Long-time Texarkana Gazette reporter and feature writer Aaron Brand died over the weekend at his home near De Queen, Arkansas. He was 50 years old.
He started working at the Gazette in 2002. Early in this career he covered business and was the lead reporter on the Army's plans to shutdown Red River Army Depot west of Texarkana -- efforts that were eventually thwarted.
But most recently, and for most of his 19 years at the Gazette, he was a feature writer who covered local arts and entertainment and did critical reviews of movies, books, music.
"Aaron touched many lives in this community through his reporting and other contributions," said Texarkana Gazette Editor Les Minor.
He won numerous journalism awards for his writing in Texas and Arkansas and was well respected by his peers.
He covered the cultural core of Texarkana -- Perot Theatre, Regional Arts Center, Texarkana Museums System, the Symphony -- and did so with passion, intelligence and a fullness that only comes with deep-seeded interest and accumulated experience.
It didn't happen all at once.
Aaron was born on March 11, 1971 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in the Chicago Heights area.
He earned a bachelor's degree in English at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and master's of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington.
While living in Portland, Oregon, he worked helping autistic adolescents, a family member said.
"Aaron thought deeply about his subject matter, cared about words and was precise about using them," Minor said. "When he committed something to paper, we knew it would come in clean and would reflect his keen intellect."
But more important than his technical skills, Brand was a champion of the arts.
Marc-André Bougie, music director and conductor of Texarkana Regional Chorale & Orchestra, said he has known and worked with Brand for more than a decade.
" I can remember from our first encounter his commitment to journalistic excellence, sincere support for the arts, and warm and humorous personality," Bougie said. "This first impression was confirmed over and over again through the years, up to last week when he attended our Al Fresco concert.
"I texted Aaron the next day to thank him for the coverage and support, and we exchanged funny memes as we did so often, both looking forward to whatever would come up next. Aaron will be sorely missed by my wife Candace and I, and all of us in the Texarkana College Music Department and the Texarkana Regional Chorale."
Brand covered the arts community here with a thoroughness possibly unequalled in in the newspaper's history, Minor said. Yet he wasn't tied to traditional and classical forms. He reviewed movies, recordings, books and kept his thumb on the pulse of the local music scene. He gave local theater its due. He often found humor hiding in plain sight and would incorporate it into his pieces. He could spot a trend a mile away.
During the pandemic, he chased down a variety of stories covering not only the medical and scientific aspects of COVID, but also how it was affecting lives of Texarkana people both here and abroad. He was very proud and was honored by the Arkansas Press Association for his works.
His versatility in finding and covering stories made him very visible in the community. He could cover just about anything, winning several awards for sports feature writing.
And as newspapers adjusted to the demands of these times, he voiced his concerns that the role of the writer should not be lost in the shuffle.
"Aaron challenged me on the digital growth of the paper to remain true to the craft and not let the technology diminish the role of the writer or detract from the newspaper's overall mission," said General Manager James Bright. "It is very rare you find people like that."
On a lighter note, Brand was a member of the Texarkana Gazette Corporate Spelling Bee team that competed and collected several championships over the years to raise money for local literacy efforts. He liked the stage and was a tenacious competitor.
When not not writing for the Gazette, Brand worked as an adjunct instructor at University of Arkansas-Cossatot, teaching online courses in composition and literature.
"Aaron had been teaching online concurrent classes for the local high school for several years. As his supervisor, I know that he wanted to be physically present in the classroom, but he had such a phenomenal online presence and the students responded to him so well that I felt the need to keep him as an online instructor," said Crystal Sims, UA-Cossatot's division chair of general education.
"He thoroughly enjoyed working with the high school students. We recently changed the format of the courses and the works of literature being taught, and Aaron was so excited to read the new pieces and prepare to teach them to his students. He was also actively working with a full-time English instructor to develop a creative writing program so our students would have another outlet of expression. Aaron was loved by all of his co-workers, and we will truly miss him," Sims wrote.
Teaching ran in Aaron's family.
"Aaron had a special connection to our college as he was the second generation of Brands to impact our students in very special ways. We miss Laura Brand, Aaron's mother, and we are already equally missing Aaron," said Dr. Steve Cole, UA-Cossatot chancellor.
Brand loved animals, raised 4 donkeys on his small farm, along with some cats. At one point his menagerie included some goats and sheep.
Dr. Sunni Davis, a longtime family friend and colleague, remembers Aaron as a kind and gentle soul, but not much of a ranch hand.
"When he inherited a cranky pony, a bunch of irascible donkeys, a pack of rowdy dogs and an ever-increasing number of half-feral cats, I wasn't sure how this was going to go," she said.
Davis tells of panicked calls from Aaron for help with loose donkeys or sick dogs and the crisis was always solved. Aaron would gladly return the favor.
"He cared for the animals in the same way that he cared for everything else in his life -- with kindness and with passion. I think the donkeys filled a spot in his heart where horses would have gone in another lifetime. Where Aaron and I connected was with our shared love of anything horse racing.
"Aaron could spout off bloodlines and trainer stats as well as any writer for the Racing Form. He wasn't much interested in the betting side of the industry but he loved racing for the joy of the sport. He was a huge fan of Zenyatta, and at the time of his death we were engaged in shared dismay at the demise of Chicagoland's famed Arlington Park, a track we both knew and loved.
"I hope, Aaron, wherever you are right now, that you are swapping stories with some of those racing greats you watched when they made the history you knew so well," Davis wrote upon learning of Aaron's passing.
Brand was preceded in death by his mother, Laura Anne Cohrs Brand.
Survivors include his father and stepmother, Ronald Allan Brand and Mary Rose Nichols of Albuquerque, New Mexico; his sister, Anna Livia Brand of Berkeley, California; and two nephews, Luka Brand Maddock and Artie Brand Maddock.
Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time.