My Uncle Frank

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

I’ve been writing this column which began on the pages of the Dublin Courier Herald for just over a year. I’ve explained a bit about myself and how I came to be a political writer in Atlanta, and about some of my earlier days in organized politics.  What I’ve never written about, however, is how I was originally exposed to politics, why I’ve identified myself as a Republican since early elementary school, nor how those items tie to Dublin.  Until today. But Today’s column is really all about Uncle Frank.

Frank B Flanders Jr. isn’t actually my uncle, in that he wasn’t either of my parents’ biological siblings.  He grew up on the family farm in the Rockledge area of Laurens County where he lived until 1950. The GI Bill sent him to Southern Tech in Marietta Georgia, and four years later he moved to the community of Fife in Fayette County with the former Miss Gena Gwin of Smyrna.  She, of course, was Aunt Gena, for whom my baby sister was named.  While he’s lived on the same farm since then, I should note that he’s never really left Dublin either.

Uncle Frank and Aunt Gena were members of the Bethany United Methodist Church, and were the closest of friends to both my grandparents and parents.  Uncle Frank was part of my family before even my mother was.  She came to visit from Norfolk Virginia on what was essentially my parent’s third date in 1963, and he was part of the vetting process as best I can tell.

At a dinner with my grandparents, parents and Uncle Frank and Aunt Gena, politics was briefly discussed.  The subject of the Kennedy-Nixon election was broached, and my mother quickly responded “Richard Nixon? Only kooks and nuts voted for Richard Nixon!”  Somehow, the other five kooks and nuts at the table were able to bite their tongues, and Dad still proposed before Mom returned home.  A year later, Mom voted for Barry Goldwater.

In keeping with tradition, I managed to bring my college girlfriend who just happened to be the co-chair of Vanderbilt’s Students for Dukakis-Benson over for a family dinner to their house.  Uncle Frank was unaware of her partisan leanings until mid-way through dinner.  Though Aunt Gena tried to quickly change the subject, I distinctly remember him putting down his fork, leaning over to her and saying, “Let me tell you something.  Gerald Ford saved this country.” 

Aunt Gena insisted on changing the topic, and we did.  He still liked my girlfriend a lot, despite her confused political leanings.  We were able to convert her to being a Republican, but I was less successful at ever proposing.  I recall him having a few blunt words about my mistake there, too.  He’s never been terribly shy about giving advice, and some of it was even pretty good.

He’s experienced with giving advice because many of those around him have always sought it.  A man from South Georgia that borrowed his way into business with a civil engineering degree and a lot of personal labor became one of Atlanta’s most successful commercial retail developers.  With that came personal wealth but never a sense of superiority or snobbery.  In good times and bad, he’s always been Uncle Frank.  And Uncle Frank is a generous man.

He was a faithful member of our church as I was growing up, in both presence and gifts.  His special concern was the United Methodist Children’s home, where much of his monetary donations went.  But he was also generous with his time and concern.  He was one of the few that would, or even could, take my large family out for Sunday dinner.  I once remember hearing his son ask where we were going after church.  His reply was “wherever we can get the biggest steak.”  It is sometimes hard to believe he’s not an actual blood relative.

When he thought I was making mistakes – from a young age until, well, now I guess – he would either call me or get a message to me.  While blunt, his advice was of concern but also with a message that he had confidence I could be doing better, and would do better.  He’s always been an optimist, even when evidence presents itself to the contrary.  And that’s a lot of why he cares about politics.

He’s a man that lived Republican talking points before they became caricatures of themselves.  He believes in a country that offers unlimited opportunity for those willing to take risk and work.  He also believes that giving back is a personal responsibility and not that of the government.  I’ve seen him epitomize the former, and selflessly demonstrate the latter.

He’s also a man that “family values” is not a slogan.  Aunt Gena spent about a decade in and out of hospitals suffering from emphysema before finally succumbing to the struggle, with him at her side the entire time.  Yet despite his sadness, he still had three children that needed a father, and eight grandchildren that needed “Big” – the name given to him by Frank B. Flanders IV as he was beginning to speak.

Along the way he’s had his own struggles as well, but when we talk it’s not about them.  He still loves to talk politics, and wants to know that the state and country that he loves will be in good hands.  Such as it was when I visited him this week, as I began the process of saying goodbye over a conversation about the Tuesday Republican caucuses and primaries.   He’s managed to beat cardiac issues well into his 80’s, but liver cancer is another issue entirely.  There’s a good chance we’ll be able to discuss Super Tuesday results, but the general election seems to be an eternity away right now.

Yet he remains smiling, joking, telling stories.  In short, he’s intent on being Uncle Frank for as long as he can.  He’s a fighter, with a strong constitution developed from growing up on a farm in Rockledge and honed by decades of executing business deals in Atlanta.  But reality is we are at a point where the fight will not be his for much longer.

There’s something about having an opportunity to say a proper good bye.  Because, at such time, it’s not good bye that you’re trying to say bye so much as thank you.  Thank you to a man that was such a great friend to my grandparents, father, mother, family, and to me.  Thank you for providing an example of so many things to strive for.  Thank for spending your life trying to make the world a better place to those around you.  Thank you for showing love to so many in so many ways.

God Speed Uncle Frank.


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