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Cooking for a cause: Fish and Chicken Fry raises money for Helen Branson Memorial Fund
September 14, 2018

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SHEPHERDSTOWN -- Page-Jackson High School, Jefferson County's first publicly funded school for African Americans students, may no longer exist, but the school's memory still lives on in the hearts of its alumni and their descendants.

For the children of alumnus Helen Branson, honoring their mother's appreciation for education and love for her alma mater was always important. As children, Branson's three daughters attended the majority of Page-Jackson events with their mother. Even after their mother's passing in 2009, they continued to be involved with the Page-Jackson Alumni Association.

"Some of these Page-Jackson members are in their 70s, 80s and older, but they're trying to keep it alive," said Branson's oldest daughter, Barbara Thomas, of Shepherdstown. "All of the parents are getting old, so it's important for us, the kids, to keep up this project, so it doesn't die."

Part of keeping the alumni association and their mother's memory alive, is by funding an annual $1,000 scholarship for the relative of any Page-Jackson alumni. For three years now, the Branson family has banded together with their friends to raise funds for the scholarship, which the alumni association officially named the Helen Branson Memorial Fund this year.

According to Branson's youngest daughter, Susan Berry, of Shepherdstown, her mother impressed upon all of her children the value of education, which is one of the reasons why the family prioritizes offering the scholarship.

"She was adamant about education," Berry said. "We thought it was a good idea to give back, because she always gave back to her alma mater. So we decided to do the same, and give back in her name."

On Saturday afternoon, Berry, Thomas, their middle sister Agnes Luckett, of Martinsburg, and several friends and family members were serving up take-out containers full of soul food -- fried fish, fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, macaroni and cheese, macaroni salad, rolls, cakes and brownies -- out of the War Memorial Building's kitchen. After customers ordered from Thomas, Berry and family friend Dennis Johnson, of Martinsburg, would dish up the orders. Johnson, who owns the Martinsburg-based catering company Denny Dos, kept busy in between orders, breading and frying the fish and chicken.

"It's cooked and seasoned with love," Johnson said of his food. Johnson grew up attending the same church as Branson and her family, Asbury United Methodist Church, and his friendship with Branson is why he has helped cook during every Fish and Chicken Fry the family has held.

"I knew their mom. Miss Helen, she was comical, to me she was really fun. And she always had something to say to somebody," Johnson said.

Following in her mother's shoes as a nurse's aid in Martinsburg's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Berry said she hopes the family will be able to add on a second scholarship in the future, in honor of her mother's vocation.

"We want to give another $1,000 to a nursing student," Berry said, mentioning the scholarship -- the details of which have not yet been finalized -- would be available for the same nursing student to get every year until graduation, as long as the student remained in the major and retained a high GPA.

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