On the coldest day in Macon in nearly 18 years, they celebrated the life of Fran Baxter.
Sure, she would have wanted her loved ones to bundle up but not to be sad. They were, however, allowed to grieve over Auburn’s loss in the national championship game Monday night.
Fran was a rabid Tigers fan, and it was remarkable how a loud cry of “War Eagle” could come from such a little lady. She and her husband, Wiley, went to an Auburn-Georgia game in Columbus on their first date in 1941. Her older sister, Oma Rae, tagged along as a chaperone.
On Tuesday, there was no preacher there to deliver the eulogy in the chapel at Macon Memorial Park. Instead, her daughter, two sons and a niece all shared stories of a life lived in the service of others.
Mary Francis “Fran’’ Baxter had been called “Dout” since she was a girl. Nobody was sure what it meant. Her three sisters carried nicknames of “Raebird,” “Tood” and “Bobby.”
Fran’s daughter, Suzy Kensinger, said her mother was an advocate for people. “God put an incredible spirit in her,” Suzy said. “Wherever she went, she brought the gift of friendship.”
Her son, Hank, called her a champion of the underdog, long before the era of civil rights. It bothered her when people were treated unfairly.
She also had strong sense of duty to her family. She made sacrifices. She wanted her children to go to college, so she took jobs as a teller at the C&S Bank at Westgate and as an assistant librarian at Willingham High School.
Fran was promoted to heaven last Friday. She was 88. She and Wiley celebrated their 71st anniversary last June. He remains in a nursing home in Chattanooga, Tenn., and was unable to attend Tuesday’s service.
I have shared the amazing story of Fran and Wiley Baxter countless times over the past 10 years. I would visit them when they lived on Red Oak Court in Macon. I went to see them after they moved into an assisted living facility in Chattanooga four years ago.
My friendship with the Baxters began when Fran wrote me a letter on her old Brother typewriter. She was a prolific letter writer. She sent notes of encouragement. She presided over her own card ministry.
She had written to thank me for my column on Veterans Day. She told me about Wiley, who had been in the Army in World War II. He earned three Purple Hearts in six months as the 3rd Infantry marched across France in the final months of the war.
Back her hometown of Boston, in Thomas County, she received a telegram in February 1945. Wiley had been critically injured. An artillery shell had hit and killed the other men in the bunker with him. He received severe injuries to his jaw and arm. His right leg had been amputated above the knee. He spent the next two years recovering in military hospitals.
At the bottom of Fran’s stationery was a caricature of the peg-legged caveman from the comic strip B.C. Underneath it was the word “Wiley.” I called her because I was curious if there was any connection between the caveman and her husband.
Yes, she said. Johnny Hart, the creator of B.C., was her brother-in-law and drew the character in honor of her Wiley.
The Baxters moved to Macon in 1951 when Wiley got a job with the Naval Ordnance Plant. Fran’s youngest sister, Bobby, was a lab technician at the Macon Hospital and lived with them in Westwood Heights.
Bobby (her real name is Ida Jane) met Hart at a dance at Robins Air Force Base. He worked as a photographer and graphic artist for the base newspaper. He played drums in three-piece band called “The Human Beings” and was bold enough to ask her to dance.
They were married at the base chapel in 1952 and lived as newlyweds in an upstairs apartment on Georgia Avenue in Macon. Hart kept his easel in front of a window on College Hill. It is where he drew some of his earliest caveman characters.
Hart, who died in 2007, was once called the “most widely read writer on earth” by The Washington Post. The comic strip was syndicated in more than 1,300 newspapers.
And Fran was always one of his biggest admirers. It never mattered to her that the characters in B.C. were loosely based on almost everyone in the family but herself. She was fine with being a member of the supporting cast.
Cartoon Wiley was the poet beneath the tree with his stone tablet. He was coach of the prehistoric cave teams. Words were always looked up in “Wiley’s Dictionary” on top of a rock. Suds were sipped at “Wiley’s Bar.”
Bobby, of course, inspired the “Cute Chick.” Although their mother, Janie Hatcher, was a tiny woman, Fran was convinced she was the model for the “Fat Broad” after Hart once watched her kill a snake with a stick.
Fran’s oldest son, Herky, once appeared as a pig named “Oynque” in the strip. Hank was immortalized as “Hank the Ant.”
Fran took care of Wiley. She lived a life of faith. When her children were going through her files, they found a folder in the back, as if it was the final chapter. She had labeled it “Going Home.”
It was a love letter to her family. Herky read it at her funeral.
She wrote how proud and blessed she was to have them in her life.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.