PALMA CEIA — Dr. William Branch spent more than 40 years in Tampa, but he never quite lost the accent that revealed his rural roots.
"He had that Arkansas twang in his voice," said Gene Fogarty, a close friend of Dr. Branch for more than three decades. "If you just met him, you'd never know that he was one of the most intelligent people you could ever meet."
He had grown up in the hills of Arkansas, in cotton country. His hometown of Paragould was so small that his family had to move 25 miles away to Kennett, Mo., so he could attend seventh grade; the local schools in Paragould only went up to sixth.
Dr. Branch would go on to become one of Tampa's most prominent physicians and surgeons. He was still practicing until just a few weeks ago. Though he was old enough to retire, his colleagues still remarked at his passion for medicine, and with his determination to educate himself about the most current research and the latest developments in his field.
He died Dec. 5, from complications of a stroke. He was two days short of his 75th birthday.
Dr. Branch spent his entire medical career in Tampa. He came here in 1971, as one of the original interns at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine. The faculty voted him intern of the year.
He chose urology as a specialty, his wife Lavinia said, partly because it afforded him an ability to pursue his passion for medicine and surgery, but still lead a normal life.
"He didn't want to get the calls in the middle of the night the way general surgeons do," she said.
Dr. Branch was affiliated with Tampa General Hospital through his entire career, and served as chief of urology there. He was also a past chief of staff and vice chairman of the board of directors for Memorial Hospital, and maintained a private practice in an office on Swann Avenue next to Memorial.
He was a member of countless professional organizations, and served as an officer in many of them. He had been president of the Florida chapter of the American College of Surgeons and had represented the state as a governor of the organization. He was also a past president of the Tampa Bay Surgical Society and served as the chairman of the board of directors of Shriners Hospitals for Children.
But his medical work was never about career advancement or self-aggrandizement, his wife said. It was about becoming a better doctor so he could give the best care for his patients.
"He loved his patients," Lavinia Branch said, "and his patients loved him."
He also loved Tampa, and belonged to as many civic groups as professional ones. He was a member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and was the Gasparilla King in 1989.
Lavinia was Dr. Branch's third wife. They had been friends for decades, but didn't become romantically involved until the 1990s. They married nine years ago.
"He liked to tell people he chased me for 35 years and finally caught me," she said.
Dr. Branch had never been overseas until a few years ago, when his wife practically forced him to go to England with her. He immediately fell in love with the English countryside, and the couple spent every Christmas in a different British village, and then traveled to London for New Year's Eve.
They would have been gearing up for that trip right about now. But in mid November, Dr. Branch suffered a stroke. He was admitted to Tampa General and seemed to be recovering. Then complications developed and he died without returning home.
About 600 people attended his memorial, and about 100 came to the church service the next day. Many were former patients who told Lavinia Branch that her husband had saved their lives.
Lavinia Branch has one final trip to take with her husband. She'll be leaving soon to see him buried in Paragould, that small cotton town that he left when he was 11.
Besides his wife, Dr. Branch is survived by three children from previous marriages: William T. Branch II, Ashley Branch and Steven Branch.