TERRE HAUTE —
Matt Branam’s career took him around the world before returning him home as the head of his family.
A leader’s portrait was painted in memories Saturday afternoon, as Rose-Hulman celebrated its late president, who passed at the age of 57 on April 20. Visitors filled the school’s Sports and Recreation Center to share in a program filled with readings, music and reflections about an alumnus who left the success of corporate America to lead the school as its 14th president.
Bill Fenoglio, chairman of the Rose-Hulman board of trustees, remarked that he’d known Branam as both friend and colleague. All members of the “Rose-Hulman family,” he said, were on a first-name basis with this president.
“Welcome to the celebration of a great life,” he said, referencing Branam’s signature project, “The Great Debate,” which fostered a national dialogue between students, alumni and public leaders.
As speaker after speaker explained, Branam’s appreciation for diversity and perseverance was easy to understand given his own life story. A Terre Haute native, he grew up in the former Glenn Home for Children his parents operated on Hunt Road, which now serves as Rose-Hulman’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house.
The program interspersed readings from Branam’s 2009 “Dad’s Day” speech, in which he told the story of his boyhood from “the wrong side of the tracks,” and the mythic vision that Rose-Hulman conjured for his family.
“At the children’s home, we had never heard of Harvard or MIT, but we had sure heard of Rose. Rose was an all-male school back then. We knew it was a special place, and we knew it was for special boys. We knew it wasn’t for us — there was nothing special about us all. It just never occurred to us to aspire,” Branam wrote in a speech shared aloud Saturday.
But aspiration seemed a constant theme in Branam’s life, and after years as a psychology major at Indiana State University, he decided to transfer, as a senior, to Rose-Hulman. This decision, he recalled in the speech, was met with disbelief by some, and mockery by others.
“My father laughed and my mother cried,” Branam wrote. “My father laughed that laugh people laugh when aspirations seem absurd. My mother’s tears weren’t tears of joy. She was afraid I would embarrass myself. ‘I’ve seen those boys out there. They aren’t like us. They are smart.’”
It took three trips to the Rose-Hulman admissions office to convince counselors he was serious, and even then they were pessimistic, advising him against wasting “my parents’ money on tuition because I could never make it at Rose. I told him my parents didn’t have any money. I was going to be paying for tuition myself.”
As a full-time student, Branam spent seven years unloading UPS trailers from 3 to 8 a.m. each night, attending classes in the day. On the side, he launched small business ventures such as unloading wood at the former 84 Lumber Company just down the road.
In 1979, Branam graduated from Rose-Hulman with a degree in civil engineering.
Julia Williams, a professor of English, spoke with emotion about the ethos he brought to discussions concerning leadership. Surrounded by career academics and institutional officers, Branam’s blue collar met cap and gown, and people listened when he told them that leadership is learned.
After earning his degree, Branam stayed with UPS, eventually rising to the position of vice president of public affairs in Washington, D.C. After UPS, he served as the first chief operating officer of the American Red Cross at the request of its former president Elizabeth Dole.
But as brother-in-law and lifelong friend Lon McDonald said, Branam would always remain a kid from Terre Haute.
“Making it happen and making it fun,” he said of his friend, explaining their fathers and grandfathers had been best friends. “I can only vaguely remember not knowing Matt Branam.”
Fast cars, motorcycles and boats were as much a part of his character as the hard-driving need for competition. McDonald joked that Branam was in his 40s before he finally gave up the dream of playing high school basketball again.
Rose-Hulman’s interim president, Rob Coons, explained that Branam himself first served as the institution’s interim leader before accepting the presidency in 2009. At first reluctant to lead an academic institution, Branam quickly fell in love with the same school he’d first seen from his childhood back yard.
Rose-Hulman is family, Coon said, echoing the comments of speakers throughout the program.
“No one believed in that concept more than Matt,” he said.
“Years later when I was a vice president of UPS or the Chief Operating Officer of the American Red Cross, when one Ivy Leaguer or another looked down his nose at me because he had never heard of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, he met a level gaze. I will tell you, that no matter who he was, he always blinked first,” Branam wrote. “I remember what I learned in Dr. Grimaldi’s calculus class. I remembered what I learned in Dr. Lewis’ chemistry class. I remembered what I learned in Dr. Moloney’s physics class. I had learned much more than calculus and chemistry and physics. I learned that I never need allow anyone to talk over my head or to look down on me — and I didn’t.”
TERRE HAUTE —
Matt Branam’s career took him around the world before returning him home as the head of his family.
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