The Linear Canvas
This journal is about the wrongs and rights of the world, as I see them.

The Linear Canvas

There goes a quarters worth of rubber: My time with Hobart Francis

October 1st, 2011 . by Alexander Fisher

My dad had been interested in electronics and always tried to repair our televisions when he could. He had some miscellaneous hand tools and some test instruments including a vacuum tube tester. That was just enough exposure to make me think I wanted to be trained in electronics as well.

In the mid-1970’s, my school in London, Ohio had become involved in a joint vocational school (JVS) with a number of other local school systems. Each JVS program would last the final two years of high school and you would receive a certificate as well as a diploma at graduation. The stated purpose of this was probably to help train young people for the jobs of the future. I think the actual purpose, at least at first, was to get the deadwood out of the local school principal’s office and into the JVS principal’s office, at least for some students.

Hobart Francis in May 1981

I was somewhere in between. I was a bit of a trouble maker and terribly unreliable. But I did have some history of getting decent grades with little effort, when I wanted to. That was quite unlike most of the other semi-permanent participants of the after school detention program that I belonged to.

Our local JVS was recruiting us as soon as the money became available and the school was being built. I remember the question I asked the recruiter was, would I have to cut my hair if I went there? I had been sent home many times the last two to three years by the principal because of my hair length. Luckily there was no rule, so I would be able to grow my hair as long as I wanted.

About the same time, I was becoming interested in making a career as an FM rock radio disk jockey. I loved music. I read every rock magazine I could get my hands on. I wanted to be a rock star first, but a radio disk jockey if that didn’t work out. A friend of mine and I both had thought that the electronics program at the JVS was the way to make that happen. He realized after one year that it wasn’t the path at all. He went back to regular high school in his senior year and became a relatively famous radio personality. I stayed in electronics at JVS and I became a cable guy. I’m still working on the rock star thing.

As the summer drew to a close I still had no idea that I would find a job in electronics before I actually learned anything about it.

Mabel

I had known Mrs. Francis (Mabel) for awhile. She had at one time also owned the State Restaurant. I had spent plenty of my lunch money there over the years. (See my post “Running From Rocks“) I would never say that she had been rude to me or actually even nice to me. She just gave you that look. She knew you were there, but she just wasn’t that excited about it.

I had also been buying 45 rpm records at her radio/TV sales and repair business, Francis Radio and TV. It was just up the street from the restaurant and she co-owned it with her husband, Hobart.

Mabel Francis

When I was in grade school, I only received a small allowance from my parents each week. I couldn’t afford record albums, but music singles on 45’s were within my budget. Buying records at Francis’ was more expensive than most of the other stores in London. You had to really want something badly to have to buy it there. In addition, Mrs. Francis would follow you around the store like she thought you were going to steal something.

Once I went to the door of their store, just after 5 o’clock with my sisters and it was unlocked. We went in and immediately noticed the lights were out. I called out, but no one was there. I don’t remember us taking anything. We just walked out. I told Hobart about it once and he looked at me like he was a little stunned to hear that. It was as if I knew something that he also knew about. He said he had some unreliable person working for him then. That was right around the time Mrs. Francis left the State Restaurant and began working in the TV shop with him full time.

Hobart and Mabel had a bit of a strange relationship. They “courted” eighteen years before they were married. They waited until Mabel’s mother passed away to wed. As a result they were an older couple when their daughter was born. Having just the one child and especially at such advanced ages, made them very loving grateful parents. They had a large picture of the little girl hanging behind their cash register and they would do and give absolutely everything for their child.

If you went into the store at midday during the week, you would always find Mrs. Francis in a small room on the side of the store where they had the newest RCA TV models on display. There was also a couch and chair in the room. Normally you would find Mrs. Francis there with some of her family and friends. More often than not they spent the noon hour watching the Ruth Lyons’ 50/50 Club with Bob Braun on television, which was just what women, and some men, did in Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ruth Lyons, who actually retired in the late 1960’s, was the Oprah of her day in the Ohio Valley. There were no controversial topics of discussion, ever. It was a very classic old-time radio style entertainment mix of talk, comedy, and big band inspired music. Every mom loved it and everything stopped when the show came on the TV or radio. It was the time during her work day that Mrs. Francis was happiest and most friendly.

