By Ashley Jost
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — When Joan Branson talks about the 34 years she spent working in the Missouri House of Representatives, she fights back happy, nostalgic tears of the memories and friends that she made.
“The House will always be my home,” Branson said while giving in to her emotions. “I grew up there. I was 18 [when I started], and now I’m 57. I’ve seen a lot of people walk in and out of those doors and have made a lot, a lot of good friends.”
The longest working full-time employee until her retirement in December, Branson’s involvement in the Capitol has varied during her almost four decades of experience. Currently, she’s working as a part-time office assistant for Sen. Mike Cunningham, R-33, which is a change from her history with the House.
Branson started working at the Capitol in 1974, in Rep. Kenny Rothman’s office, who was the majority floor leader at the time. At 18-years-old and a single mother, Branson took the vacant spot in Rothman’s office that was previously held by her older sister.
“Truthfully, I didn’t know a Democrat from a Republican,” Branson joked. “I didn’t even know anything about the legislative process, but it was a full-time job. I went from $395 per month [at the Missouri Association for Social Welfare] to $700-plus per month; back in 1974 that was a lot of money, so I stayed.”
But Branson said the money was only initially a good reason to stay. Soon, as she began to learn the processes, she couldn’t get away.
“It gets in your blood,” she said. “It’s like a legislator where the politics can get in their blood. Well, the process gets in your blood too.”
Rothman, who said he always admired Branson’s work ethic, said one area he found she excelled was in dealing with constituents he didn’t always have time to answer to right away. He joked that her people skills were highly important since “everyone [at the Capitol] is a prima donna, including [me].”
“One thing down there was always to know what you’re doing and when to keep your mouth shut, and she was great at both,” Rothman said. “I just wish other people working at the Capitol would get to know her and use her as an example.”
A few years after being hired in Rothman’s office, Branson said she took a new role as a journal clerk in the Clerk’s office until 1975, and shortly after was hired as the assistant chief clerk by then House Speaker Bob Griffin.
Of the many differences between her position as assistant chief clerk, which she held for 17 years, compared to her current role, is working on the priorities of one person, rather than 163.
“It’s a whole different view from this side, but it’s fun and I enjoy it,” she said. “I couldn’t say which I enjoy more [between the House and Senate] because they’re so different.”
During all of her years, Branson said she most remembers the friends she made, which have formed into life-long relationships. She said she thinks term limits did an injustice to the opportunity to build those relationships with coworkers, as there’s less time to get to know the people before they’re moving on to their next endeavors.
Limitations aside, Branson said she continued to encourage House members to take advantage of the opportunities they have to connect with their peers.
“One of the things I’ve always told members during freshman orientation is that you don’t realize it now, but you’re meeting people from every spot in the state,” she said. “You have to consider that you have a friend everywhere [in Missouri.] If you were traveling and had a problem, you could call-up the representative and know you had a friend there for you.”
Working in an office of five women, Branson said she got especially close to “her girls,” who threw her a going away party last month. She said the girls knew she didn’t want to be honored in the chamber because she knew she’d get too emotional, but rather she wanted to “slip out the door, unknown.”
While her love for the House is still strong, Branson said it was just time to retire and do something part-time. She said the late nights were no longer as easy as they’d been during the past, and it was time to train a new person to fill the position she had held for so many years.
But the memories, friends and the things she learned aren’t going anywhere.
Post-retirement, Branson said she spends her days off with her 96-year-old mother and 13-year-old grandson. And, when she can, she said she enjoys visiting the casino in Booneville, Mo.