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Illness encroached, but never hopelessness

Jul 7, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

Gene Franklin was a fine friend and finer example to me and many others.

Proverbs 20:29 tells us that the glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair. Gray hair in this instance refers to wisdom. Biblical scholars make a clear distinction between the physical prowess of a fit, young man and the void of wisdom that often accompanies this phase of life. In essence, wisdom is merely an ornament to young men.

Riverton lost a man who epitomized the growth of our community over the last seven decades by building much of it. Eugene Franklin, known simply as Gene by four generations of people succumbed this week to ongoing ailments that dated to 1983.

Gene was a friend of mine, a friend of my parents, and a friend to most of the community. He was the kind of man whose word and a handshake meant more than all the binding legal agreements an army of attorneys could write up.

To Gene, his word was his honor. In spite of myriad other attributes, his honor was perhaps his best-known trait.

Gene grew up in one of the toughest time periods to ever plague Americans, and yet you never heard a word of complaint, discouragement or resentment from him.

One night a few years ago, as my wife and I had just finished dinner at a local restaurant, I noticed a 1942 Riverton football program. They were playing Basin that night and I quickly scanned the roster and found my uncle Gene Gasser -- tackle, 6-1, 170 pounds -- and just below him on the chart was Gene Franklin -- 6-4, 150, tight end.

I mentioned it to Gene and he just laughed and said, "I was a real physical threat in those days."

A three-sport letterman in football, basketball and track, Gene enlisted in the Navy after graduating in 1944.

His wartime service wasn't the stuff of legend. Gene took it all in stride. When asked about his Navy career during the war he often said, "Six decks and a sawdust bottom," referring to the Nevada ordnance center he served in until the war ended.

Gene was a builder, an expert carpenter and a source of wisdom for me in life but particularly in the woodshop. I asked him one afternoon how many houses he had built in Riverton. He thought for a while and said, "Maybe 120 or as many as 150, but I roofed over 400 of them."

In the course of a lifetime that added up to Gene personally building several complete housing developments. Looking at all those homes, full of young families that gradually grew up and moved on provided a sense of pride for the craftsman that Gene was.

Gene lived the philosophical question of whether it was better to have experienced the strength and vigor of youth before losing it or never have experienced it at all and not know the difference.

His 150-pound frame in high school changed as he hit his 20s. At 6-4 and 220-plus pounds, there wasn't much he couldn't do physically. That began to change in the early 1980s, when he started to lose his balance, felt strange tingling sensations, and was finally diagnosed in 1983 with multiple sclerosis. The choices his physician gave him were brutally honest: Either get ready to die or exercise, work hard and fight the MS as long as he could.

Gene was a fighter. He walked, rode an exercise bike, and worked out. In the process he was able to slow the degenerative effects of the disease for a long time.

He gradually went from a cane to a walker and finally a wheelchair, but as the disease progressed you wouldn't know it from talking to him.

Gene was a gardener. His garden was immaculate. How he was able to have sweet corn a full month before anyone else in the county was a local legend.

I helped rototill his garden a few times after he was unable to do it, but he still made cabinets and smaller wood projects for people in his shop for many years.

Occasionally I would come over and move some of the heavier projects around in his shop so he could work from a different angle, but he did almost everything else by himself in spite of the encroaching MS.

One afternoon we had a winter meeting at church. Gene walked in wearing his 1944 Riverton letterman sweater and sat down.

I walked over and said, "Nice sweater. Why did you decide to wear it today?"

With a gleam in his eye he said, "I thought I'd try it on one more time before the museum came to get it."

Born into tough times and never looking for a way out, a shortcut or someone else to take the blame, he epitomized the group that has come to be called the Greatest Generation.

A man of faith, a man of his word, and a man who made a difference to the people around him and in the world as a whole.

That's a eulogy few people can live up to. But we all ought to strive for it.

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