“What Are You Doing Every Other Night For The Next Several Years?”

One afternoon I was walking around downtown and decided to go into Francis’ store. I was excited about beginning the electronics program soon and I must’ve felt like I needed to be near some new televisions. Besides TV’s and records, they had many things for sale there like Hi-Fi’s, audio tape, speakers, and transistor radios. I was just milling around the store, looking at everything. Usually when Mrs. Francis had any kids in her store, she would follow them around, in a very intense manner. She watched their every move.

This day was different, she was following me, but she was being pleasant and was asking questions about me. She was sizing me up. She knew who I was, but she really didn’t know that much about me. After talking to me for awhile, she asked me if I wanted to make some money delivering TV’s. Of course considering my interest in electronics, I was very excited to do that. She put me to work right away.

Mrs. Francis began calling me regularly to make deliveries of new TV’s and picking up old sets. I also must’ve assembled a hundred cheap TV carts for her and I unboxed many new TV’s. Mr. Francis (Hobart) was getting too old and broken down to be helping anyone assemble or un-box anything, so there always needed to be some hired help on almost every job.

Considering that we usually only worked about two hours per delivery, the pay was usually very generous, for a high school student. Most times he also would give me any old TV that we picked up to experiment on. My parent’s house and backyard were filled with working and non-working sets. My parents tolerated it, because they thought it was all good for me. But I bet my mom always dreaded the next time she would see me come up the driveway with another one.

I worked with several people delivering for the Francis’. Sometimes they were just people Mrs. Francis grabbed off the street. But there were a few people that were regulars from time to time. Mr. Francis would always drive his late 60’s yellow Chevy van to transport the set, myself, and my helper to the delivery. He also had a man that installed TV antennas for him that I helped on occasion. Later that man would become the city mayor.

Hobie

Hobart was a small man, who couldn’t straighten up completely so he sort of shuffled from side to side as he walked. He always wore black shoes, dark pants with a white shirt and tie. He carried a pocket protector and had it filled with pens, Xcelite screwdrivers and TV alignment tools. He wore rather large glasses with thick lenses. He also didn’t have much hair to cover the scars on the back of his head where he’d hit the inside of a television cabinet too many times. Several times I saw a customer come up behind him just to say something like “Mr. Francis, would you like a cup of coffee?” while he had his head inside their TV. This would startle him and then he’d hit his head. It wasn’t unusual to see blood running down the back of his head on the way home from a service call.

Hobart Francis

He was deaf in his right ear, so if you’d say anything to him in the van on the way to a job, he would have to turn completely around in his seat to hear you. He told me that he just woke up one morning and he couldn’t hear out of that ear at all. Hobie’s partial deafness didn’t stop me from talking to him as I enjoyed my access to such an important member of the local community. He was a business owner. He lived in a nice neighborhood. He owned farm land. He had very important friends. But what impressed me the most was his knowledge of technical engineering in addition to his desire to do each job to the best of his ability. I knew that I wanted to be just like him, in that respect.

Hobie had been in electronics repair in town since 1932 and had been an authorized RCA dealer for years. He had grown up just north of London and would tell me stories about coming to town on the weekends as a child and how busy the downtown area was almost all the time, even late at night. He talked about the inter-urban railway that ran through the town then that allowed people to flow in and out of the community at a pretty constant rate.

While we waited for Hobart to return from a service call to pick me up one day, Mrs. Francis told me that she wanted me to start riding along with Hobie more, when I could, after school and on Saturdays. She wanted me to help him and also to be there in case anything happened to him. I think it had been about a year since he had his heart attack. Mrs. Francis was so worried about him. She loved him so much. She became a completely different person when talking to him than to anyone else. She worried about all of her loved ones. Sometimes maybe a little too much, I think.

Over the years he had acquired many other regular jobs from local businesses and local government offices. He had made several high powered friends and he had the respect of about everyone. Even if you disliked him for any reason, you still might find yourself needing his services one day. So it was to your advantage to be on his good side. There were other TV repair shops in London, but his expertise was valuable on many complex issues. I think just about everyone knew that.

