Brannen, Bess Courtney (1905–1958)


By: Frances B. Vick

Type: Biography

Published: August 31, 2021

Updated: April 5, 2022


Bess Courtney Brannen, educator and community leader, was born on February 18, 1905, at Trevat in Trinity County, Texas. Her father, Joseph Patrick Courtney, was born in Galveston to Miles Courtney, an Irish immigrant, and Martha Wood on January 26, 1877. The immigrant’s son married into one of the oldest families in Texas. His bride and Bess’s mother, Jennie Moren, was the great granddaughter of Martin Parmer (also spelled Palmer), a contemporary of Stephen F. Austin and a friend of Sam Houston. Parmer served as one of the authors and signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

Bess’s father worked for lumber companies in East Texas and went from stacking lumber to managing some of the largest stores in the area, then to purchasing agent for those stores in such cities as St. Louis and Chicago. Some of the companies were Lynch Davidson Lumber Company, William Cameron and Company at Carmona and Saron, Trinity County Lumber Company at Groveton, and Texas Long Leaf Lumber Company at New Willard. Bess, the youngest, and her siblings, Maurice Miles and Aileen, attended Alexander Collegiate Institute and College (later Lon Morris Academy and Lon Morris College), a Methodist preparatory school and junior college in Jacksonville, Texas. She took courses in art, music, and drama, in addition to the core subjects, and finished her schooling there in the spring of 1924.

Bess Courtney married Carl Andrew Brannen, a World War I veteran of Saron, Texas, on September 7, 1924. The couple had their first son, Carl Andrew “Andy” Brannen, Jr., on August 26, 1925, at Saron. Their second son, Joseph Patrick Brannen, was born on December 27, 1927, at New Willard, Texas. Bess and Andrew returned to Saron to help with aging family members and began their teaching careers at nearby Saglen, where Bess taught four years. They also continued their education. At Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College (later Stephen F. Austin State University) Bess took courses in news writing, public speaking, and education, and Andrew received his B.S. in history in 1932. Their daughter, Willie Frances, was born on August 14, 1935, in Trinity, Texas. In 1936 Andrew became the county school superintendent of Trinity County, and Bess taught at Pennington for four years while continuing her education. Wherever she taught she produced programs in which the students performed. Bess finished her bachelor of science degree in education with a minor in fine arts, English, and social studies from Sam Houston State Teachers College (later Sam Houston State University) on August 19, 1940.

Soon after the United States declared war in December 1941, Andrew resigned as county superintendent and joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1942. He finished his master’s degree in history at Sam Houston State Teachers College in August 1942 before he left for USMC Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia. Upon completion, he was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station Eagle Mountain Lake, which was located northwest of Fort Worth. Bess moved with the two youngest children to Decatur, where she taught school and attended Decatur Baptist College (later Dallas Baptist University). The oldest child, Andy, at the age of fourteen, had entered Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Texas A&M University) in the summer of 1940. In 1943 Bess and the family moved to Laguna Beach, California, where her husband, then a captain, was transferred to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Bess worked as a clerk at the local dry goods store as she did not have California teaching certification. Following in her father’s footsteps, she soon became a buyer for the store. She also indulged in her love of art. During the family’s brief stay in California, the Brannens’ second oldest son, Joseph Patrick, finished high school, and their oldest son joined the U. S. Navy V-12 aviation cadet program and attended flight school and college at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.

In 1944 Bess and the family returned to Texas when her husband, then forty-five years old, left the U. S. Marine Corps to run for U. S. Congress as state representative of the Seventh District. He lost to Nat Patton and Tom Pickett but forced a runoff, which Pickett won. The family moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, where Bess and Andrew joined the Brazosport Independent School District. Bess taught fifth grade at Lake Jackson Elementary School in 1944 and 1945, and Andrew was a school principal at Camp Chemical, a temporary camp built near Velasco by the Defense Plant Corporation (see MAGNESIUM INDUSTRY); he then became the school district’s audio-visual supervisor.

