by Ann Bullard

A lifelong career dedicated to walking horses and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association. For 44 and a half years, TWHBEA Secretary-Treasurer Sharon Brandon has processed registrations, transfers and handled many other details that have kept the Association running. She is only the fourth person to serve as the corporation’s secretary-treasurer in its 71-year history.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration recognized Brandon’s industry contributions by inducting her into its Hall of Fame in 1997.
Brandon’s tenure is scheduled to end with her proposed March 31 retirement. The change from a full work-day routine to retirement challenges everyone. Brandon is no different.
“I don’t know how I’ll manage not having to go to work every morning. I’ve given that a lot of thought. It’s a little frightening but I will find something to do,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough to have Mom and Dad still living. They’ve been great to me; maybe I can help with them.”
A native of Marshall County, Tenn., Brandon lived in nearby Normandy for a number of years. She and her family moved back to Lewisburg, where she graduated from Marshall County High School.
“I attended Middle Tennessee State University. However, like most 17-year-olds, I felt I knew everything. I decided to stop wasting my dad’s money and my time and thought I would find a job,” she said.
TWHBEA was 26-years-old when Brandon learned of a friend leaving the association when her child was born. That friend planned to be a stay-at-home mom; she asked if Brandon would be interested in taking her place.
“I didn’t know much about the job. I didn’t even know what the building housed,” Brandon said. “I had attended the Celebration once, but ‘kid-like,’ didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Brandon interviewed with Tom Fulton, TWHBEA’s Executive Secretary at the time, and Secretary-Treasurer Mary Anne Hawkins. She began working in the Registry.
“Mary Anne resigned in May 1966. I had gone to school with Steve and Bobby Beech. Their father, S.W. Beech, served on the board. He asked if I would take the job if asked.”
She agreed, provided she could go back to registrations and transfers if it didn’t work out. It’s lasted more than 40 years.
She’s seen a lot of changes, in people, horses and ways of work. She has lived through the beginning of the ‘information age’ and the challenge of computerizing records.
“In the beginning, we registered about 3,000 to 4,000 foals a year. Other than certificates being typed on electric typewriters, all the work was done by hand. We extended every application to the old stud book – by hand. Each animal had a three by five card with its name, number, foaling date, sire, dam and all its owners. When an animal was transferred, we’d pull the last supported owner card and often had to make a new card for the buyer,” she said. “We still maintain and store original transfers of ownership; we have all of those from the very beginning.
“We will register 12,000 to 14,000 new foals and handle an estimated 20,000 transfers this year,” Brandon continued, pointing out that nine people work in the Registry. “We do all blood kits in-house and are in the process of converting all blood samples to DNA.”
The five to six customer service people take questions from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week. When you add voice mails and e-mails, that makes for a very full day. On a recent Monday morning, Brandon had 22 emails; when she returned from the New Year’s holiday, 45 awaited her. As she put it, “not all of them were greetings.
“In some respects, the electronic thing is a whole lot easier. I don’t know if it’s eliminated a lot of paperwork, but the convenience is great. We have instant data recall that we didn’t have in the early years.”
Sharon and Joe Brandon have lived in Lewisburg most of their lives. Like his wife, Joe attended Marshall County High School. Both were friends of Steve and Bobby Beech. However, that was the extent of their involvement in the walking horse world.
They raised their sons, Joey and Nathan, with the same values of God, family and hard work that they espouse.
“My husband and I thoroughly enjoy being with one another, whether we’re working or traveling,” she said. “And I love my grandkids dearly. We helped raise two of them, and that’s been a blessing.”
After she began working for the Association, Brandon did take a few opportunities to ride. “I learned the horse was far smarter than I was,” she said with a laugh, describing her ‘accidentally’ cueing a horse to canter.
As demanding as working with TWHBEA has been, Brandon found time to enjoy her personal life. She was active with the Jaycees, serving as recording secretary for the Jaycettes “before my husband became an ‘exhausted rooster.’” She remains on the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce Board.
The Brandons make their church home at First Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, where she has been an Elder for almost 20 years. She recently rotated off their Board of Trustees.
Still, Brandon’s life has been immersed in walking horses and their future. She never misses an opportunity to promote them, even when on a western vacation.
