By Ken Stone
Max Branscomb was walking in Old Town last Fourth of July when he first noticed the fireworks in his mouth.
“I burned my mouth at Starbucks or ate pizza that was too hot,” the Southwestern College journalism professor recalls thinking. “It just never went away. A little blister.”
He says it didn’t really hurt until two weeks later — pain at the base of a tooth when he was in the San Francisco Bay Area to deal with the death of his younger brother Scott.
Back home in Bonita, he packed for his brother’s Idaho funeral. But worried about a “squishy-feeling bump on his gum,” Branscomb’s wife, Leslie, got him an emergency appointment with Dr. Rick Takahashi, his Chula Vista dentist. An abscess was feared.
Later — “I’ll never forget” — a sad-looking X-ray technician and nurse came out with a glum-faced Takahashi, who said: “You need to immediately go get a biopsy.”
“I went: ‘Oh crap. I’ve got cancer,'” Branscomb says.
The test showed none.
“So I was real happy. Leslie and I were celebrating,” he says. “And then they said they didn’t take the biopsy low enough. … ‘You need to come back and redo it.'”
A second check found Stage 3 oral cancer — having moved through gums and teeth into his lower left jaw. Surgery was performed Oct. 11, and Branscomb recalls not being fully awake for three or four days after the 14 1/2-hour procedure at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa.
“Heard elephants and rhinos,” he says. “I thought I was in Balboa Park. But they were motorcycles on the freeway. Your brain does weird things.”
Four surgeries later — and after skin grafts, feeding tubes, removal of lymph nodes, and a brutal course of chemotherapy and radiation ending in January — Branscomb has been declared free of cancer.
Now the nationally honored professor uses expressions like “great miracle” and “big wonderful accident” to describe how his life unfolded. He shared his story with Times of San Diego, granting an exception to his journalistic credo that “we don’t write about ourselves.”
Another reason: His gratitude for Sharp’s oncology team and nurses — and his college bosses.
“It’s like that cliche thing — I think I’ve gotten a second chance, and I’m not going to blow it,” he says.
He’s sorry for dropping “this whole mess” on Cynthia McGregor in her first semester as dean of the School of Arts, Communication and Social Sciences. (Former Union-Tribune reporter David Washburn served as substitute teacher.)
But he says college President Kindred Murillo did something wonderful.
While in intensive care — tubes in him, looking like Frankenstein’s monster — Branscomb got a call from Katy Stegall, his top student editor of The Sun. She was a finalist for Reporter of the Year and needed a faculty member to accompany her to the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Louisville.
“So I called Dr. Murillo,” Branscomb says. “‘We’re sending three kids to Louisville.’ She said: ‘Well, we’re really not supposed to go to Kentucky because of the ban on travel to that state.'”
But she figured out a way around the policy, saying yes to sending the students.
“I’ll never forget that,” he says. (And Stegall came home with the award.)
Zeal for Journalism and Education
Max G. Branscomb II was born on Whidbey Island, about 30 miles north of Seattle, where his father — “a Cold Warrior” and Navy aviator — was based in the Vietnam era. The family later lived in Florida, Idaho and Monterey, where his dad attended the Naval Postgraduate School.
Bitten by the news bug in his teens, he was sports editor of his high school paper, the Crusader. And starting his junior year, Branscomb wrote for the biweekly Bonita Post. But he was a budding ballplayer as well, and returned to Washington state to play for two-year Olympic College in Bremerton and was editor in chief of the campus paper.
But he soured on the Northwest, especially when freezing rain and hail fell on the field.
“I remember the moment,” he says. “I was playing center field and it was about 30 degrees when,” amid rain and snow, he found his feet planted in a puddle.
Normally, he’d think “Hit the ball to me!” But on this day it was: “Don’t.”
“Sure enough, the guy hit the dreaded knuckleball. … So I’m running toward it. It went left and I went right. I’m sliding through this mud puddle of frozen water. And I said: ‘If I ever stop moving, I am going back to San Diego. This is it.'”
Branscomb finished the term and returned here — expecting to “waltz in” at San Diego State University and resume his studies. But nope.
“Did you apply?” he was asked.
“No, I’ve been in Washington for a year.”
“Oh, then you aren’t a resident anymore,” he was told.So he turned to another college — Southwestern in Chula Vista. But this time he didn’t mention having moved away for a year.
“Nobody asked me,” he says. “I didn’t really lie, but I didn’t offer any information either. So I went to Southwestern for a year — while I could regain my California residency.”
He admits to having a bad attitude at first — “I shouldn’t be at this crummy little school. I want to be at San Diego State” — but came to regard it as a wonderful experience. “I had a great time; I had great teachers.”
Today he credits destiny for being the editor of his little paper in Washington and being detoured to Southwestern.
“Now I understand what it’s like to do those things,” he says, giving him empathy for students in similar situations.
Branscomb graduated from SDSU in 1980 — taking French, art and five years to earn his bachelor’s degree. Then he was among the first to go through its journalism master’s degree program, finishing in 1982.
“They killed us, too, man, because they were trying to prove how rigorous they were. .. They beat us up,” he says. “Never go to school at a university that’s starting a new program.”
But having a master’s made him eligible to teach — though education work was never his plan. He recalled the “little dinky” Post, where he did “everything” — write stories, take photos, do page design and paste-up and even sell ads.
“And we delivered it,” he says. “The owner and I would get in her big car.”
Some 14 years later, he was teaching journalism at Southwestern, where he says he works as hard on the science of being a good teacher as he does being a good journalist.
“(Higher education) doesn’t teach us to be good teachers,” he says. “They teach us to be experts in things. High school and elementary teachers are better teachers than we are.”
He says he learned more from his two daughters’ teachers when he volunteered in Michaela and Chantal’s classrooms: “Oh, I’m going to steal that and use it in my college classes.”
But he also credits his own lived experience for his reputation, which led to national honors.
“It helped that I grew up in this community,” Branscomb says. “I understand where the kids come from. Most of them are low-income. I was a low-income kid, too. And my dad had five kids. We got by on his naval salary, which was never huge.”
His family’s struggles helped him empathize with his students.
“The most important thing is personal contact,” he says. “You gotta be able to relate to people.”
Passion for journalism is key, too.
“I really love it,” he says. “And I think they come to love it too. And if you don’t love it, you can’t do it. Because you’re not going to get rich doing journalism. And you’re not going to get famous. And you’re not going to have statues made of you.”
His passion for teaching also is unabated.
Branscomb, who returns to the classroom in mid-June, hopes to teach until at least 70 — another nine or 10 years — “as long as I’m good.”
He says he shares the concerns of Dr. Benjamin Saltman, the lead “hero” in his cancer fight, about his ability to speak for hours when he returns to the classroom, given his rebuilt mouth “anatomy” and radiation’s reduction of saliva.
He hasn’t stood up in front of a group for more than half a year, he noted Saturday. “I have to project,” he says. “Fortunately, it’s a Mass Media class, so half the class is playing music and showing old television shows … and films.”
Branscomb hasn’t thought about using a microphone. Instead, he says he’ll try “the old-fashioned way” and see what works.
“I’m just going to show up and try to be Max again.”
Second of two parts.
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