Bess’ teaching was a creative combination of history, art, music, drama, and folklore that she incorporated with the core subjects. When she taught fifth grade Texas history, she had students draw different aspects of history on butcher paper that she attached to the blackboards and walls around the room. Every student picked a subject to draw on their section. They researched the topic, then decided how to illustrate it. Bess taught songs of the different states, and students also learned all the state capitals. She also taught about Texas wildflowers as well as the folklore of flowers. She had taken courses in conservation and horticulture and put it to use.

The couple’s son, Andy, who served in Naval Patrol Bombing Squadron One Hundred Two (VPB-102) stationed at Tinian Island in the Northern Marianas, was killed in action on May 9, 1945, when his PB4Y-1 (B-24) Liberator was shot down during an air attack on Japanese-held Marcus Island in the Pacific. His death was a huge blow to the family, especially Bess, who shared with Andy a close bond and a shared love of poetry, Shakespeare, and other literary works. Despite her grief, she persevered and continued with teaching and her education. The American Legion Post 306 in Lake Jackson was named Andy Brannen in his honor in 1946.

In the summer of 1947 Bess and Andrew attended the University of Wisconsin where Bess studied remedial reading education and Andrew continued studies in audio visual education. Upon returning home, Bess taught reading to a brain-injured World War II veteran and remedial reading at Velasco Junior High School. She finished her master’s degree in education at the University of Houston in 1949. Throughout her career she taught student declamation of both prose and poetry, served as director of declamation for the district University Interscholastic League, and continued to stage assembly programs with students singing and acting parts. She ended her career teaching Texas history and civics at Lake Jackson Junior High School. Overall, she taught for twenty-four years with fourteen spent in the Brazosport School District.

Bess Courtney Brannen died of cancer at the age of fifty-three in Houston, Texas, on February 14, 1958. She was buried at Restwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Lake Jackson, Texas. At the time of her death, the school library dedicated the Bess Brannen Texas History Shelf in her honor. Ten years after Bess’s death, Jesse Hibbetts, her former student and a member of the Brazosport Independent School District Board, suggested a new elementary school in Lake Jackson be named for her over other nominated names of John Nance Garner and Clara Barton, because Brannen’s remarkable influence on the students under her care should be remembered.

The new Bess Brannen Elementary School opened to students on October 7, 1968. At the school’s dedication on October 20, 1968, Gunter Koetter of the architectural firm that designed the school, said, “As a teacher, Mrs. Brannen was continuously involved in study and activities to improve herself professionally and to make the learning experiences of her students both meaningful and pleasant.” He added, “She was a true manifestation of the fact that good teaching has one mainspring—affection for the child.” At the dedication, her family presented a portrait of Bess to the school. One of her students, Marilyn Colegrove Manning, described her best:

“She had a great deal of belief and confidence in her students and in what they were doing. You could not be in Bess Brannen's classroom and not be challenged, nor could you be in the classroom and not be known. Young people could not stay away from her, and her peers sought her out in times of both mirth and tragedy. Life was rich and full around her. She had a magical quality about her that is indescribable but was there to all who knew her."

As adults, her children carried on her legacy of education and love of history through publishing, and her daughter served, among other roles, as president of the Texas State Historical Association.

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Flora G. Bowles, A History of Trinity County, Texas, 1827 to 1928 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1928; rpt., Groveton, Texas: Groveton Independent School District, 1966). Brannen Family Papers, personal possession of author. Brazosport Facts, February 17, 1958; January 10, 1968; October 6, 20, 1968. Freeport Facts, May 9, 1946. Patricia B. and Joseph W. Hensley, eds., Trinity County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986). Houston Chronicle, April 6, 1924; June 7, 1949. Glendell A. Jones, A History of Lon Morris College (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1973). 

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Education
  • Educators
  • English and Journalism
  • General Education
  • Music and Drama
  • Social Sciences
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Frances B. Vick, “Brannen, Bess Courtney,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/brannen-bess-courtney.

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August 31, 2021
April 5, 2022

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