Hembree Brandon, Farm Press editorial director and editorial staff member for more than four decades, passed away March 12.
It is a sad time for those of us at Farm Press who admired, respected and loved him.
When Hembree announced his retirement late last year my first thought was a hope that it was not a health issue. A few weeks later, I learned that it was; he had an aggressive cancer for which he was undergoing treatment. Those treatments, sadly, were not successful.
Those of us who worked for and with Hembree for much of his Farm Press career will struggle to put our sadness, our grief and our loss into words. It is hard to imagine Farm Press without Hembree’s hand guiding the production of the four regional editions, the many special projects and the awards issues he supervised. We relied on his keen editorial eye and his unwavering commitment to style, grammar and high journalistic standards to produce the best editorial products we could publish.
As I wrote in a commentary after learning of his retirement, Hembree was an artist with our photography, finding ways to make the worst acceptable and the best extraordinary.
He did that with sentences, too. He turned pedestrian prose into understandable copy. And he did it with, mostly, a gentle touch that left our writers’ fragile egos unscarred.
Often, he would send me a rewritten opening paragraph and “suggest” that it seemed to flow a bit better than the original. “But you can keep it the way it was, if you like,” he would add. I always made the change, always agreeing that his tweaks made the passage better.
He was a gifted writer, and, in my opinion, the best Farm Press has seen or is likely to. He leaves a legacy for us to strive to match.
The last time I saw Hembree, back last fall, I think, we sat in his Clarksdale office, surrounded by memorabilia he has collected in the four plus decades he’s written and edited Farm Press publications — an antique radio, a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, books (old and new), a few cameras — and talked about our profession. Neither of us ever imagined we would spend more than 40 years writing about agriculture.
He told me that he discovered in high school that he wasn’t particularly good at math or science and wasn’t certain what kind of career he could fashion out of what he considered his limited abilities. He said a guidance counselor suggested his writing talent might be useful.
It was. So, he decided on journalism and worked for small-town newspapers for years before he was recruited by the late Bill McNamee, former owner and publisher of Farm Press Publications, to write for Delta Farm Press.
He told me about a few threats he received during his newspaper days from disgruntled readers who disapproved of his stance in some of his progressive editorials. Bigotry did not sit well with Hembree Brandon.
He remembered that he and Bill talked several times before he finally signed on as a Delta Farm Press editor. He admitted that he did not think at the time that he would stay long. He wasn’t sure if he would like writing about agriculture for the rest of his career or if the sometimes unpredictable nature of Mr. McNamee would be more than he bargained for.
Fortunately for agriculture, he persisted, and Bill learned to rely on his talent, his judgement and his ability.
Hembree witnessed and chronicled some of the most important changes in agriculture —mechanization, chemical weed control, boll weevil eradication, transgenic crops, and GPS equipment. He saw farm policy change again and again and turned the complexity of policy into understandable language.
Fortunately for those of us who came into the Farm Press family later, he was around to mentor us, to edit our copy and to impress us (but not in an arrogant way) with his intelligence.
He could converse on just about any subject, was well read, enjoyed music and art. We talked about books and interesting essays; he often forwarded articles to me, on various subjects, sometimes just because the writing was exceptional.
He could name all kinds of plants. He enjoyed growing vegetables in his garden but often complained about the soil, the humidity, the heat, the mosquitoes and the poison oak, with which he had a begrudging admiration, noting that in the fall the bright red foliage exhibited the most colorful leaves in the Delta.
He frequently referred to the Delta, especially in the winter, as “the dismal swamp.” If we didn’t know better, we would have thought Hembree Brandon the surliest of curmudgeons. In reality, he enjoyed people, most people, too much to earn that title. He grumbled at times about politicians, weather, and photos of subjects wearing dark glasses, but his grousing was tempered with wit.
He is respected across the Sunbelt.
At the recent Mid-south Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, I was responsible for taking many of the exhibitor photos that Hembree usually took. I can’t count the number of exhibitors, Extension specialists and not a few farmers who asked about Hembree. He is the most respected farm journalist in the Mid-South.
His work ethic was unequalled. He devoted countless hours to both the 50th and 75th anniversary issues of Delta Farm Press, as well as to every other project he managed. If Hembree was in charge of a project, it was done professionally and as near perfect as humanly possible.
The weekend before he passed away, Hembree was editing copy and putting the finishing touches on the special Gin Show publication — sizing photos, checking cutlines, and fixing our mistakes. Even as his body weakened, his mind continued to do what he had done for 45 years — push through whatever challenges arose to meet the deadline. He knew, I think, that this would be his last one. As always, he met it.
God bless you, Hembree Brandon, my editor, my mentor, my friend.