Citing health concerns, Gary Branch announced this week he’ll be retiring as the president of Coastal Alabama Community College (CACC) at the end of the September after 37 years at the helm.

In an emotional address to CACC employees, Branch said the simple phrase “I love students” summed up what he hopes will be his legacy at the school. Soon to be 76, Branch has spent half of his life in the position going all the way back to when Faulkner State Junior College had only one campus in Bay Minette.

Today, CACC spans 10 campuses and 16 instructional sites throughout Southwest Alabama and the number of students has grown from 1,100 to more nearly 8,000 thanks, in part, to the development of campuses in Fairhope and Gulf Shores that were added under Branch’s leadership.

Reflecting on his career, Branch recalled one of his first acts as president of the school back in 1981: the removal of a Confederate flag that used to be prominently displayed behind the desk in the president’s office.

“I wanted this institution to be a place where every student felt welcome,” he said of the decision recently.

Branch has led the school through some tough times including what he described as a “financial crisis” that threatened the school as his tenure as president began. Branch also oversaw the consolidation of Faulkner, Alabama Southern Community College and Jefferson Davis Community College that created CACC.

However, the creation of CACC has coincided with some health issues for Branch, which have required three major surgeries, with another possible in the coming months. He said his doctors and family members had “implored him to simplify his life.”

“The past two years have been the most difficult of my life,” he said. “Not because of the consolidation, but because of the health issues that I’ve had.”

Coastal Alabama Community College President Gary Branch. (CACC)

However, at his retirement announcement earlier this month, Branch downplayed his own accomplishments and said any successes wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated work of the faculty and staff.

“I give you the support that you need, the encouragement that you need,” Branch added. “I don’t do it, you do it. “I’m so proud that I had the wisdom and the ability to offer you a career.”

As he addressed the CACC staff, likely for the final time en masse, Branch said he leaves confident that they will show his successor the same loyalty and dedication he received in the position.

“I know you will because I’ve experienced that,” he said. “So to whoever it is who follows me, I can just say that I’m leaving this college in a whole lot better shape than it was in when I arrived. This is considered to be one of the crown jewels in our system because of the things we do together.”