By Frances Stebbins
I still remember the afternoon, a Saturday, of March 16, 1968, when I received a phone call from a new minister in Roanoke. I had interviewed by phone, as was my custom in those long-ago days, the Rev. Branan G. Thompson who had just arrived with his pregnant wife Gay to become pastor of little Colonial Avenue Baptist Church.
Mr. Thompson called to thank me for the story. He was one of the few who ever had. (In those days more than 50 years ago, the newspaper referred to most clergy, other than Roman Catholics, by “Mr.” on second reference. Women were also given courtesy titles.)
Branan became a special minister to me then. He was still one when he died at 83 late last month at his home in Southwest Roanoke County.
My interview clipping, yellowed with age, shows a young man wearing heavy glasses. At 30 he had already served two previous pastorates. He had first been an associate at Tabernacle Baptist in Richmond. There he had met Gay Frith, a student at the Baptist Westhampton College and a member of Tabernacle congregation. They married and went on to Louisville, Ky., where he took more study in pastoral counseling and she in social work.
Thompson’s second pastorate was in Halifax County where he served two country congregations. Though from the deeply conservative Southern state of Georgia, Thompson had strong convictions about the equality of Black persons under God’s law. It was a tense time as federally mandated racial integration was strongly resisted especially in rural tobacco-growing Southside Virginia.
The couple soon moved north to suburban Roanoke where two sons, Scott and John, were born to them. These sons, who now live in Portland, Maine, and New York City, were back in their childhood community for their father’s final hours and his funeral. I met them then.
A lot of years had passed since that March day long ago when late husband Charlie and I lived in the Hollins area and we both were reporters for the daily Roanoke newspapers, I, part time, covering news of faith communities. One of my major duties was attending the monthly meetings of the valley’s association of ministers in which Branan Thompson soon became active.
He had told me of his deep interest in the relationship of religious faith to mental health and how he had considered becoming a psychiatrist. During the years that he was active in the conference he encouraged support for the medical community and worked closely with chaplains at the major hospitals who were a novelty too in the 1980s.
Colonial Avenue Baptist also became an innovator. At a time when few Southern Baptist women could expect to be ordained, Thompson took Laney Mofield on his staff. People of other faiths were always welcomed at Colonial Avenue; I wrote many news stories about new ministries going on there.
In time, I discovered that Branan Thompson had a hobby of performing magic tricks for entertainment, not as a gambling device. He told me that as he recovered from a serious childhood illness, an adult friend had taught him. He enjoyed entertaining church and civic groups.
And he was gifted in music and liked to sing, play several instruments and occasionally compose songs. One, “Virginia’s My Home,” became a finalist in a state contest to replace the outmoded anthem sung for many generations. It concluded his funeral held at Windsor Hills United Methodist Church on February 27.
At this point last month new factors came into the life of the gifted and loving man. They involved two friends, like him graduates of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Age contemporaries, Larry Sprouse and David Henry became not conservative enough for their parent Southern Baptist Convention when the controlling leadership of that organization gained control in the early 1980s.
Thompson, Sprouse and Henry were among the many Southern Baptist pastors in the Roanoke area who, like Thompson and Henry, maintained only nominal membership in the SBC. Branan Thompson retired in 1997 after 30 years at Colonial Avenue. Sprouse joined a “moderate/liberal” group and remained pastor at the historic Melrose Baptist Church for 30 years retiring in 2019.
He was among the last to see his longtime friend Branan Thompson as the latter was dying from the effects of a stroke and other ailments. At his friend’s funeral he spoke lightly of their pact to present the eulogy at one another’s memorial service.
Recently, the Rev. Mark Mofield, son of the female pastor Laney Mofield, Thompson’s protégé at Colonial Avenue, succeeded Sprouse at Melrose Baptist.
For Thompson, the turn of the 21st century was saddened by the lingering death from cancer of his beloved Gay. But before this occurred in 2002 he had become affiliated with the nearby Windsor Hills United Methodist Church. There for the next 20 years – until his second retirement three years ago – he conducted an active ministry to senior adults in the parish.
An eligible widower for nearly 20 years, he enjoyed several warm friendships and close attachment to his sons but remained true to Gay’s spirit. A small flower garden planted in her memory beautifies Windsor Hills Church.
Ironically, his friend David Henry, who had become a member of Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Roanoke, had died less than a month before.
I, and other senior adults who have long been members of the Philo Club for mainly retired parish leaders, will miss them.