Max Branscomb communes with his golden retriever Leilani at home in Bonita with his longtime journalist wife Leslie Wolf Branscomb looking on. Photo by Ken Stone

We won’t bury the lede. Max Branscomb is cancer-free.

The nationally renowned journalism professor at Southwestern College learned last month that a PET scan “showed all-clear, no signs of cancer,” said his wife, Leslie.

Despite never being a smoker or chewer of tobacco, Branscomb was diagnosed last year with mouth cancer — the same illness that killed Padres slugger Tony Gwynn.

In October, Branscomb, 61, underwent complicated surgery at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa to deal with the Stage 3 cancer, which had moved into his jaw.

“It wasn’t till I woke up after the surgery that they said: ‘It’s actually a little worse than we thought. We had to pull all of the teeth on the [bottom left] side, removed all of your gums and stuff,’” he said at his Bonita home.

News of his battle went viral, and efforts to defray family expenses began.

“When Max was diagnosed with cancer, it was a hard hit for us Sunistas,” said Albert Fulcher, a former student and editor of The Sun, the Chula Vista college’s student newspaper. “We are still a tight group and cover decades of his students.”

Fulcher launched a GoFundMe drive (which raised $38,000) and a Facebook page called Branscombs’ Army with 234 members — “a wonderful space to share information, talk about our different experiences with Max.”

Branscomb, a full-time teacher and Sun adviser since 1999, took a leave of absence to undergo nearly seven weeks of daily radiation and chemotherapy. Former Union-Tribune reporter David Washburn took over his role for seven months.

In March, the Associated Collegiate Press gave The Sun its highest honor — inducting the campus paper into the 66-member ACP Hall of Fame, one of only a dozen two-year schools to be recognized since its 1987 founding.

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Ceremonies took place at the group’s winter national convention in La Jolla, where The Sun also took Best of Show. They did Branscomb a favor, too — delaying the award ceremony planned for October at a Louisville convention.

Katy Stegall, Sun editor-in-chief, asked ACP officials if they could hang onto the Hall of Fame award and bestow it later.

“They said yes,” Branscomb said. “I really wanted to go to the conference, [but] my doctor said: ‘No way, we’re doing the surgery next week.’”

That first of five operations, led by Dr. Benjamin Saltman, took nearly 15 hours.

“He had a complex reconstruction with the goal of maintaining his oral health and function in the future,” said Saltman, describing how a part of Branscomb’s lower jaw was removed and reconstructed with tissue from his left arm. Hip skin later replaced the arm graft.

“It can be a challenge speaking and swallowing with his new anatomy,” the surgeon said. “Furthermore, he has had radiation, which decreases the saliva in the mouth. This also affects speaking and swallowing. As an instructor who relies on his voice to educate, he will need plenty of water and may need to work with speech therapists.”

But he called Branscomb a wonderful patient, “conscientious and inquisitive about his disease,” who kept a positive attitude.

“He definitely had as much of a sense of humor as anyone could have faced with his treatment and surgery,” Saltman said via email. “Max is always someone who I know will have a smile on his face whenever I walk through the door.”

With hundreds of plaques and certificates cramming the walls of its newsroom/classroom, The Sun has been showered with contest smiles for years — especially in the wake of efforts by former Southwestern College leaders to muzzle it. In 2010, even Branscomb felt the wrath of administration as he fought for the rights of his students and colleagues to report on college wrongdoing.

When college officials cut off money to The Sun, using an obscure rule never before enforced, a Southwestern alumnus came to the rescue.

Hollywood screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5,” “World War Z”) wired $5,000 to print a Sun edition that revealed misconduct by college officials.

Straczynski, an Emmy Award winner who graduated from Southwestern in 1977, called Branscomb a man revered by students and faculty.

Branscomb has “fought to raise the standard of college journalism to meet or even surpass that of many ‘professional’ newspapers and magazines,” he told Times of San Diego. Branscomb “believes fervently in the role and purpose of a free press, and imbues his students with that fierce idealism. What more can anyone ask?”

Besides Fulcher, who went on to become editor of the weekly East County Californian and now heads San Diego Downtown News and Gay San Diego, other local journalists recall the role Branscomb played in their careers.

Andrew Dyer, a San Diego Union-Tribune military reporter, had Branscomb as an adviser in 2015-16 and called him a “mentor in every sense.”

“People tend to be dismissive of student reporters, but Max always encouraged students not to take crap from anyone,” Dyer said. “For some students, it was probably the first time an adult told them it was OK to push back and have agency. That’s really what sets him apart.”

Branscomb never treated his young charges as anything other than professional working journalists, he said.

“I was an older student, but he always treated everyone equally,” Dyer said. “To Max, there is no difference between the work we were doing at The Sun and the work being done at the Union-Tribune.”

Lyndsay Winkley, a crime and public-safety reporter who joined the Union-Tribune only a year after several at The Sun, said it would be difficult to overestimate Branscomb’s role in her career.

Max Branscomb says he has no idea how he got mouth cancer: “I’ve never smoked a … cigarette in my life. I’ve never chewed tobacco. I’ve never taken drugs. … My doctors say you’re one in a million that got it.” Photo by Ken Stone

“I think the magic of Max isn’t just his ability to empower his students,” she said. “It’s his palpable belief in the importance of journalism. After studying under Max, it almost felt as if there was no higher purpose than becoming a reporter.”

Winkley said Branscomb went beyond teaching how to report and write — figuring out the questions to ask or picking the best quotes while writing under pressure (and “convince you that semicolons are the devil”).