Christmas Music

Every year back then, it had also come to be Hobie’s task to hook up loud speakers on the street corners all through town playing non-stop Christmas music while everyone shopped. For many years the streets were crowded in London on most every Friday and Saturday and especially during Christmas season with shoppers. It was his job to entertain the shoppers with Christmas music as they spent their money.

For about five years I put up the speakers on poles along South Main Street and part of High Street for him. The phone company had run all of the wires from pole to pole to support this. I think we put up around a dozen PA speakers around town each year and removed them right after New Years. There had to have been several thousand feet of wire in that system. Back at Francis’ store, the music was playing on an old multi disk Hi-Fi record changer. The multi part was probably supposed to mean about five or six records, but Mrs. Francis would always put about thirty on it at a time. There were so many LP’s stacked on the spindle that when the last record played, the tone arm was pointing almost straight up in the air, instead of slightly down. I was always surprised it played like that at all, but it did. When the music stopped she would just go back there, grab the whole stack and flip them over. Later when I was manager of the cable TV company in Ada, Ohio I got a loud speaker and played music on the street during Christmas seasons in front of my building. It wasn’t quite the same, but it made me think of Hobie and Mabel.

Riding The Van

When you were with Hobie in his service van, you would get a commentary about local businesses, other drivers, and people walking down the street. Bell bottom pants were a favorite target of his in the mid 1970’s. He’d routinely make comments about how they would drag on the ground and were usually wet on the bottom. If he heard a car squeal its tires, he’d always say “There goes a quarters worth of rubber”. He was also convinced that they stopped making good singers in the 50’s and that no current performers were good at all. He’d always say that none of them could sing A cappella, like Rosemary Clooney could.

Alexander Fisher in 1975

Sometimes I would sit in the back of the van and talk to my helper, if I knew him. But most times I would sit up front and talk to Hobie. We talked about many things. I would tell him about my few experiences in life and he would talk about the things he’d seen and done. After I started at JVS he was helpful to me in understanding some of what I had learned. Sometimes the subject of race came up. Most interestingly, Hobart was a bit of a racist. I am not going to try to make any excuses for that except Hobart grew up in a time when most white people in Ohio learned when they were young to think in racist ways. Their parents did it and their grandparents did too.

In the case of black people in London at the time, I know they were maybe aware of the situation with Mr. Francis, but were very respectful of him. The deliveries we made to black homes in town were very cordial. But sometimes I sensed an air of animosity especially with the Francis’ behavior concerning their daughter later on. Once I asked Mr. Francis if he didn’t like black people, why did he sell them TV’s? He said ”Their money’s as green as anyone else’s”

 

Chasing Cars

Shortly after I began working for the Francis’ I came into the store after school. Mrs. Francis was in tears. I discovered that her daughter, who by this time was about fifteen years old, had not arrived home from school yet. She would normally call her mom when she arrived there and today she was ten minutes late calling in. Hobie had a CB radio in his van and had been alerted to her tardiness. The plan was for him to pick me up and go looking for the girl. Luckily just after we left she called her mother and the whole incident was over, for that day. In the following months the late arrivals to home began to be more frequent. Several times we found her with a black teenage boy. This to Hobart and Mabel, was a very difficult situation. At the time, the community had few inter-racial relationships. It wasn’t really all that well accepted then.

Once we were called out to look for their daughter. We found her in the car with a different young man this time, who was also black. Mr Francis got out of the van and walked to the car. Within seconds he began to have heart problems. I saw the look of terror on the boyfriends face when Hobie began having a heart attack. I bet he thought that he’d just killed Mr. Francis. Hobie staggered back to the van. He grabbed his nitroglycerin, took one and after a few minutes, he was OK again. Everyone survived, but I knew we were all completely shook up.

Bad Breaks and Brakes on Route Thirty Eight

The only time I remember being personally disappointed in Hobart was one Saturday that he and I went out using his old service van. It was an early 60’s Ford Econoline van painted red and white with ladder racks on it. It usually sat behind his store and ever since he got his Chevy van, it had been used very infrequently. Mostly, it was used for TV antenna jobs as it could carry the ladders needed. There was an antenna job he wanted done, but his regular antenna man could not get to it. I was going to have to do it alone. I was capable by then. But this was the first time I would have to do anything by myself, so Hobart went with me to supervise.

