Someone to Know

New chapter for an old friend

Special to The CambrianFebruary 20, 2014 

I guess you could say I “discovered” John Brannon. At least, I was the first to recognize his talent for storytelling and give him a regular gig at The Cambrian.

John had no idea what a gem of a writer he was 20 years ago when I snookered him into writing a monthly column for this newspaper. As the newly appointed managing editor with a small staff, I was eager to find some additional contributors who would add their voices — and fill space — in our weekly chronicle of community goings-on.

Prior to my taking the helm, John had written one story that the previous editor had published. I liked it and assumed he was a regular columnist — and even included his name in an editorial praising the newspaper’s ongoing contributors.

Mortified, John came into the newsroom the Thursday it came out. “Sue,” he said softly, “I’m no writer. That’s the only thing I’ve ever written. I don’t think I can do any more.”

Using my best powers of persuasion, I convinced John that he could do it, and besides, he’d have a great time along the way. “Just bring me something once a month,” I said.

Once a month! “I didn’t know anything about punctuation or grammar or anything like that,” John told me later. “So, I went to my neighbor, Joan Wilson — a former teacher — for help. Lucky for me, she was very patient.”

When Bill Morem became editor a few years later, he, too, recognized John’s talent and used the same tactics. John recalled Morem saying, “I’ve been reading your stuff. We’ll run you every week.” John’s response: “Every week! I’m not much of a writer. I don’t think I can do that.” To which Morem replied, “Johnny, just open the tap.”

Open the tap? Boy, did he ever. Now, some 700 columns later, John admits he’s had the time of his life, not only writing about the people of Cambria, but about a number of important topics that most everyone can relate to. His most recent column broke the news about a shocking incident of racial prejudice in our little town. His words rocked the community and inspired a well-attended forum on tolerance.

“I’ve had appreciation letters from readers before,” John said, “but nothing like the overwhelming response to that column. What thrilled me the most was how people looked in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t want to slip into prejudice like that.’ That meant everything to me.”

That column was a fitting denouement to John’s accidental newspaper career and 32 years living in Cambria. By the end of this week, at the age of 80, John will move to Southern California to live in an active retirement community near his daughter, Lisa Brannon. Though he’s sad to leave, John welcomes the chance to live close to “my dear, dear, sweet daughter.”

The move south is a return home. John was born in 1933 at Mrs. Bunn’s Nursing Home for women in Covina. It was a time, he reminisced, when much of Los Angeles was covered in orange groves. At age 3, he moved with his family to nearby Pasadena, where he went all through school.

John joined the Army in 1953, completed basic training at Fort Ord and was sent to Fort Smith, Ark. The Korean War was looming and John was sure to be shipped overseas — but for some wry advice from his brother. “He told me every time I was asked anything to say I could type.”

John and a buddy landed office jobs at the Camp Chaffee discharge center. “It was like living in a foreign country — the way people were treated,” John said. “There was so much prejudice. I was used to mixing with all ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Arkansas was one hell of an experience.”

After his discharge from the Army, John returned home to Pasadena. He made the move to Newport Beach in 1955 and, with some persistence, landed a job with the Newport Beach Fire Department, besting the competition of 39 other candidates.

John made fire captain in just five years and served as relief battalion chief. “What I found was everyone needed our help, from fires to plumbing problems to heart attacks. It was always something different every time we left the station.”

Once it was a false-alarm car fire reported by a young schoolteacher. “Danna Bradford was the only gal I ever asked for a phone number on an emergency call,” John laughed. The two dated for a couple years and each moved to Cambria in 1982, building homes near each other on Lodge Hill. John had retired from the fire department and started coaching the girls’ tennis team at the high school. Danna taught art at the school for eight years.

John has stayed active during his time here, playing tennis, volunteering and writing his column. Then he was struck by a couple of serious health issues. First, a heart attack that nearly killed him. Then, a long battle with whooping cough last year. So, John’s daughter stepped in. “She said, ‘Dad that’s it. No more living alone.’ I said, ‘Heck!’ But she was right. I need to make changes while I still can.”

John has sold his Cambria home and is filling the “Pod” in his driveway with his furniture and other possessions. When last we spoke, he was contemplating the garage, but it made us both tired just talking about that chore. “I’m a keeper by nature and I’m going from a large house to a small one. I got rid of a lot of stuff, but I couldn’t take time to sort. Now I need to clean out the garage.”

When he moves into his new apartment at Leisure World in Seal Beach, John plans to play tennis and get back in shape. He has also approached the editor of the community newsletter about writing a column.

Anticipating his new life made him reflective. “You know, we don’t have any clue what will happen in five years, or even tomorrow,” he said. “My advice is to live your life, be kind to others, and don’t take anything for granted.”

Well said, my friend. Take care, and don’t forget to write.

Susan McDonald’s monthly “Someone to Know” column is special to The Cambrian. Email comments and suggestions to cambrian@thetribunenews.com.

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