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Norman Branch, a tailoring instructor at Carver Vo-Tech High School for 26 years, dies

Norman Barrington Branch was a father figure to many of his students.
Norman Barrington Branch was a father figure to many of his students. (Handout / HANDOUT)

The day at Carver Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore ended before 3 p.m., but that did not dissuade Norman Barrington Branch from putting in longer hours with his students. That frequently meant that his wife, Lillie, and his son, Barrington, had to wait or eat dinner alone.

“We had dinnertime at 5 o’clock, and Dad wasn’t there a lot of times,” Barrington Branch said. “So she said to him, ‘Norman, why don’t you take your bed down there and sleep down there?’ ”

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Mr. Branch, who turned a zest for fashion into a 26-year career teaching tailoring at Carver Vo-Technical, died Aug. 5 at Sunrise Assisted Living in Pikesville of undetermined causes. He was 98.

Former student James Hopkins credited Mr. Branch with molding his own path to a college education at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a career teaching tailoring in the Baltimore City public school system for 26 years.

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“There are some great men walking this earth who have a sense for people and who will do things for people,” said Mr. Hopkins, who was a student of Mr. Branch’s in 1962 and taught at the former Houston Woods Junior-Senior High School, Carver and Lake Clifton High School before retiring in 1998. “They reach back and bring somebody along with them because they’re going up the right road, and when you go up the right road, you don’t want to go by yourself. You want to carry somebody. … He was my example. He was like a father to me, and I couldn’t have had a better example.”

Mr. Branch was born in Baltimore and raised by the former Grace Brown, who cleaned houses, and Milton E. Branch, who taught and served as a night school principal. The second of three sons, he was an accomplished long-distance swimmer who won several medals at the pool at Druid Hill Park specified for African Americans and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore in 1940.

Mr. Branch’s fondness for fashion grew when he began working for Warner’s, “toniest of the local men’s stores,” according to a 1992 article in The Sun. Barrington Branch said his father ran about 3 miles from Douglass to Warner’s for five days a week to work there 3-6 p.m., tying up office duties and delivering clothes to customers.

“He was around clothing,” his son said from his home in Baltimore. “So he loved that.”

Shortly after graduation, Mr. Branch began taking courses at Carver, where he got his first taste of tailoring and fashion — a passion developed by a pair of mentors in Joseph Ray and Oscar Long. His son credited his grandfather with stoking his father’s fervor for fashion.

“His father said, ‘Norman, I don’t have any money to send you to college. But since you like clothes, we’re going up to Carver and enroll you there in the tailoring course,’ ” his son said.

On Jan. 24, 1942, Mr. Branch married the former Lillie Smith. A few months later, he joined the U.S. Army as a member of the 207th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, stationed in Australia and New Guinea. After discharge in 1945, he returned to Baltimore and taught tailoring to fellow World War II veterans. He taught tailoring at School #452 from 1952 until 1956, when he transferred to Carver Vo-Tech.

Former student Vernon McFadden Sr. said Carver had two tailoring teachers, but a majority of the students preferred Mr. Branch.

“Mr. Branch took more time with you and explained things to you more than the other tailoring teacher did,” said Mr. McFadden, who attended Mr. Branch’s classes from 1975 to 1977. “If you didn’t get it right, he would sit there and work with you until you got it right. He wouldn’t just say, ‘Well, you did this wrong. Just do it again.’ He was the kind of person who had compassion and would talk to you.”

Barrington Branch said his father also taught night school during the school year and took courses at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University and the Maryland Institute of Art during the summer.

“He loved the learning aspect and interacting with the kids,” his son said. “And from the feedback that I got from his kids, he was a positive image. A lot of the kids didn’t have dads, and they looked up to him as a father figure.”

Mr. Branch said his father’s favorite outfit was a suit that he made in 1978. It is the same suit he is wearing in a photograph that the family provided The Sun.

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“I remember him saying, ‘Lapels must have 1,000 stitches,’ ” his son said. “That’s how you got the shape of it. He would say it would fall right when you had 1,000 stitches in them.”

Mr. Branch said his father retired in November 1982 to take care of his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer a year later. The elder Mr. Branch enjoyed serving Trinity Presbyterian Church in Baltimore as an usher, treasurer and tailor for 61 years, listening to jazz music, and reuniting with a group of childhood friends who called themselves “The Connoisseurs, Inc.”

Mr. Branch said his father earned the nickname “Showtime” from friends because he always bet on a horse to show at the Pimlico Race Course.

“He was a cheap bettor,” his son said. “He just loved it for the sport of it and going out there and hanging with the fellas. It was a tight-knit group.”

Mr. Hopkins said former students continued to visit or call Mr. Branch after his retirement. He recalled Mr. Branch inviting friends and former students to breakfasts of pancakes and sausages every Saturday morning. Many of those students returned the favor when he was a resident at Sunrise by taking him out to lunch at least once a month.

Mr. McFadden said Mr. Branch persuaded him to open Vernon’s Menswear at Security Square Mall in 1998, which remained in business until 2003.

“I was ready to give up, to be honest with you,” Mr. McFadden said, adding that he gave up a job in a band. “It took a little time for me to grasp him telling me not to give up because I also wanted to be an entertainer. He told me that a tailoring career would be something that I would able to use no matter what I did. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have owned my own clothing store.”

A wake for Mr. Branch is scheduled for Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Wylie Funeral Home in Randallstown, with a funeral beginning two hours later at the same location. Mr. Branch will be buried at 1:45 p.m. at the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery in Crownsville.

In addition to his son, Mr. Branch is survived by one grandson, Barrington M.A. Branch of Baltimore, three nieces and two nephews.

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