'He spent his whole life assisting others:' Galesburg players, friends remember popular coach

Jay Redfern
Galesburg Register-Mail
Wendell Don “Donald” Brannon, died June 17, 2022. Brannon was 70. The former longtime Galesburg basketball coach died nearly four years after being diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer.

A popular beloved former Galesburg basketball coach known for kindness, empathy, humor and his dedication to kids has died following a battle with cancer.

Wendell Don “Donald” Brannon, also affectionately known as "Duck," died June 17. Brannon was 70. He died nearly four years after being diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. At the time, he was given just six months to a year to survive.

Obituary: Wendell Don “Donald” Brannon:June 7, 1952 - June 17, 2022

Brannon was a longtime assistant coach at various levels under head coach Barry Swanson at Galesburg High School and one season at Carl Sandburg College. Himself a basketball standout, Brannon set the record for most assists in a game by a Silver Streaks basketball player with 18 against Rock Island in 1970. Brannon was a 1971 GHS graduate.

Professionally, Brannon was a conductor for 43 years for Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad. He retired shortly before the cancer diagnosis.

Players remember Brannon as a positive influence

Former Silver Streaks like Joey Range and Elmer Dickerson said players genuinely loved Brannon as the "good cop" assistant coach.

"Coach Brannon was a just a very positive influence on me in my early years of high school," said Range, who led the Streaks to a state runner-up finish in 1998 and remains Galesburg's all-time leading scorer. "Basketball was probably minimal in terms of our conversations. We talked about life. He was always positive and complimentary, and if you did something wrong, he was quick to tell you, but in a constructive fashion.

"I'll always remember his voice. He was soft spoken and just so good hearted."

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Dickerson had Brannon as an assistant coach for two years in the early 1990s. 

"Donald was my coach for two years, but I've known him my whole life," said Dickerson, now athletic director at Peoria's Quest Charter Academy. 

"He was so instrumental in my career, and my life. Besides a family member or my mom, he was the first to tell me, 'you're more than a basketball player. You're Elmer Dickerson, with or without basketball.' That really stuck with me."

A role model for younger Black players

Don Brannon, front row and third from the right, is pictured with the 1970-71 Galesburg Silver Streaks basketball team.

One of only a handful of Black men who have coached at GHS, Brannon proved to be a role model for Dickerson, a Silver Streaks all-stater and Hall of Famer who went on to be a scholarship player at NCAA Division I Loyola University. 

"He helped teach me how to conduct myself as a Black man," Dickerson said. "He told me I would be the first Black person some people would ever interact with, and how I conduct myself will influence them when they deal with another Black person. That was a lot to put on a junior high kid, but it stuck with me.

"He taught me that I needed to be known as a good man, not just a good Black man. A good man who just happens to be Black. I only had three Black coaches in my entire playing career — Don Brannon, Rodney Bunch and Bobby Joe Mason. Those are some heavy hitters right there."

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Swanson, who now lives in North Carolina, remained close friends with Brannon after both left coaching. Swanson will deliver a pre-recorded eulogy at Brannon's funeral service Saturday.

"My friendship with Donald began many years ago because of basketball," Swanson said. "However, over the decades it has developed into something far greater."

Noting the fact Brannon holds the GHS single season assist record, Swanson said, "How appropriate. Donald spent his entire life assisting, helping others, improving the lives of others; his family, his friends, young people, his co-workers, his players, his fellow coaches."

Swanson appreciated Brannon's communication skills, saying, "Donald was almost like our personnel manager. If a guy had a bad game or was down, he was there for them. He was an intermediary for the players.

"At the same time, he was a supportive guy for me, and would pick me up. You really need a guy like that on the staff who can tell you the truth."

Brannon's obituary says he leaves behind his loving wife, Cathy, a brother Leroy Brannon, his adored and loving pets, and many relatives and friends. 

'I feel like I've just lost a brother'

One of those friends is his best friend, former Carl Sandburg College professor Wendel Hunigan. Hunigan had Brannon as a student at Sandburg in 1971-72 and the pair developed a friendship that would last nearly 50 years.

"We just attached to one another, that's the best way I can describe it," Hunigan said. "He's literally become a member of our family. I feel like I've just lost a brother.

