Francis Johnson affected his community one story at a time
Teachers and children from the UW-River Falls C.H.I.L.D. Child Care Center wore blaze orange on March 2 in memory of “local legend” Francis Johnson, who died on Feb. 27. Photo courtesy of Minda Matthys
Francis Johnson in his blaze orange jacket was a well-known figure across River Falls as he biked to and from work. He was a tall, strong man, and his friendly nature and easy ability to strike up a conversation allowed him to touch the lives of people all across town.
Caryn Sande was in college when she met him 11 years ago. She was working at the Holiday gas station in River Falls at the time, and Johnson would come in, drink coffee and read the newspaper. Eventually, Sande’s assistant manager introduced her to him.
“And it just kind of snowballed from there,” Sande said. “He would tell his silly stories and I would listen – and he took it as an audience and it just kind of grew from there.”
Over time, Sande came to know Johnson as someone who was funny, intelligent, philosophical and kind. He was a local who had been in River Falls essentially his whole life. He came from a farming family, and later came to work for Chartwells at UW-River Falls doing deliveries. Everywhere he went around town, even in the winter, he bicycled.
He never planned on retiring, Sande said. “He loved what he did and he liked to keep moving.”
Francis Johnson died on Feb. 27 shortly after collapsing while riding his bike. It was early in the morning, and he was riding on Second Street near Locust Street. He was 70 years old. A memorial service was held on March 3, and ever since his death there has been an outpouring of sympathy from across the community. He was extraordinarily good at making connections, and many people have a story to tell about him.
Caryn Sande would often talk to him about books. Johnson loved history – particularly tales about Custer’s battles and the Wild West – and he liked to invent stories of his own from time to time. He was also very handy, she said, and he would often help his friends with odd jobs. She recalled one instance when, during a blizzard, she had to shovel out the parking lot at Holiday. The whole time she was there, Johnson was too.
“I spent so much time cleaning that stupid lot,” she said, “and he was right there next to me, making sure I didn’t get hit by cars, and he’s a big six-foot something guy and I’m just barely five-two.”
This was not, she said, uncommon of him. “He was there for everybody,” she said.
In 2010, Sande got engaged. She introduced her husband to Johnson, and the two of them got along well. In 2012, Sande and her husband were married at the Kilkarney Hills golf course at the north edge of River Falls. Johnson attended, and he of course biked all the way there.
“After the ceremony was done, he gave us a big bear hug and kissed us on the head,” Sande said, “and, just, he was such a good guy. He would just do that.”
Johnson’s influence in town was far wider than perhaps even he knew. Minda Matthys, director of the C.H.I.L.D. Center daycare at UW-River Falls, said that she remembers Johnson coming in once a day to deliver catered meals from Chartwells for the kids. Over time, she said, he became a local celebrity.
“When he pulled up and they saw his lunch cart … you could just hear them chanting, ‘Francis! Francis!’” Matthys said. “They probably knew Francis better than some of the other teachers … He would wave hello and give them the time, and sometimes they would sneak out of Karen’s (Knapton) room just to get a better look at Francis.”
Elise Koop is the Events and Activities Coordinator at UWRF, and she met Johnson at a move-in day picnic while she was student on campus. They were both very sociable people, and hit it off quickly. Over time, she discovered the philosophical side of his nature and the way that side of him extended to his love of biking.
“He biked to get around town and to get to work, but also just for the love of biking itself,” she said. “He talked about how biking, for him, was a spiritual and an essential experience.”
Her impression of him, she said, was of someone who was very good at connecting with people. He would say “hello” and tell his stories, and though these seemed like small things, they showed that he was invested in his community.
After Johnson’s death, people from across the River Falls community banded together to show how much they appreciated him. Facebook posts announcing what had happened were followed by dozens of sad comments from people who knew him, and multiple groups from across town decided to wear orange on March 2 in his memory.
“So many people were affected by him, and he was just living his life,” Koop said. “He didn’t realize the impact he had on the community.”