Obituaries

Lorraine Branham, journalism dean and mentor, dies at 66

Lorraine Branham, shown at the 2014 dedication for the Newhouse Studio and Innovation Center, died April 2.
Syracuse University via New York Times
Lorraine Branham, shown at the 2014 dedication for the Newhouse Studio and Innovation Center, died April 2.

Kelsey Davis was on the verge of dropping out of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University two years ago. Her grades were poor and she felt insecure, doubtful that she belonged at such a prestigious institution. In sorting out her situation, she met with the school’s dean, Lorraine Branham, a longtime journalist and, like her, a black woman.

Ms. Branham helped her gain a sense of self-worth and also helped carve a path for her that kept her in the program, Davis said. Now, at 22, she has already started her own company, CLLCTVE, which helps creative college students find careers, and is about to graduate.

“She advocated for me in ways that made me feel seen, heard and valued,” Davis said in an e-mail.

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Davis is but one of hundreds of students who turned to Ms. Branham at crucial points in their lives, and to whom Ms. Branham gave direction and encouragement. When Ms. Branham died April 2 at 66, Davis said, she understood the meaning of the word “legacy” for the first time.

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Most educators dream of making a difference in the lives of their students. As the first woman and first person of color to lead the Newhouse School, Ms. Branham took particular interest in serving as a mentor. She also focused on diversifying the faculty and helping the school keep pace in a fast-changing media world.

She became dean at a turbulent time for the news media, as the old business models for newspapers were breaking down and broadcast and cable television were being upended by streaming services.

“Despite declining student interest in journalism as a career path, she nurtured the newspaper, magazine, broadcast news and photojournalism programs so that they were not lost in a sea of entertainment, advertising and public relations,” David Rubin, her predecessor as dean, wrote last week in a tribute to her in The Post-Standard of Syracuse. She was, he said, “the right dean at the right time.”

Hub Brown, the school’s associate dean of research, creativity, international initiatives and diversity, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Branham was “all about getting us to embrace the future.”

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“When Apple came out with iPads, she got the faculty iPads and said, ‘Work with this and figure out what we can do with it,’ ” Brown said. “She saw digital disruption everywhere, and she made sure our facilities were state of the art.”

She was also determined to make the school more diverse. Amy Falkner, now the acting dean, said that during Ms. Branham’s tenure the percentage of faculty members of color increased to 25 percent from 17 percent, and the percentage of women on the faculty increased to 45 percent from 35 percent. A quarter of the student body is now people of color, and two-thirds of the students are women.

Lorraine Elizabeth Green was born on Dec. 7, 1952, in Philadelphia to Jesse Williams, a tavern owner, and Leona Green. Her parents split up when she was young, and she was raised by her mother and her stepfather, Henry Walls, a mechanic. She was the oldest of nine children on her mother’s side and the oldest of four on her father’s.

She was married twice, first to Norris Branham, with whom she had a son, and then to Melvin Williams, whom she met at the Atlanta airport in 1991 when she sat down right next to him at a bank of otherwise unused pay phones. She did not change her surname when she married Williams.

Ms. Branham, who lived outside Syracuse, died of uterine cancer at a hospital in Rochester, her sister Annette Walls-McLaurin said.

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In addition to her sister, she is survived by her husband; her son, Norris; and a granddaughter. She is survived on her mother’s side by her sisters Connie Walls-Presley, Henretta Ladson, Carol Ann Walls, and Leona Walls, and her brothers Henry Jr., Averell and Vincent Walls. On her father’s side, she is survived by her sisters Elaine and Gisell Williams and her brother Kenneth Williams.

An early influence on her was Ed Bradley, the longtime “60 Minutes” correspondent, who started out as a public-school teacher in Philadelphia and was her sixth-grade teacher. They stayed in touch, and, seeing that she was a good writer and curious about current affairs, he encouraged her to pursue a career in journalism.

After she graduated from Overbrook High School in Philadelphia she remained in the city to attend Temple University, where she majored in radio, television and film, graduating in 1976. She was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford from 1985 to 1986.

Ms. Branham began her reporting career with The Philadelphia Tribune in 1976, then moved to other reporting and editing jobs at The Courier-Post in Camden, N.J., The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Baltimore Sun before joining The Philadelphia Inquirer as an editor in 1987.

She left The Inquirer in 1996 to become executive editor of The Tallahassee Democrat in Florida; she was the first woman and first African-American in that position. She then moved to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she was assistant to the publisher from 2000 to 2002.

She was director of the school of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin from 2002 to 2008, when she became dean at the Newhouse School. She was chosen from a field of 300 applicants.

At Syracuse, Ms. Branham led an $18 million fund-raising campaign and created the Newhouse Studio and Innovation Center, which includes the Dick Clark Studios and the Alan Gerry Center for Media Innovation. During her tenure, the school established the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation and the Newhouse Sports Media Center. She also helped establish satellite campus programs in New York and Los Angeles.