"He has a very charismatic personality, and I think that's why I really attached to him. We've literally been inseparable."

Like many who knew the former coach, Hunigan said one thing that stood out about Brannon was his kindness.

"He's a highly empathetic individual," Hunigan said. "He's someone you can depend on, regardless of the circumstances. And he's the funniest person I've ever known." 

Hunigan shared a story of Brannon's vulnerable side when the pair traveled abroad to Europe.

"We went to Paris together, and we were finally at the Eiffel Tower," Hunigan recalled. "We got to the first level, and I could see something was wrong with Donald. I said, 'What's wrong, Donald?' And he said, 'This is too high for me.' So he came all this way, and didn't make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower." 

Brannon had a voracious interest in reading, having read thousands of books he had accumulated in his own personal library. According to his obituary, he was a Friend of the Galesburg Public Library and supported the growth of the library, as it was able to give the gift of reading and knowledge to all in the community. He loved all forms of African-American music, but especially Jazz. 

He had no kids, but was a father figure

Assistant varsity coach Donald Brannon as he appeared on photo day for the 1993-94 Galesburg Silver Streaks boys basketball team.

Brannon did not have any children, something that may surprise people who only casually knew him.

"I think most people would have thought Donald had a bunch of kids, because he's so good with them," Dickerson said. "I bet if you asked all the kids that he coached, most of them would say they were his favorite. Just because he took the time with everyone. 

"I find myself today, when I'm coaching or dealing with kids, thinking to myself, 'I got that from Donald Brannon.'"

Hunigan added, "He had no biological children, but he just adopted the kids he came in contact with. I can't think of anyone I would trust my kids with more than Donald. He wasn't a father, but he was a father figure to so many kids."

Brannon loved all sports, especially baseball and the Chicago Cubs. When the Cubs won the World Series, he was elated with joy, his obituary reads.

Swanson was able to visit Brannon on several occasions recently.

"I always said to him, when it gets near the end, you have to promise to let me know, and I'll be there for you," Swanson. "And he did — he called. So, I was able to fly in and spend some time with him. And then I was able to visit him a couple of times when I was back for my book signing in April. He just had a heck of a time at the end.

"As I say in my eulogy, Donald wasn't just my assistant coach, he was one of my dearest friends in life. He was just very, very special to me."

Watching a friend getting devastated by cancer

My time as a sports writer covering the Silver Streaks basketball beat put me in frequent contact with Don, dating back to the early 1980s. I can't say much more than Joey, Elmer, Barry and Wendel said about their friend and mentor. He was simply an all-around great human being.

His smile was welcoming, his voice was relaxing, his soul was comforting. He would say hello to my dad at the grocery store, even though they had never met. He would always ask how my mom was, even though they had never met. 

After his coaching days were over, I would still see Don at a game, at the store, at a restaurant. Baseball always came up — he was a Cubs fan, myself a Cardinals fan. The baseball talk was fun, sometimes ribbing, always interesting.

I ran into Don in the GHS parking lot four years ago after a Streaks basketball game. It was dark, but I could tell he didn't look good. I'll never forget the conversation. I asked how he was doing, and he told me he had kidney cancer. My heart sunk. I could tell he was scared.

Our next encounter was the summer of 2020. We were both picking up an order from Pizza House. I saw his silver SUV with the "WDB" license plates and went up to the driver's side window to say hello to my friend. My heart sunk again. Don had lost a lot of weight, his voice was extremely weak. We talked briefly. I told him I cared about him and that we should get together for lunch sometime. We never did.

Over the last year, I ran into Don a couple of times in the Hy-Vee parking lot as he waited for groceries to come to his car. The signature smile was still there, but not as glowing. We talked a little baseball, and there was the "how's your mom doing?"

We never spoke or saw each other again. There was no goodbye, and I deeply regret that. Rest easy, my friend. 

Visitation for Brannon will be noon to 2 p.m., Saturday at Watson Thomas Funeral Home and Crematory. Funeral Services will follow at 2 p.m. at the funeral home. Burial will be at the East Linwood Cemetery. Memorials may be made to the Friends of the Galesburg Public Library and the Knox County Humane Society.