Bolton: Husband, father, public servant — and friend

Associate EditorDecember 18, 2012 

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I got a pleasant surprise during my first visit, along with other editorial writers across the state, to the Governor’s Mansion for one of Gov. Mark Sanford’s luncheon briefings on his State of the State address.

After having been greeted by first lady Jenny Sanford, Mr. Sanford and key members of the governor’s staff, I was talking with some folks from other newspapers when I noticed this gentleman on the mansion staff busily working to get things in order. When he turned toward me, he flashed the biggest, most friendly and welcoming smile.

It was the unmistakable smile of a friend and former classmate — Chamberlain Branch Sr.

I immediately went over to talk with him; it had been a while since I had seen him. We only had a few minutes, but we did all we could to catch up. What’s been happening since high school? Wife? Kids? Who have you seen from the old days at A.C. Flora High?

After that, we began running into each other from time to time, whether at a wedding or other affair he and his wife would cater or at a kids’ basketball game the gym at Bethlehem Baptist Church (where Chamberlain was a devoted trustee) or just out and about. Last year, we got to see each other — and many of those old friends from A.C. Flora — at a multi-class reunion.

Chamberlain would always tell me how happy he was to see me working at The State, but I’d impress upon him that I was most proud of what he had accomplished, first with his family and faith in God, and also with his work at the Governor’s Mansion.

Any time his name came up, I’d always gush about my friend.

So, on Friday, when a colleague at the paper met me in the hallway and told me he had met my schoolmate at a recent affair at the Governor’s Mansion, I naturally started smiling and telling him how proud I was of Chamberlain.

“You haven’t heard, have you?”

Heard what? Chamberlain had died earlier that morning in a traffic accident when a suspect fleeing police ran a red light and crashed into the minivan he was driving.

Wow. Amidst the obvious shock and hurt, many thoughts flashed through my head. Chamberlain’s wife. His children. His amazing smile. His so, so bright future.

Chamberlain, 48, hadn’t risen to the seemingly more notable heights as some of our old schoolmates who had played professional sports or had appeared on TV or the big screen or had made their mark in the business world. But he had worked hard at his craft and had been blessed with a job he not only loved but that he excelled at. He spent a decade coordinating events and supervising staff at the Governor’s Mansion.

That was no small feat. It takes a person with the right personality, skills and temperament to survive multiple governors.

We know how some politicians can be when they win an election and have the opportunity to put their mark on their new office, whether through affecting policy and legislation or by appointing agency heads, boards and commissions. We expect them to choose their own people.

And if governors are particular about those things, just think how they’re likely to be when it comes to deciding who has access to and care of their family (particularly their children), friends, food, visiting dignitaries and the public at the Governor’s Mansion. Just like many of us, they’re likely to be very picky about who represents them and who watches over intimate affairs. And you can’t blame them.

Chamberlain was a public servant who reflected well on those governors he served. He conducted himself and his duties in a manner that spoke well of South Carolina.

I was heartened to read what Gov. Nikki Haley, former Gov. Jim Hodges and others said about him last week.

“Everyone who knew him loved him. His smile and laugh were contagious,” Gov. Haley said in a statement. “He was a very special part of our family, and his gentle soul, good humor and care will always be treasured memories for each of us.”

Former first lady Jenny Sanford described Chamberlain as a close friend. “He was prayerful and loved the Lord. He never said an unkind word to or about anyone. He was part of our family,” she said.

Mr. Hodges said Chamberlain “handled everything from Easter egg hunts to presidential visits. … He had the unique personality and special skills to do all that. Whether it was the Hodges or the Sanfords or the Haleys, he had the confidence of the first family.”

As I talked with some friends about Chamberlain over the weekend and read posts on his Facebook page, I got the same thing over and over: genuine all-around good guy, family man, one who loved God, dependable, a memorable smile.

For one who loved God and served the way Chamberlain did, the final services to be held for him at 11 a.m. today at Bethlehem Baptist on Eastman Street is aptly called a “homegoing”. He leaves behind his wife, Cherisse, and their three children, Cheyenne, 14, Chamberlain, 9, and Chaniya, 7.

Here’s praying that this entire community wraps its collective arms around this family that so graciously shared this amazing public servant and his infectious smile with us.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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