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Senior of the Year: Rita Brannaman

A spirit of independence and courage

SOLON– If you know Rita Brannaman well, she probably has your birthday marked on her calendar.
She’s that kind of person.
“I care for other people,” she said.
Brannaman, 85, was named Solon Senior of the Year for 2014 by the Solon Senior Advocates this spring, an honor she shared with Fred Bark.
A lifelong resident of the Solon area, Brannaman has been a longtime volunteer for the Solon American Legion Auxiliary, a charter member of the Solon Women’s Club, an officer with the Sutliff Bridge Authority, and involved in a number of other local organizations.
In 2013, she was named the Iowa recipient of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ (GFWC) Jennie Award, an honor named for GFWC founder Jane Cunningham Croly and bestowed upon an individual who epitomizes a spirit of independence, courage, and persistence in purpose through her roles in the community and family.
Brannaman has certainly done that.
She was one of the founding members of the Solon Women’s Club, was there for the infancy of the Solon Public Library when it got its start in the basement of the bandstand downtown, and more recently spent countless hours championing the cause of the Solon American Legion’s Veterans Memorial.
The former Rita Randall grew up in Solon and Sutliff, and returned to the Sutliff area as a newlywed with her husband Don Brannaman in 1948. Together they farmed and raised a family of four in an 1850 farmhouse on 280 acres of land off Sutliff Road, and enjoyed 66 happy years together.
And over that time, anyone who became Rita’s friend was her friend for life.
“I like to keep in touch with people,” she said. “If somebody has a birthday, I put it down on my calendar and keep in touch that way.”
The Brannaman family hosted a foreign exchange student from Holland a long time ago, and Rita still corresponds with the family who sponsored the student’s continued stay in Nova Scotia. Additionally, she and her family helped care for five foster children.
Although long retired, she maintains contact with the people she came to know over her 25 years as a Solon school secretary– people like former high school principal Larry Meister.
“She was perfect for the job,” Meister said. “She knew most of the parents and had a wonderful relationship with the students.”
Brannaman answered the phones, took attendance, monitored the lunchroom and helped organize other school functions like parent-teacher conferences.
“As her employer I always found her to be a dedicated, caring, respectful person with a genuine concern for others and their feelings,” Meister noted. “We had a great working relationship. Also, she made the best kolaches and tapioca pudding I have ever had.”
Brannaman took it upon herself to compile the composite class photos for each graduating class and made sure they had a place to be displayed in the school.
“I was going to work until my kids got out of college, and I worked until my granddaughter graduated,” Brannaman said.
At the same time, she was volunteering her time at St. Mary Church, with the Solon Women’s Club, the Johnson County 4-H Club, the Johnson County Historical Society and many others.
“Volunteering in the community has been important to my mother. Growing up, I never thought much about her involvement, but now when I look back, I realize that she has been volunteering for projects as long as I can remember,” said her daughter, Sue Dvorak. “I remember her making bars, desserts, small sandwiches, or other treats for her women’s club meetings. She would make supper, clean up, and then hurry off to her meetings in town.”
But she never forgot family.
When Dvorak was young, her mother made many of her school clothes and prom dresses. She helped with spring plowing when Don’s brother broke his leg, she prepared meals for the farm workers, and raised chickens to help pay for family vacations.
A three-time cancer survivor, Brannaman never once felt sorry for herself, her daughter noted. “She was an inspiration to all of us as she went about her recovery without any complaints or negativity,” Dvorak said.
“Mom wears us out sometimes with her energy and ability to accomplish many things at once,” Dvorak continued. “She has inspired me to do what I can for others. I can only hope to accomplish as much as Mom has over the years.”
Brannaman doesn’t think much about why she has volunteered so much during her lifetime.
“So many times, I just did it,” Brannaman. There were things that needed to be done– concessions at a farm sale for the women’s club, staffing the Legion Auxiliary booth at Beef Days, helping cook the turkey supper at the Legion– and because she cared about the people and the community, she pitched in.
“I love Solon,” she said. “People are helpful and caring.” The schools are successful, she said, the community cares for its elderly, the churches work well together and the town has made improvements like the new city hall and the food pantry.
Over the years, she’s served on groups where individuals didn’t like working with each other, but she takes a more global view.
“When we in a small town like Solon have so many people that don’t get along,” she said, “how can we as a world get along?
“There’s no love in peoples’ hearts. I pray for that every night,” she said. “We’ve got to have a caring society.”
And nobody embodies it as well as Brannaman.
There’s always extra food in the fridge, room for an extra plate at the table and cookies in the cookie jar to share.
“Rita Brannaman has long given of her time and energy to many groups in Solon who have benefited from her dedication,” said Sandy Hanson of Solon Senior Advocates. “She is a true role model and inspiration of service to her community.”.