“One of the beauties of today is that we have so many opportunities to get our horses west of the Mississippi River and up east. We get calls every day from people who have a Quarter Horse for trail rides. They’ll tell us ‘so and so let me ride a walking horse. I’ve got to have one.’ People think they could never afford to own one, but they can.”
She spoke of one discussion in the Las Vegas airport. “We were waiting for our luggage. The guy next to me had on a cowboy hat and boots. He spoke and I asked if he had horses. He had Quarter Horses for trail rides. I asked if he had ever ridden a walking horse. He said no, but he certainly was going to do so.”
Brandon has been part of the walking horse industry through prosperous times and lean and stressful times.
“It’s difficult to sit where I am and have no control over any of what’s going on,” she said candidly. “I sit and listen to a lot of people day in and day out. These are average, ordinary people who love the horse. The everyday person who works an outside job to have horses is the backbone of this industry. If we lose that ….
“I think we have created a lot of problems for ourselves. What I see and know for a fact is that we’ve come a long way. Why can’t we be given credit for that?” she asked rhetorically. “Perhaps I need to change what I like to see. When we talk about our situation, we are so quick to say ‘they’ to this. When you turn it around, the ‘they’ they are speaking of is really us. We all bear a certain responsibility for ignoring and not admitting to ourselves that there were problems. That’s really a shame, because we have the most wonderful product in the world.”
Brandon strongly believes in TWHBEA and its mission. “When a place like the Association makes a rule, it affects a diverse number of people. They should skew the rule to the mean. Membership brings a lot of benefits: free registration and reduced fees are only one part. We provide programs to cover everything from pleasure horse shows to sponsorships at the Celebration. We have to do those things to maintain a healthy Registry. It takes a lot of money to give scholarships, prize money and the other giveaways that we do.”
One of the things Brandon looks forward to is TWHBEA’s participation in the Walk Across America program. Each state is trying to put together an organized trail ride. The Association hopes to make one of these a walking horse ride with appropriate television coverage.
Things definitely are changing in Lewisburg. Two weeks before Brandon is scheduled to step down, Charles R. Cadle will begin his tenure as TWHBEA’s Executive Director and CEO.
“I try to write down what the job entails,” Brandon said. “There are the obvious things, but there’s just a lot more to it. I lock up the office. If the alarm goes off, they call me and I come back out. I’ve even washed a lot of dishes. Maybe I have taken on responsibilities no one asked me to, but I just did. There have been years where we’ve gone without an executive director and I was the only officer there on a daily basis. Things sort of end up in your lap. Whatever it takes, that’s what I’ve always done. Good or bad, that’s been my work ethic.”
When one works at a single place for so long, it often defines who as well as what you are. Brandon concedes that has happened to her.
“It makes it very hard to leave. I have a few close personal friends here. When I’ve had a crisis in my personal life, I’d never have made it through without them.
The Registry has seen little personnel turnover during Brandon’s 44-plus years. “Donna Gillespie and Nancy Hardison retired last year. Not only did I work with them for more than 30 years, we went to school together. Gloria Rambo and I met soon after I went to work at the office. We met at the drugstore counter when she was working one Christmas on the upper side of the square. She started at the office and has been here 40 years. Annette Rogers was first person I hired after I got my position. She’s been with me for 40 years; Marilyn Walker has been here 35.”
Brandon says the job has “been great 99 percent of the time. I’ve enjoyed the work and the people and still enjoy what I do. There are some of the best people in the world in the walking horse business. I feel blessed to have been associated with them, to have our paths cross.”
Brandon says, “I’ve always thought the Registry is one of the best places to work in Lewisburg. It hasn’t all been smooth. Like any family, we have to be able to work things out. We had a job to do and all pitched in and we did it. We make mistakes like everyone else. But as long as we do what’s right and treat people fairly, the good wins out. That’s the way I was taught, anyway.”
As the end of March draws nearer, Brandon has a lot to consider. Joe Brandon has no immediate retirement plans. Their long-distance travel will be limited to his vacations. Weekends at Gulf Shores are favorite short outings.
Whatever she decides, Brandon says she has “just been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It just doesn’t seem that long.
“I have so many people to thank, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said, adding, “… other than the people who had the courage to put their faith and trust in me in the early years.”