As Hobie and I drove south out of town we came to a state vehicle inspection. The van was old, but beyond needing a paint job, it seemed alright to me. When the inspector asked me to hit the brakes to verify the brake light operation, for some reason, I remember hitting the brakes just a little harder than I needed to. When I did that, someone started yelling that the brake lines had exploded and there was now fluid all over the place. Of course the van failed the inspection. But Hobie was furious at me, and let me know it. He also blamed me for the prospect of getting a ticket for having an unsafe vehicle. He started to argue with the officer that was writing the ticket. He was saying how I had hit the brake too hard and that was what caused the line to burst. He was essentially blaming it all on me.

The patrolman interrupted Hobie and told him, in a very stern voice, that had I needed to stop quickly, I probably would’ve had to hit them much harder than that. He said we were lucky we found that out now and that it had probably saved us from having an accident up the road.

He was absolutely right. Who knows whether the brakes would have failed that day, but they were going to eventually. Hobie knew that and immediately accepted the ticket and did not seem angry at me anymore. The state patrol called Mrs. Francis to have someone come pick us up. We did the antenna job another day

Job Of The Future?

Not long after I graduated from high school, I went to Hobie and told him that I needed to get a full time job. I told him that I wouldn’t leave if he’d put me on as a full time TV repairman. I didn’t realize that he really wanted to retire soon and wanted an experienced repairman to turn the shop completely over to. He looked at me and said he couldn’t do that because he needed someone that could take over immediately, not someone he had to train for awhile. He said he just didn’t have the time to train me properly. He also said that he didn’t think TV repair would be a good thing for me to make a career in. He said that TV’s were increasingly being purchased from and serviced by huge retailers and would someday be a throw away item. He looked up at me, smiled and said, “You should get into industrial electronics. That‘s where the jobs will be in the future”.

I wasn’t offended. I was nineteen. I had not been in electronics that long. Though if there was a time I was ever going to use my recently acquired training in TV repair, this was it. But now I wondered why I had just spent two years learning TV repair? Maybe they should have trained me in industrial electronics instead.

Once I got into the communications business, I began an electronics odyssey that makes my TV repair days seem quaint in comparison. The reality is that Hobie was doing me a favor. He was right about the TV business. RCA faded as a brand. The Chinese build TV’s with low cost labor and that are usually not repaired, just thrown away. There are few mom and pop TV sales and repair shops around anymore, They just can’t compete with Wal-Mart and Best Buy. My father made me promise to never be a prison guard like him and now Hobie told me TV repair was not any good for me either.

But, If Hobie Had Been My Dad, I’d Have Been Much Shorter.

I didn’t spend much time with my father. I should say, he didn’t spend much time with me. As I got a little older I was fortunate to meet a few men that would be better role models for me. I’ve always said the two most positive influences in my life were my father in-law Dean Fuller and Hobart Francis. I had an uncle and two teachers that almost fit in this category, but not like Dean and Hobie. I had never known anyone like them before. I’m not saying either were perfect, but the way they lived their lives was admirable in almost every way. They worked hard, were very intelligent, and were completely trust worthy.

Once when I was the best man in my friends wedding, I had put on my tuxedo and was not doing a very good job with the tie. I thought I would go to Francis’ to see if Hobie could help me get it fixed. I walked in the back door and Hobie was seated at the service bench working on a TV, I explained my problem and he immediately jumped up and began to help me. As I watched him, I felt like he enjoyed helping me with one of those coming of age moments. It never escapes me that when I remember this story, that it never occurred to me to ask my father for help.

For The Love Of That Baby

I worked for Hobie on and off for years to come. Most often Mrs. Francis would call me just after I got home from work to help a few times a week. But as time wore on, I had less and less time to spend helping the Francis’ anymore. Occasionally I would stop in and order parts or buy something from them. Once I told Hobie that I would pick up something I had purchased from him at his house. When I got there, we stood beside his van and talked for quite a while.

I had known for some time that the Francis’ daughter had become pregnant by her boyfriend and had had the baby already. The baby’s father was a young black man. Knowing Mr. Francis as I did, I knew that this situation would have troubled him greatly. To this point I did not know how he felt about the birth of his first grandchild or the fact that the child was of mixed race.

As he began to discuss his daughter and her new baby, I began to see that he was very accepting of the new addition to his family. Hobie always loved his daughter, and never would’ve let this situation come between him and her in the long run. His face beamed with pride when discussing his new grandchild. He looked at me, smiled and said, “I never ever thought I could love this baby as much as I do.” I saw a little tear in the corner of his eye and I knew that Hobie had become a changed man. I was happy to see that this was the case. I was proud of Hobie.

One Last Time

In the summer of 1981, Hobie approached me about taking on a fairly large project in a local apartment complex that would require me to update and fine tune the entire local antenna system that he had installed during the original construction. By this time Hobie had slowed down a bit, but was still working when he wanted to. He had also found his replacement repairing TV’s at his shop.

I had already finished the project when I got a phone call one day from Hobie. He asked if he could come over. He said he had something he wanted to tell me. It’s not that Hobie and I didn’t have this kind of relationship, it’s just that he had never called and asked me anything like that before.

I was watching out the window of the apartment I lived in with my parents, when I saw Hobie’s big yellow Chrysler New Yorker pull into a parking space out front. This car was more of a luxury yacht than it was an automobile. I walked out and got in the car. We began to talk about things in general. Finally, he told me he was going into the hospital the next day. He said that he was going to get one of his hips replaced. I muttered something about I’m sure everything will be okay. He said “No, I really have a bad feeling about this.” I tried to reassure him, by telling him that he was mistaken and that he would be alright. He began to talk about the TV series “Bonanza”. On that show there was a character named Hoss Cartwright who was played by an actor named Dan Blocker.

Hobie began to talk about a story most people knew about at that time. Mr. Blocker had appendicitis and was put in the hospital for an appendectomy. As I recall there was no emergency in this situation. It was a fairly standard procedure. During the operation though, Dan Blocker a.k.a. Hoss Cartwright, died.

I told Hobie, that was not going to happen to him, that he was going to be okay. I just knew it. He said, “Well I hope so.” After we talked a while longer, I remember he showed me his new cane, and then he went home. I think I said what you are supposed to say to someone who talks like that. But still, it worried me a little.

I was just starting a new job in Columbus. Two days after he and I talked, when I arrived home that evening, my mother met me at the door with a concerned look on her face. She had a newspaper in her hand. She said to me, “You’re not gonna like this…” Then she handed me the paper. She was right, I didn’t like it. Among the stories on the front page was one that stated,

Hobart D. Francis, age 68, is dead.

I went to the viewing the following day at a local funeral home. There were people waiting in line all the way out the door to file past the coffin. It was like he was a local celebrity. Family, friends, customers, former employees, we were all there waiting to see Hobie one last time and to give Mabel our condolences on her loss. When I finally got there I saw Hobe in his casket with his glasses on and Mrs. Francis standing beside it. I hugged her and started crying. I think she really had run out of things to say to people and said “I didn’t know everyone loved Hobie so much”. I did.

There goes a quarters worth of rubber

One time I had an interview at the GM Fisher Body plant in Columbus which was about thirty miles from London. It wasn’t going particularly well until the interviewer asked me to describe the person that influenced me the most in my life. I started to describe Hobart. After about thirty seconds he stopped me and asked, “Are you talking about Hobie Francis?” I was a little confused, but answered “Yes, I am”. It turned out that he was from London originally and knew Mr. Francis. It impressed him so much that he promised me the job. I ended up not taking it, but it goes to illustrate Hobart’s effect on the community that I grew up in.

I have always dreamed that one day I would become wealthy and build a monument to Hobie in London. I don’t know if he ever knew how great of an impact he had on me. I also hope that I didn’t cause him too much grief during the time we were acquainted. My only defense if I did, was that I was a teenager that was still looking for a direction and he helped point me in one. I just hope that the time I spent with him, made his life a little more interesting as well.

Certainly this case shows a person should not be judged just on what they have achieved during their life, but also what impact they had on the lives of others as well. His influence makes me better every day. I will always value my time with Hobart.

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