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A Man of Silence Is the Talk of an Idaho Town

September 04, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

HAILEY, Ida. — To a stranger walking through this central Idaho town on a hot Monday, the soda fountain inside Broyle's Drugstore looked like a cool place to rest.

John Francis unslung his banjo from his back and leaned it carefully against the counter.

The former Marin County, Calif., resident settled onto a stool and indicated by pointing to the menu that he wanted a vanilla shake . He handed the teen-age girl behind the counter a piece of paper that said:

"This is to introduce John Francis, who gave up the use of motorized vehicles not long after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1972. . . . Since 1973, John has maintained a vow of silence."

Eager to Communicate

The girl smiled nervously, unsure how to react to the 6-foot-2-inch black man with an open smile and dreadlocks. The pharmacist emerged from the back of the store, looking as if he intended to evict the gesticulating customer, but then he too read the printed statement and Francis was allowed to stay. Soon, Francis was "talking" with youngsters and working men at the fountain.

He fluttered his hands and worked his facial muscles. A humming sound accompanied his pantomime. So eager was Francis to communicate that it seemed he was going to break into speech.

John Francis, 40, was in Hailey for less than a week. In that time he visited with dozens of people, including the singer in the country band at the Mule Shoe Saloon, a forest ranger in the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, a postal clerk, ladies at a piano recital and an old friend he hadn't seen since the days when he was still talking.

At least until the first snow falls, the residents of Hailey, population 2,109, are going to be talking about the man who did not talk.

On June 15, John Francis graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in environmental studies. His thesis chronicles his decision to stop using motorized vehicles, and then to stop talking, as a personal statement similar to vows of silence traditionally taken by some religious orders. His silence was originally to have been observed for only one day:

"It was my 27th birthday, and to commemorate its passing I was struck with the idea of remaining silent for the day. It would be my birthday gift to myself and the friends that had to put up with my chatter."

The "word fast," as Francis calls it, gathered momentum. Everyone who came in contact with Francis had to decide whether to make the extra effort to communicate with him.

This was nowhere more true than on the University of Montana campus, since the currency of formal education is the spoken word. (Francis graduated with a bachelor's degree from Southern Oregon State College five years ago.)

"I really liked learning to read pantomime," said Roger Dunsmore, professor of humanities at the University of Montana. "Some of my colleagues were just the opposite. They hated it. They also mistrusted John's silence. They thought it was some kind of grandstanding."

When it came time for Francis to fulfill his duties as a teaching assistant, Dunsmore said, some members of the administration wondered: How can a man lead a discussion without talking?

Dunsmore had no such doubts: "I'd seen John come into our wilderness studies course and basically give a lecture with his banjo, watercolors (Francis paints people and scenes he encounters in his travels) and the blackboard." Francis went on to successfully teach an introductory environmental studies course.

As Francis' adviser, Dunsmore met with the mute student roughly once a week from September through June. He said that on some days he was more capable than others of picking up on Francis' communication. When the professor was tired or out of sorts, the two resorted to passing notes back and forth. On those days, Dunsmore said, he felt like he had let Francis down.

Filling 'Empty Space'

Dunsmore routinely has his wilderness studies classes observe days of silence. He claims to sympathize with Francis' decision to be silent, saying that people tend to use language "to fill up empty space."

Now that Francis has left Missoula, Dunsmore, 48, continues to play a tape of the silent student's banjo tunes every morning to wake up his 7-year-old son, Jack.

Dunsmore said Francis taught him "the significance of small things. Being silent and refusing to ride in cars aren't huge political acts--but yet they are," he said.

A high point of Dunsmore's career as an educator was Francis' thesis defense before a committee. Francis joked, mimed and plucked his banjo.

"Everybody had a good time and laughed," said Dunsmore. "I had a flash when we signed the thing off (approved the thesis) that we had just given Gandhi his master's degree--like it was a historical moment."

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