Enough tears were shed across Middletown this weekend to fill the Connecticut River.
Each of those tears represents a memory of a man who touched the lives of this community like no other.
There is only one Jim Bransfield. He will never be replaced. He will never be forgotten. Like the Connecticut River, Jim Bransfield is a Middletown treasure.
Most of us hope to touch the life of one person; to find our calling on this Earth to make a difference in one way. Jim Bransfield touched the lives of hundreds, heck thousands, in so many ways.
Jim, who passed away Saturday after a short illness, was the voice of our games: so many sports, so many seasons, so many venues. More importantly, he was a voice of reason, a voice of encouragement and reassurance for countless students as a teacher in the Middletown school system. He impacted their lives in and out of the classroom.
The countless memorials on Jim’s Facebook page from former students, many of whom have gone on to successful careers across the country, are a testimony to the number of lives he impacted. The messages have a similar theme: Mr. Bransfield challenged them, inspired them, motivated them. Mr. Bransfield taught them how to think on their own, treated them as adults, not kids.
One former student, Seth Colling Hawkins, now an assistant professor at Wake Forest University said in a Facebook post: “He was Keating to our Dead Poets Society, and will always stand for me as a living model of integrity, professionalism, and activism.”
My son started at Middletown High after Jim retired. Jim still took an interest, asking about my son’s courses and teachers, then providing his unbiased opinions about both. This would always lead to a smile, then discussion about his favorite assignment for students, making them volunteer with a political campaign. He beamed every time he mentioned it.
When he learned my son was in the marching band, Jim made sure he was a chaperone for his group. During the standard father-son “Don’t do anything stupid on this trip” speech, my son’s response was something along the lines of “Mr. Bransfield is no joke. You don’t do anything stupid when you’re in his group.”
During that trip a group of four seniors were a couple of minutes late for a checkpoint. Jim made them sit on a curb while everyone else went ahead. He took me to the side and said “I know I’m being a (jerk), but I guarantee they won’t be late again. They’re good kids.” That night, as was his tradition, he took them all to dinner at a Disney resort.
It’s sad to think about Disney trips without Jim Bransfield. He was determined to go this April. “If all goes according to plan, I’m there,” is one of his final texts to me.
It’s sad to think about Middletown High graduations without Jim’s assistance, or not seeing him at Holiday on Main or at the Memorial Day Parade. He was often walking solo on the sidewalks, but he was never alone, shaking hands, waving, smiling and conversing along the way.
He truly loved Middletown. Loved everything about it, especially the people. When discussions centered around events involving students, he would often end the conversation by saying, “They really are good kids. But why wouldn’t they be. This is a good community, it really is. There are good people here. Good families.”
He also loved The Press. Not what the industry and cuts from past ownership had done to it, but the fact it was the hometown paper. When the previous ownership started delivering a Sunday version he made it clear week after week, his stories from Saturday events were for the Monday Press.
Jim understood the business. Understood there were budgetary restrictions for the number of times he could write each week. We worked on ways to get more stories, but when he knew there were no other options he would send an email: “This one’s on me. No byline. Run it if you want, but we all know it needs to be in the paper.”
Jim Bransfield was a “homer.” Internally, he rooted hard for the home teams, be it Middletown, Xavier, Mercy or Vinal, Cromwell, Portland, Coginchaug or East Hampton, Valley, H-K, Post 75, RCP or Wesleyan. He wanted what was best for those teams. More importantly, he wanted what was best for the athletes who represented those teams.
But make no mistake, Jim Bransfield was a pro. He was not afraid to take on an issue, be it in his hometown, or across the state. On the night of Middletown’s loss in the state football playoffs we met in the high school parking lot to exchange paperwork. It was on this night he told me of his battle ahead. There was worry across his face as he stood in the cold. Then a smile appeared. He took out a piece of paper. “Looky here,” he said. Jim took out a letter he received in connection with a high profile story taking place an hour away. It was a letter any journalist in the state would have been eager to see. His source trusted Jim with the letter.
As a public address announcer he took pride in calling it straight. His voice was smooth and steady. It would not rise anymore with excitement for a home run by Post 75, or a touchdown by Middletown, or a 3-pointer by Xavier. It was the same call for all.
This past year he was asked to announce a game involving a local team at a neutral site. Fans of the local team started to get irritated with some of his calls, not realizing it was Jim. They even yelled toward the press box, obviously blinded by the lights. Jim thought it was great, saying “I did my job. I called it straight. They didn’t know it was me. That was great.”
How many sportswriters talk about the band, the cheerleaders, the dance team, the workers at the concession stands? Jim did. Often. He understood they were more than games; they were community events. And community meant so much to Jim.
That was never more evident than on Mondays with his Musings. There just aren’t columns like that anymore. So many names. So many achievements. So many stories. So much thought. So much passion. So much care.
The reactions from staff members editing the Musings for the first time were always the same. It was long. But there was a lot of good information in there.
The one response that has always stood out to me was from an editor whose sons played high school sports. “I wish we had something like this in our town,” he would say.
We were lucky to have the Musings. We were luckier to have Jim Bransfield. He will never be replaced. He will never be forgotten. He will always be one of Middletown’s treasures.