The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk
John Francis, Ph.D. Explains His 17 Years of Silence
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“Thank you for being here.” Ordinarily that would be nothing more but a nice, generic way for a speaker to introduce him- or herself before a public lecture. But at the lecture John Francis, Ph.D. gave February 14 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest, it had a unique personal meaning for the man who said it. According to Francis, when he spoke those words in public on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, it was the first time he had spoken at all — publicly or privately — in 17 years.
Dr. Francis’s story — also told in his 2004 book Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time — began on January 17, 1971, when two oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay.and spilled 840,000 gallons of crude, much of it ending up on the Bay Area’s beaches. At that time Francis was a 25-year-old dreadlocked African-American hippie living with a girlfriend named Jean in a small Marin County town called Inverness (pop. 350). Francis got the radical idea that the reason oil tankers and spills exist was that people use fossil fuels for transportation, and if individuals gave up that convenience and started moving themselves around in ways that didn’t involve combustion — walking, bicycling, sailing — the need for oil and the environmental risks of using and moving it would end.
This didn’t sit especially well with his girlfriend, an heiress to part of the Standard Oil fortune who was expecting a large settlement from her lawsuit against the company, and even on Francis’s part it might have remained an idle dream. Then something else happened: a deputy sheriff named Jerry Tanner, with whom Francis had become “kind of a friend” even though their main contact was that Tanner “would always be poking around in our yard looking for things that were growing,” suddenly died in a boating accident. His wife and son, who’d been in the boat with him, miraculously survived.
“When he died we picked some peas, gave them to his widow and walked eight miles to the ocean,” Francis recalled. “I felt we needed to do more walking, and we walked 20 miles to the Lion’s Share nightclub in San Anselmo where the Youngbloods were playing.” Having had no idea how long it took to walk 20 miles, Francis and his partner arrived at the club at 1 a.m. just as the Youngbloods were playing their final song of the night — their biggest hit, the era-defining song “Get Together.” (It’s the one with the famous lines, “C’mon people, smile on your brother, everybody get together and try to love one another right now.”)
Francis and Jean spent the night in town, walked back in the morning and, on their return, Francis “had an epiphany,” he remembered. “I thought of Jerry Tanner, who was about my age — 26 — and had a wife, a family, a house with a picket fence and a great job. He’d had everything, and just like that he was gone.” Francis decided he wasn’t going to wait until his girlfriend got her money to live the way he wanted to, if only because he might die before that happened. Instead, he said, “I decided everything was in the here and now, and I just kept walking.”
As soon as he got to a phone, Francis called his parents in Philadelphia, where he’d been born in 1946. He recounted the conversation for his audience: “’Hi, Mom. Johnny. I’m happy. I just wanted to call to say I’m not coming back to Philadelphia any time soon. No, I’m O.K. I’ve given up riding in cars, planes, trains, anything with a motor that uses oil.’ My dad said, ‘Why didn’t you do that when you were 16?’ I said I didn’t know about the environment then.”
Francis’s silence began on his 27th birthday — February 23, 1973 — and its origins were as sudden and unexpected as those of his decision to give up motorized transportation. “I was getting the dickens from my friends,” he remembered, “so on my 27th birthday I decided to be quiet for just one day. I walked to the ocean and listened to the water, and it changed me as a person because I started listening. I realized I hadn’t really been listening before. I’d just listened enough to hear something I disagreed with, and then I didn’t listen anymore. So once I started listening, I started to learn things and thought, ‘Maybe I should keep quiet a little while longer because this is something I should explore.’”
He sent a postcard to his parents — his anti-verbalization rule only encompassed talking, not writing — to tell them they shouldn’t expect any more phone calls from him. They reacted to that about the way they had to his decision not to use motor vehicles. “My mom wrote back, ‘Your dad will be on the next plane,’” Francis recalled. “They thought I’d been taken in by a strange religious cult and they should go out and deprogram me. My dad saw me walking and said, ‘Come on, get in the car. We’ll drive to the hotel.’” Francis’s only response was to wiggle his fingers in a gesture that meant no thanks, he’d rather walk.
Once Francis arrived at his dad’s hotel they had a conversation — with Francis writing out his side of it the way Beethoven’s friends had to do when he became completely deaf — “and I tried to tell him I was reading, writing and painting,” Francis remembered. “We wrote things back and forth, and I think it was the first time we really communicated. My dad called my mom and said, ‘He’s healthy. He walks everywhere, doesn’t talk, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink. Let’s just leave him out there because this won’t work back East.’”
Francis, predictably, took that last remark as a challenge and decided to work his way across the country. He apprenticed with a boat builder in San Francisco so he’d know how to make himself a sailboat when he needed to travel over long distances by water. He carried little or no money, supporting himself as a street musician with the banjo he took with him, and which he’d learned to play by picking up lessons from people he met along the way. At one point, in Washington state, he built a boat on one side of Puget Sound, sailed it across and sold it on the other side.
Eventually Francis’s odyssey took him back to school. He’d dropped out of college years before but now, excited by the new discipline of environmental studies, he got his bachelors’ degree at Southern Oregon University, his masters’ at the University of Montana and his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Ann Arbor. And he did it all while remaining true to his commitment never to speak or ride in a motor vehicle — until he had to speak before the committee of professors as the final step towards his Ph.D. They were willing to accommodate him, but fortuitously he had decided to start talking again and had chosen the 20th anniversary celebration of Earth Day in 1990 as his vocal coming-out party.
In the meantime, just as an oil-tanker accident had started Francis on his journey of intellectual and spiritual discovery in the first place, another — the Exxon Valdez incident in March 1989 — provided the seeds of his subsequent career. Naturally enough, he had chosen to write his Ph.D. thesis on oil spills — and after the Exxon Valdez accident he was suddenly the nation’s foremost authority on them. He was appointed the worldwide good-will ambassador for the environment by the United Nations and got a job with the U.S. Coast Guard to write policies under the 1970 Resources and Accident Management Act for dealing with oil spills.
There was just one catch: the Coast Guard wanted him in Washington, D.C. immediately — and Francis, who got the offer while staying with his parents in Philadelphia, still wasn’t using motorized transit. “I told them I could get there on my bike in two months,” Francis recalled. “They said O.K.” On the job, he would ride his bike to inspect oil tankers — and the commander who was his direct superior would ride his bike to accompany him. When he’d visit oil tankers he’d meet corporate officials who questioned how anyone could understand their industry when he went so far out of his way not to use their product, but the memory he carried with him the longest was a conversation with the personnel manager who’d hired him.
“After I’d been there six months, the personnel guy said, ‘Dr. Francis, we see you’re just a regular person with ideals, but what really surprised us was that, when you showed up, you were Black,” Dr. Francis remembered. “I said, ‘That’s what needs to change.’ The environmental movement isn’t all-inclusive, and it needs to be.” Dr. Francis recalled that they wanted to keep him on, but after six months he was getting restive, so he sailed through the Caribbean to Venezuela. There he would finally break his commitment never to use a motor vehicle again.
“As I was walking through Venezuela, I walked through a prison town called El Dorado, and on the other side the Guardia Nacional was waiting for me,” he remembered. “The commander thought I wanted to kick him out of his bungalow and take over, and he told me to spend the night in town. I slept in a tent that night and the next morning I walked past the main gate with my banjo wrapped up in something green. I got stopped: ