By Kaye Bennett
He’s been totally blind since he was six, but Michael Branch of Vicksburg considers himself a lucky man. Sighted in his earliest years, Branch says he learned what colors looked like. He treasures his memories of the colors of flowers and birds. “I remember rainbows,” he says.
Branch is a massage therapist who works at the Kalamazoo and Portage branches of the YMCA, but his story goes back to the Battle Creek area, where he was born 63 years ago. His family lived on a 31-acre farm south of Bellevue and raised sheep. And to this day, Branch, who has lived across the street from the Vicksburg Post Office for more than 35 years, longs for a house in the country.
He was born with cataracts, which started robbing him of his vision when he was four years old. He adjusted so well to his gradually decreasing sight that his parents didn’t realize his condition until all he could see was light. By age six, he was totally blind.
Branch attended Battle Creek schools, graduating from Battle Creek Central High School in 1972. He started receiving mobility training – how to negotiate his way on city streets, how to recognize coins by the sound they make, how to find his way around school buildings and such, when he was in second grade. Much of that training was provided by Western Michigan University students who were studying blind mobility and who came to Battle Creek to work with Branch and other visually challenged children.
After graduating from high school and spending a year at Detroit Bible College, Branch went to the Lansing School for the Blind to learn massage therapy. He says he chose the profession because, “I wanted some kind of work that would serve people.” He spent a summer reading the Braille textbook, practicing massage techniques on other students, passing a test with more than a hundred questions and proving that he could assemble a model of a human torso. After graduation, he became a Certified Massage Therapist.
He came to Kalamazoo, where he worked as a therapist first at the Hilton Hotel (now the Radisson), then at the YMCA, where he has been since 1987. He is self-employed and works four days a week at Maple Street and Wednesday mornings in Portage.
In the late seventies, Branch began attending Grace Bible Church (where Bethel Apostolic Church is now) in Vicksburg. A friend had urged him to come there because, Branch remembers, “he said that the pastor had two daughters and they were both pretty.”
One of those daughters was Freda Dubbeld and Branch says that when they met, “We clicked right away.” The two were married in April 1978. They have two children, Bethany, 36, and Sarah, 32. Sarah and her husband Neil Hartmann have two sons, Nathan, 7, and Ben, 3. The Hartmann family also live in Vicksburg, and Sarah helps provide care for Bethany, who is developmentally disabled.
Branch has been active in the Vicksburg Lions Club for more than 20 years. He says he enjoys collecting money at the club’s annual White Cane week and the Salvation Army kettle drive each Christmas. “I enjoy knowing I’m helping kids,” he says.
He bowls each week in a league for blind bowlers. When he was younger, he also played beeper ball, a variation of softball, where the pitcher, umpire and spotters in the field are the only sighted players. Branch’s sports experiences started in elementary school, where coaches found ways to modify both football and basketball games so he could play on the teams. By playing on the defensive line, across from the center, and putting his hands on the ground, he could feel when the football had been hiked. On the basketball court, the coach installed a doorbell on the bottom of the backboard and, if Branch had a play to make, they rang the bell. They also put bells on the belt of a player Branch was guarding, so he could tell where his man was, Branch remembers.
Though he still longs for country living, Branch says that Vicksburg is “the next best thing.” It’s an easy walk to Dollar General, Rawlinson’s Appliances or Family Fare for most things the family needs. They recently bought a new lawn mower at Vicksburg Hardware, says Branch, but his wife would only let him cut the grass in the house’s backyard, fearing he might not do a front-yard-worthy job. Branch acknowledges that Freda was right. “I couldn’t mow straight lines,” he laughs.
Branch gets to work and to his church in Scotts on a Kalamazoo County Connect bus, which picks him up at his door and delivers him to his destination. He says that the service these days is much more reliable than the Care-A-Van services, which it replaced.
The only thing that Branch feels would make his life – and that of other visually-impaired people in Vicksburg – easier would be stop lights that make an audible click or other sound when they change. Branch says that he listens to traffic a third of a block away and knows how many seconds it is between lights. But with audible prompts, such as those in Kalamazoo traffic signals, “you can be more sure.”
A special plus in Branch’s neighborhood is a friend who is also blind. David Adams (“Doc”) is a chiropractor who lost his vision in a hunting accident when he was 20. Though Adams and Branch live on the same block, it was several years before the two met. Now they enjoy a weekly cribbage game with sighted friends. They have to play in Adams’s office, says Branch, because they make too much noise in the house.
With family, good friends, a job he likes, his church and his community activities – not to mention the memory of rainbows – Michael Branch says he has a very good life.