Ron Branam sometimes told people at the courthouse that his real name was “Mr. Wonderful.” Branam thought it was a joke. But the people who knew and loved him knew it as a statement of fact.
A swimming accident in 1967 paralyzed Branam from the neck down, ending his career as a courts reporter for Polk County. So he reinvented himself as a scheduler, making the state’s largest county court system flow smoother than possible in 40 years of service.
“After his accident he showed us all how to handle adversity,” wrote his friend Bob Barnett.
Branam died May 13. He was 81.
Branam grew up in Earlham. He moved to West Des Moines shortly after he married his wife, Sandy, where the couple would spend the next 62 years.
Branam graduated from the now-defunct American Institute of Business and became a court reporter for Polk County in 1965. He became one of the state’s best.
In his youth, Branam was an athletic sportsman. He swam and golfed, loved the Iowa Hawkeyes and horse racing.
Legend holds he and a few judges occasionally snuck in a few rounds of golf before morning hearings.
In July 1967, Branam took a trip to Battle Lake, Minnesota.
He dove off a dock and broke his neck. Friends pulled him from the water.
He was paralyzed from the waist down. He eventually gained some movement in his arms, but not the fine motor skills needed to rapid-fire transcribe court proceedings.
Judges put Branam in charge of scheduling for Polk County district courts in 1967 at $6,000 a year, half his court reporter salary.
The courthouse had only one wheelchair-accessible entrance at the time and no wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.
Branam persevered with a famously chipper attitude. He steered his motorized wheelchair with a joystick on the armrest. His thin form about and wore a dark beard with tufts of white on each side during most of 1980s and 90s.
He was the go-to guy for anyone who wanted to keep track of the constantly shifting schedules of trials and hearings.
“Ron was a consummate professional and a great help to a young women attorney 51 years ago,” Karla Fultz, a former Polk County juvenile court judge and Des Moines attorney, wrote of her friend. “I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him throughout my practice and time as a judge.”
Branam wrangled the schedules for decades as the county’s population grew – and the criminal and civil dockets along with the population.
His organizational skills were credited with saving taxpayers thousands. And he always made time to help people, whether they be high-ranking judges or a befuddled member of the public.
“Not many of us get through this contentious and combative world without having made an enemy or two. Our buddy, Ron, was an exception to that,” Michael McMurry wrote of his longtime friend. “I never knew anybody not to like him or anybody that he didn’t like. As the court administrator, he was simply the best in the business.”
Officials named Branam Handicapped State Employee of the Year in 1986.
He shunned the praise.
“I’m a better employee now than when I was walking,” he told the late Des Moines Register reporter Anne Carothers-Kay for a profile. “I can’t play golf now.”
Branam and his wife turned their West Des Moines backyard into an explosion of colorful blossoms, vines and leaves.
Sandy Branam started the project after their children had grown and moved out. There was no need for a basketball court and tetherball pole.
She wanted to add some flowers along the wheelchair path. It grew to be described as “the arboretum on Ashworth,” per a 2005 Register profile.
The couple spent summers in their gazebo watching birds of many feathers flitter between flowers and feeders.
He requested no services and his remains cremated.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Sandy Branam, an adult son and daughter, grandson and two sisters.
Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life in the places we live.