Remembering Dr. John Hope Franklin
There are some people who come into your life, no matter how short of time spent together, they leave a lasting memory. One of those memories for me was the day I spend doing a bass guide trip with Dr. John Hope Franklin. That day, you would not have known the soft spoken gentlemen casting a fly rod with such accuracy was one whose place in history will forever be inscribed on America's racial relations. That day was a hot sultry July day in the late 90's. Dr. John Hope Franklin had to be in his eighties but you would never have guessed it as he stood on my front casting deck dropping his handmade flies on the water of Jordan Lake. Why do I bring up this day? Because even though I only got to spend a day with Dr. John Hope Franklin, today I feel like I lost a friend ...as does the world. Dr. John Hope Franklin died at the age of 94.
Who is Dr. John Hope Franklin? The History books will remember him as one of the nation’s preeminent historians and humanitarians. He worked with the 1954 Supreme Court on the decision to end the legal segregation of black and white children in public schools. He is best known for his work 'From Slavery to Freedom', first published in 1947, and continuously updated. More than three million copies have been sold. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton. Later President Clinton named Dr. Franklin Chairman of his Initiative on Race. Along the way, Dr. Franklin earned 130 honorary degrees.
I will remember Dr. John Hope Franklin as an avid fisherman. In fact, history should record the presence Dr. John Hope Franklin had on fishing. He was an expert fly fisherman whose roots go beyond just a recreational fly fisherman. The good doctor was a friend and fishing companion of Norman MaClean. For those movie buffs out there, Norman MaClean was the author of the book "A River Runs Through It" that was later turned into a box office hit. The book is based on fly fishing adventures on Montana's Madison River that included Dr. John Hope Franklin and MaClean.
I listened intently that day as Dr. Franklin told me of his days fishing the Madison River. "After one trip to Montana, I was hooked," Dr. Franklin said. "For many fly fisherman, the legendary Madison has become a place to brag about. For me, the river is a place to cleanse the soul."
"Every summer I would gather with friends from throughout the United States on the banks of the Madison River," he continued. "It was an annual pilgrimage in mid-June or July. I always returned to the banks of my beloved Madison".
"I no longer wade the swift Madison River, instead I float it, something I decided was safer when I turned 77." laughed Dr. Franklin as he continued to work his fly rod with smooth poetic motion. A motion that I found hypnotic. And amazing considering he was a young 82 years old. Even as I idled from spot to spot, he would continue to stand on the front deck of my Ranger working his fly rod. It was his first time ever in a bass boat that July day.
I remember him jokingly commenting on fishing from my bass boat, "This is much better than fishing in a farm pond... although certainly isn't as relaxing".
Even though I was the guide that day, Dr. Franklin quickly assumed one of his best roles: teaching. I became the student as he demonstrated how to properly work the fly rod and even showed me some of his own fly creations. Still, he was more like a little kid in my Ranger, asking questions about my equipment and constantly peering into the running livewells. I still can see that child like gleem in his eyes as he caught his first bass on a carolina rig. He was determined to catch a bass on one of his flies, something that would have been more miracle that expertise considering it was midday in July. Of course, he proved me wrong.
It was hard for me not to be in awe of Dr. Franklin that day beyond his fishing prowess, after all he was considered one of 100 Greatest African Americans ever to live even then. President Barrack Obama honored Dr. Franklin earlier this year for his contributions to society and the world.
Dr. Franklin has stood with royalty, dignitaries and famous scholars; even taught in some of the worlds greatest educational institutions like Cambridge England and Duke University. Me, just a country boy raised on a tobacco farm, found great admiration from Dr. Franklin. Not because I had any historical accolades, but simply because of our mutual love of fishing.
I had forgotten something that Dr. John Hope Franklin said that day about fishing until I pondered his death:
"You forget everything when stalking or fighting a fish.
It doesn't matter if you are fishing in the Madison River
or in a farm pond,
the result is the same ..... escape".