines ministry, teaching in short-term job

This article was published April 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Bill Branch is the interim chaplain at Lyon College in Batesville. He has an extensive work history that has taken him to all sorts of places, including Edinburgh, Scotland, which he said was an “almost surreal” time in his life.

Walking around Lyon College’s campus, William “Bill” Branch is often greeted by students with a cheerful “hola!”

At the school’s cafeteria — where he highly recommends yet avoids Brenda’s Bakery for fear of gaining a faculty-member version of the freshman 15 — he identifies and says hello to student athletes and coaches.

Branch, who serves as Lyon’s interim chaplain, said he believes being among the students is a key part of his duties.

“One of the things I’m convinced about here is, I can’t sit in the office and minister to the students,” he said. “I have to be on campus. I have to be at the ballgames. I have to be out with the students.”

Technically, Branch retired from the Presbytery of Arkansas in 2008, but his retirement has not kept him from working. Since his retirement, he has served as an interim pastor in Arkansas Presbyterian churches, traveled to Colombia for peacekeeping work, spent three months in Scotland at St. Giles’ Cathedral and has agreed to serve as Lyon’s interim chaplain until the end of next school year.

When in Colombia, Branch and his wife worked with local churches who support farmers who have been displaced either by the guerrilla groups or the paramilitary.

“The reason we were there was because some of the pastors had been threatened,” he said. “We just needed to be there.”

The Branches spent two months in 2010 and May 2013 in Colombia, working as peacekeepers with the church.

Between those trips to Colombia, Branch took three months to work in Scotland. He said one of his memories from that time was when the Scots Guards came back from Afghanistan to honor soldiers who had died. St. Giles’ Cathedral had been cleared for the ceremony, but he was able to stay and witness the preparation and reverence on display.

“It was a moving time,” he said.

Branch started his interim time at Lyon College in August 2013, but he was not on campus long before he set out on another overseas adventure. Two weeks into the school year, he and his wife went on a three-week excursion to the Greek Isles for their 50th wedding anniversary.

The interim chaplain job happens to be two of his dreams coming together: teaching and chaplaincy. Branch said he always thought of teaching when he retired, and next fall and spring semesters, he will be doing just that.

“Other things kind of happened when I retired, but this fell into my lap,” he said. “I’m living a dream of mine.”

Early in his career as a pastor, Branch served as a part-time chaplain at a state mental hospital in West Virginia. His chaplaincy work continued in several venues, in addition to his usual parish responsibilities.

When he moved to Texas, Branch was part of a group of chaplains who were in a chaplains corps for local fire and emergency medical services responders. He was sworn in as a firefighter, often arriving with the first responders and providing spiritual and emotional support for victims and responders. Now one of his prized possessions is a helmet that was presented to him to thank him for his service.

Now that he is on a college campus, Branch has been getting to know the students and faculty he is charged with ministering to. He said being an older man has helped a little with the students — he is more like a grandfather figure than a father figure, which he said he believes makes him more approachable.

While his age may help portray a grandfatherly demeanor, Branch is not afraid of taking students up on some of their more daring adventures. He is thinking about letting the on-campus outdoor club take him kayaking, but he wants to learn how to roll the kayak in case he were to get stuck underwater.

Sports is an obvious venue for Branch to meet and mingle with students. He played basketball and ran track when he was in high school in Birmingham, Ala., and continued with track when he attended Auburn University. When he served as a pastor in West Virginia, he was the “voice of the Golden Bears,” providing commentary for West Virginia University Institute of Technology games. Then, while in Texas, Branch served as an NCAA football official for high school games.

“It was natural for me to jump into the athletics here at Lyon,” he said.

Branch attends sporting events for the school on a regular basis. He makes sure to pray for each team before they head out for an away game, and he greets student athletes when they are out on campus.

For all students and faculty, Branch said, it is important for him to remain accessible.

“That door is rarely closed,” he said, even if it results in getting hit by a Nerf dart as part of a campuswide game of zombie tag.

Lyon College is looking for a permanent chaplain, and Branch is in a unique position to both serve as interim chaplain and help find the person who will take his place.

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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