First time I saw him, he was headed down the side aisle at church. Sat about the same place every week. He was tall, debonair, with snow white hair and beautiful blue eyes. After the service he would regularly pick up women (literally, not like in a bar) off their feet and swing them around. Geez, he had to be about 90! He was strong, fit and a lady’s man. One Sunday the children of the church were performing a skit. They had asked him to be Goliath, letting David plunk him on th head with his itty-bitty slingshot. He obliged, liked the attention. They had the good sense to have a couple adults nearby to catch him when he fell. Quite a guy.
|Francis (Rube) celebrating a birthday well into his 90’s…|
His name was Francis. He had been a widower for nearly a decade when I got to know him. An avid gardener, he had gorgeous flower beds. In his 90’s, he still insisted on digging up his tulip bulbs every fall. He told me many times he’d get down on the ground to work, then wasn’t able to get back up. Someone walking or driving by would notice him flat on the ground, stop by to help him up and visit for awhile. He kept a shovel nearby that was older than him and sometimes used it to help “walk” him back to a standing position. After that old shovel handle tore up his arm, leaving nasty slivers a couple times, he decided to either sit on a chair or ask for help. He convinced me one spring to plant his annuals. I had asked a friend to help. (Should have said no, I’ve never been a flower girl, or enjoyed digging in the dirt) We were almost done when he wandered outside, holding a yardstick and some string. We hadn’t measured the distance between plants, or made sure the rows were perfectly straight! (You’re kidding right Francis? No, he was serious) We had to take them out and plant them all over. Never offered again, he never asked. He had friends who were master gardeners.
He had 2 daughters, Jane and Cynthia, both living around Chicago, about 175 miles away. They came often to visit and help. They were attentive, but he was about the most independent man I’ve ever known. They would drive him to Chicago a couple weeks before Christmas. After the holidays, he’d catch a plane to spend the worst months of Michigan’s winter in Arizona. I’d watch his house, water his plants, make sure no pipes froze or broke. His cleaning lady called me one day when he was out west in a panic. She heard a noise when she was down the basement, got scared and ran out of the house. Thanks. Me, a major keppi-strunt, exploring weird noises in the basement of an empty house was not my strong suit. Heck, I changed TV channels if a door creaked in a Hallmark commercial. I drove over and cautiously crept down the stairs. There was an artificial tree at the foot of the stairs. As I was walking past a black squirrel jumped out in front of me, clawed his way up the drapes in the next room. Scared me to death! I hiked up the steps, making sure to close the door tight, and called John, the fix-it-guy. After we located and borrowed a live trap, it was just a matter of time before the squirrel was lured by my tasty tidbit inside. John and I evicted him for not paying rent. Man that little squirrel was ticked, hissing and snarling. Sounded like he weighed 40 pounds and was gonna take a hunk out of both of us.
Francis had gone to Western Michigan University on a baseball scholarship, graduating in 1933. Really.
|Francis at 17 pitching for North Muskegon H.S. (my youngest played there, too)|
|His only sister Elva, lived and worked in Chicago and routinely sent him money to help with his tuition. Still, these were tough depression years and money was tight. He worked on campus and frequently stopped at a bakery in Kalamazoo when they were closing for the day. They sold their left over pies for a nickel a piece. Francis would buy 6 or 8, eat a couple, selling the rest to his buddies. He told me he thought he would have grown bigger and taller if he’d had more to eat growing up. Of the 7 children in his family, six of them had college degrees. Unbelievable. His senior year at Western, Francis went 8-0 for the season. He beat Michigan State in the state championship game 1-0. A real pitching duel. He was an amazing right-handed pitcher. He got his nickname, Rube after another pitcher named Rube Marquard, who had pitched in the early 1900’s and was inducted into baseball’s hall of fame. Professional Rube was a lefty.|
|Francis at 17|
|Francis at 28|
He once found himself pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was almost 50 by then. I kid you not. Francis said the fans were screaming at him to let Joe get a hit. Shoeless did win that match-up, but Rube always thought he could have struck him out. ESPN interviewed Francis a few years ago because he was the only pitcher still alive who had pitched to Shoeless Joe.
He belonged to the same Methodist Church for 88 years. Joined when he was 9. During that long tenure, he had some not-so-great preachers, yet he stuck it out, waiting and hoping the next guy would be better. Meanwhile, I skipped around, no patience once they had “done me wrong.” One day the minister’s wife called me. Said that Francis’ daughters were concerned about him. He had just finished rehab on a knee replacement at the spry age of 90+. It was harder for him to get around, and he wasn’t eating right. Asked if I’d be interested in making him some meals? I talked to one of his girls. Told her I’d be happy to bring him food-when I cooked. I didn’t want to have to cook a meal for him if we were going out for supper, or going to be gone for a couple days. Ended up being about 3 times a week. He was demanding. “Denise, don’t come when Peter Jennings is on. (Seriously?) Either come before or after. And not during Lawrence Welk reruns on Saturday night. (My stars, he was serious!) He sounded gruff, but after a short time we became good friends. He was old school-meat and potatoes. Little bit chauvinistic and stubborn beyond belief. Discovered when I arrived with his supper, set up his tray, (he refused to sit at his nice dining room table, preferring his chair), and got him a glass of milk, the time I spent sitting in a chair next to him talking (listening mostly) for 20 minutes was just as or more important than the food I brought. In the beginning this just wasn’t working. I thought I could cook the meal, run and drop off his food, go home and eat with John. But I ALWAYS took too long at Francis’ house. Meanwhile our food got cold, John was hungry. Since Francis wasn’t fussy about his meal time (except-for-his-strange-explicit-rules), it worked better if I made him a plate, but John and I ate first. I’d let the dishes soak, then head to Francis’ house. We got into a routine and it worked for both of us.
Rube met a large group of friends for coffee 6 days a week for over 50 years. Imagine, that’s a golden wedding anniversary. Unfortunately for Francis, after 50 years he had lost most of his coffee group. One day he said, “I used to enjoy watching the Lions play on Sunday.” (a pain many in this state must endure year after year. Kind of like being a Cub’s fan). “Monday morning, during coffee we’d hash over every play of the game. Now the only left beside me having coffee is Marie, and she doesn’t even watch football. Why don’t you join us for coffee sometime?” So I did. For about 5 years. After my Dad moved here, he joined too, and became a good friend of Francis. Dad was 8 years younger, and since Francis was slowing down, Dad would stop and buy 2 fish dinners on Wednesday nights, bring them to his house and they’d have supper together.
Francis started a special ministry of his own in the early ’60’s that would continue for over 40 years. He bought bolts of wool material and made 100 blankets for the needy each Christmas. Divided them up between a couple churches and agencies. He did this in his garage on a sewing machine that was older than him. When it broke, (often) he’d had John come over to get that antique (sewing machine, not Francis) going again. Most of the bolts were not particularly pretty colors or patterns, more like seconds, rather plain and functional. One night though I stopped by with his supper, and there on my chair was a gorgeous 100% wool red and black plaid blanket. He had thought of me when a “special” bolt had arrived at his door. Taking the time to make me a pretty blanket. Thanks Francis.
Francis, now in his upper 90’s was slowing down. He needed much more than just my suppers and visiting a half hour 3 nights a week. Jane and Cindy hired help so he could stay in his lovely lake home. While neither Shoeless Joe or Rube made it to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Francis was voted unanimously into the most important “Heaven’s Hall of Fame” on December 9th, 2006. His achey, crooked middle finger on his pitching hand hurting no more….