Power behind the throne

Andrew D. Brosig/Torrington Telegram Holly Branham, assistant to the president at Eastern Wyoming College, talks with board member Thomas McCreery, back to camera, before the regular Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday, April 9, at the college. After many years and many presidents, Branham plans to step into the next phase, retirement, in June.

TORRINGTON – Holly Branham will take a lot of good memories when she finally leaves her office at Eastern Wyoming College after 26 years as executive assistant to the college president.

“I’m going to be sad to go,” Branham said. “But I want to leave before they’re thinking, ‘She should have gone five years ago.’ I’m getting to be one of the last ones left from when I started.”

Branham joined the EWC staff in 1984, hired to be the college’s receptionist – the first face people saw when they walked through the door. Construction had just completed on the college’s activity center and things were laid out very differently than they are today.

People walked in and were welcomed by a big desk with her smiling face behind it.

“We called it, ‘The Fort’,” Branham said. “It was a big old desk with a shelf on it, kind of a high top, I guess so people could write while they talked. 

“We had an old switchboard that had five lines on it. Sometimes it was a little tricky to keep up, you know.”

That was roughly where the college bookstore is now, she said, along with most of the college’s offices – student services, administrative services – all the folks centered around the business of the college and, of course, the students.

“And we had a student area, where there was a pool table, pinball machines, that kind of thing,” Branham said. “But we had nobody using it.

“They eventually put academics over there. There’s been a lot of changing of office locations over the years.”

She still remembers applying for the job, in the days when typing tests were a requirement – on a typewriter – “to make sure you knew how to spell, grammar, those
kinds of things.

“At that time, I didn’t have a computer on my desk,” Branham said. “There were only a couple of personal computers on campus.

“That really dates me.”

Career Testing

Along with working part-time as the college receptionist, Branham worked part-time in the Career Testing Center. The job was similar to today’s testing center at EWC, she said, but the college had received a grant to administer aptitude tests in high schools across eastern Wyoming.

“We helped students figure out what their aptitudes were, what they were interested in, figure out what they were able to do,” she said. “We traveled all over, working with different school districts to provide that evaluation.”

The typical student who took the aptitude tests were students identified in special education programs, Branham said. The tests were evaluated and reports went to tat the time, he students and their families. It was grueling work.

“If you had to go on those trips, you worked until 8 or 9 o’clock at night, just working on the reports,” Branham said. “There were big cribbage tournaments every night when you were on those trips.”

She soon moved to full time with the testing center, just administering the tests, which she did for about a year. When the job as executive assistant to the president was open, she applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

That was in 1993.

“Almost 26 years ago – That’s six presidents and a couple of interims in there, who I worked directly with.

“I don’t think I knew what I was in for,” Branham said. “I had a few people say, ‘You know, Holly, you communicate well and people like you. That’s important for that position.’”

Not just a secretary

She was hired under then-president Roy Mason, who left EWC within three months for a position at another college. She then worked under Jack Bottenfield, who was president until 2008.

“He was here the longest,” Branham said. “Jack probably taught me everything I needed to know about this position – How to assist a president, to make their lives a little easier.”

It was also Dr. Bottenfield who radically altered the job of executive assistant by making Branham part of the President’s Leadership Team, what today is the President’s Cabinet. He took it from a simple gatekeeper and secretary to make the job so much more.

“It’s not as cut-and-dried as some of the other positions” at the college, Branham said. “Jack was very good at keeping me involved in what was going on so I could provide assistance to him when he needed it.

“That’s basically what this job is about. You’re there for whatever assistance may be needed – to go to meetings, provide historical details, research board minutes to find out when something was approved. He wanted me to grow in my position and provide feedback so his team was well-rounded.”

And that, Branham believes, helped lead to her success in the job for the past 26 years. By being in the ‘inner circle’ of the decision-making process, knowing how – and most importantly, why – decisions had been made and policies set helped her give subsequent presidents the information they needed.

One thing Branham didn’t expect to get when she got the job was a husband. But that’s exactly what she got, in the person of past board member, who was board chair from 2004-2008.

He’d recently lost his wife and she was divorced. Curiously, he was one of the handful of people who initially questioned her involvement on the Leadership Team at the time.

“We started dating anyway,” she said. “Once Rob checked with the (board) attorney to see if it was alright. The board we had at the time were all good with it, but things change.”

Rob Branham eventually decided not to seek re-election, opting instead to run for a seat on the Goshen County School District board, which he held for eight years. 

Challenges, rewards

Executive assistant to the president of Eastern Wyoming College definitely isn’t a nine-to five gig. The amount of time one has to devote to the college was probably the biggest surprise Holly Branham faced when she took the job and over the subsequent years. 

“If the president is out there, I’m probably back there someplace, or here (in the office) while they’re out,” she said. “My first year or two on the job, my family wasn’t sure I should have done this.”

The most difficult challenge at first was the board of trustees meeting and acting as secretary for the board, keeping minutes and providing the information and background they need to make the decision affecting the college. Branham recalls her prevailing emotion during those first meetings was nervousness.

“That was scary, to go to the board meetings and try to get the information,” she said. “Of course, when I started, I thought I needed to get down every word.”

She quickly learned the most important part of the board secretary’s job was getting motions documented correctly, some of which eventually become policy governing the day-to-day operations at the college. That, she said, was probably the biggest learning curve she faced in the early days.

“That was probably the scariest,” Branham said. “I’ve been so lucky to work with so many wonderful people on the board. Regardless of if you agree with all the decisions they’ve made – of course, you don’t always agree – but all of them came to the table with good intentions and the best interest of the college at heart.”

Tough decisions

Not all of those decision at the trustee meetings have been popular – or easy. And one of those decisions in recent years still haunts Branham, even though she was looking in somewhat from the outside.

Probably the worst days she’s spent at the college – not fond memories at all – was when EWC was forced by budget reductions to cut staff in 2016. Those are days she still thinks about.

“That was horrible, seeing people you’d worked with – in some cases not for very long – or for a long time,” Branham said. “You know they provided a service to the college, but their positions – even though it was deemed non-essential in some cases – they provided a service.

“We needed them. We still need them.”

But she does have fond memories which, while they don’t ameliorate that dark hour, still make her smile.

Several years ago, some of the staff at EWC volunteered to take down fencing at the old little league fields in Torrington as a community service project, so the fencing could be reused at the new fields. It was a cold, autumn day, when the crew assembled.

“It was so much fun hanging out there,” Branham said. “It was the first time I’d really been around (some of the people). 

“We laughed – it was just doing something outside of the college that brought us together as colleagues, and doing something for our community.”

Branham said she doesn’t have any monumental plans for her retirement. She plans to travel with husband Rob, see a few places they’ve always wanted to visit, but could never find the time.

But, for the present, she is focused on the final weeks of her employment with Eastern Wyoming College.

“I can’t be one of those people who become a short-timer,” Branham said. “I’ve got a lot to get finished before I go.”

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