Branch, 55, died at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, doing what he loved best: shooting pool and hanging out with his friends, according to family members. He had been playing pool at Beefy's in Sunnyvale with members of his pool club when he suddenly collapsed. He died within minutes, according to longtime friend Dirk Lewellen.
Branch was well known in Palo Alto as a friendly, happy man who worked for 30 years at the former Co-op Market in Midtown. Patrons recalled he was perennially cheerful and helpful and always whistled a tune. But after the Co-op closed, he fell on hard times. He suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which made working difficult. In 2003, he became homeless.
When the Weekly published a January 14, 2004, cover story about his plight, hundreds of his friends and acquaintances, many of whom remembered him from his Co-op days, came to his aid. More than $20,000 was donated to keep him off the streets and a local lawyer helped him obtain disability payments so that Branch was able to continue living at the Barker Hotel in downtown Palo Alto.
"Willie Branch was known and loved by thousands of Palo Alto residents as a warm and always-friendly checker at the old Co-op Market. The community's unprecedented response to the Weekly's article on his homelessness after the closure of the market enabled him to get his life stabilized, but as important, made him aware of the affection for him throughout the community. He was a person who made his mark on Palo Alto in the most human way -- through his infectious enthusiasm, positive attitude and gratefulness for the friendship of people who were far more than customers," Palo Alto Weekly Publisher William S. Johnson said.
Described by his family as a proud man who would rather help others than help himself, Branch's eight children and other members of his family only learned about his condition after the Weekly story was published, according to his daughter, Monica Branch.
"He never once told us his situation. If he needed something, you wouldn't know," she said.
Asked by his children why he hadn't told his family about his predicament, he said, "It's not your responsibility to take care of me," according to Monica Branch.
"He was very, very willing to give, but when it came down for him to receive, he wouldn't tell you. He was proud -- but he was humble at the same time," she said.
Branch was a family man who loved to sing and barbecue and to work on cars, she added.
"He was always whistling something -- always smiling and willing to help other people. He was a really sweet guy who had an interesting sense of humor. It was a sarcastic humor -- quick-witted. He was one of those people who could say anything at the spur of the moment and get you laughing. That's what I loved about him," she said.
Branch was born in Little Rock, Ark., and grew up in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. He began working at the Co-op in Palo Alto at age 17, she said. While there, he met her mother, who became his only wife. The couple later split. As a child, she recalled he and her mother would take the children bowling. Twice a year they would go to church meetings, driving to Detroit in June and to Florida in the fall, stopping in Arkansas to visit her grandparents before returning to the Bay Area.
"The first church I knew of that he took me to I still attend, and I am quite thankful for that," she said.
Branch did not let his family know how ill he really was, she said. His condition became grave in late May and he was hospitalized and put on a respirator. Doctors discovered he had an enlarged heart and needed a heart transplant, but it was determined that he was too ill to survive the surgery, a sister said at the time. After a couple of months, his health had improved to some extent, but he knew he was dying, according to Monica Branch.
"He would say, 'You know, your dad's getting old. I'm dying, but we all gotta go,'" she said.
Kamal Mansour met Branch when he was still working at the Co-op market, but they became good friends in 2003. In the past year, he saw a definite deterioration in Branch's health. After the hospitalization, Branch wasn't as independent as he had been before, he said.
"He was a sincerely friendly person. He was outgoing to people and always willing to help. His (affection for people) is a true one," he said.
Lewellen, who was with Branch when he died, remembered that Branch loved to sing. During one of their pool rounds, when the team wasn't doing well, Willie took the stage and won the karaoke competition singing his favorite song, "My Girl." Branch and his club were working toward getting into pool championships when he died.
"His stakes will be there just as if he was with us," Lewellen said.
Branch is survived by his parents, Evelyn and Israel Garth of Arkansas; sister, Donna Sutton of East Palo Alto; step-son, Nolan Butler Jr. of Sacramento; son, William Branch of Sacramento; daughters, Teria Kidd of Minnesota, Ayanna Powell of Atlanta, Ga., Kimberly Branch of Los Angeles, and Monica Branch, Dena Branch and Antonia Branch, all of Sacramento; and 16 grandchildren. Services are pending.