“A lot of teachers do that kind of teaching,” she said. “What sets Max apart is his unyielding belief that journalists change the world for the better.”

Humberto Gurmilan, a new member of the San Ysidro school board who worked as a Telemundo sports anchor, says Branscomb was his first journalism instructor in 1998.

“Max has always been willing to defend his students and stick up for them when they’re in trouble,” he said. “He trusts his students, has a great eye for talent and is very encouraging. He teaches with a passion and compassion and teaches the fundamentals of journalism that are lacking today.”

Gurmilan eventually became a Southwestern journalism instructor himself, saying he’d had the honor of covering a couple of Branscomb’s classes.

“Now, in huge part because of him, I am sharing my experience and knowledge with students,” Gurmilan said. “We need more teachers like Max in a world where they seem to be lacking and I hope some day to have even a fraction of the impact he has had.”

Fulcher, an early layoff victim of the Great Recession (and the same age as Branscomb), says he met the professor with untamed hair while taking his Mass Media class, and soon was recruited to join the newspaper.

“I told him I couldn’t,” Fulcher said, noting his focus was business and taking 21 units including Spanish.

“Spring semester came and I took his creative writing class. During that time, I pitched a story to him for an assignment and after writing it, he told me I should submit it for publication,” he said. “I thought he was crazy, but sent it to numerous outlets.”

When Fulcher reported that no one was interested, Branscomb suggested Newsweek and Time.

Southwestern College journalism professor Max Branscomb shows off his 2014 Sunshine Award from the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Photo by Ken Stone

“Again, I thought he was crazy. Over the summer break, I woke up one morning and said, ‘Might as well give it a try.’ Within a week, Newsweek had picked up the story. It was published right before the next semester and I joined the newspaper team” — becoming part of the Sun editorial board and writing a column that became The Human Chord.

“From day one, I was hooked,” he said. “Max showed me a talent that I never knew that I had with writing. Becoming a journalist had never even crossed my mind.”

As a teacher, Branscomb believes in his students when they don’t believe in themselves, Fulcher said.

“He has a natural way of bringing out the best in their innate talents,” he said. “He allows students to explore the world of journalism, and though he might not agree with a perspective, he ultimately allows the students to make the decisions, which to me is a strong attribute that makes a great teacher.

“He’s hard core when it comes to our Code of Ethics and that is always the first thing he instills in students, along with working together as a team. [Students] are prepared with the foundation of journalism’s integrity, getting the truth right and giving an equal and unbiased presentation of the facts.”

Another trait that stands out?

”His love for culture and diversity,” Fulcher said. “He is a champion for the underserved community in our area and in his students. He made sure that every student had equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of where they came from, their cultural, spiritual beliefs, color or gender. He embraced all of our diversity in the newsroom and to this day says that it is our diversity at The Sun that is our biggest asset in being successful.”

In the wake of his fame and honors — including winning the national SPJ’s Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award — Branscomb sees irony in his career path.

He balked at teaching at first.

While operating a home-based educational consulting business, doing PR and running political campaigns, he got to know Susan Herney, Southwestern College’s public-information officer.

“She was president of the Public Relations club, and asked me to judge brochures for a competition. I got hospital brochures. … At the end of the day, I was thanking her and leaving and she said, ‘Ya know, there’s a class here you should teach.’”

Branscomb said no, but Herney persisted.

“She started calling me like every day,” he said. “So after the third time, I said: ‘Susan I’m going to call the police.’ Just kidding.”

Herney asked him to stop by and give students some advice.

“She tricked me…. I went up there, kind of had my arms crossed, … and then I started meeting the kids.”

He liked the young people, calling them all “kind of sweet,” he said. “They reminded me of me when I was their age. The teacher was very nice. The program was very old-fashioned and needed some help.”

Branscomb mused over what he might do with the paper — but also thought he would leave the class and never come back.

Then a young lady came up, 18 or 19, who told him: “Sir, they told me you’re a pretty good writer. Can you help me with my story?”

Branscomb couldn’t resist.

“My heart grew three sizes that day,” he said. “So I sat down across the table from her and went over some stuff. It was really fun. I felt really good helping her. She was really happy. She like skipped off. So I said: ‘All right, I’ll do this for one semester.’ That was in the fall of 1996, and I never left.”

He laughs.

With a master’s degree in mass media, he accepted the dean’s invitation to teach Mass Media. And when a position was advertised, he applied and was hired — becoming a full-time faculty member in 1999. In 2012, he earned a doctorate in higher education leadership at San Diego State.

(“I’m actually qualified to be the president of Southwestern College,” he says. “I remind Dr. [Kindred] Murillo constantly. ‘You be careful, Sweets.’ Just kidding. The more I know about running a college, the less I want to do it.”)

About a dozen took his class the first semester, and the number doubled the next two terms. He says he’s been averaging 40-50 students a semester since about 2001. The awards piled up, including Pacemakers — the Pulitzers of collegiate journalism — and in 2017 a College Press Freedom Award for “doggedly exposing controversies involving campus and local police.”

Before his cancer, Branscomb says, he was trying to figure out what to do with some recent staff awards. The walls were full.

“I have a cabinet full of them,” he says. “I’m going to need five or six days to put in new ones” and take down the old. “People say: ‘Those are all your awards?’ No, that’s about 1% or 2% of them.” (He admits that sounds immodest, but won’t fudge the truth.)

“The most amazing thing that happened at that Hall of Fame thing was the students got the Best of Show trophy, and I didn’t work on that issue at all,” he said. “I was home sick.”

First of two parts

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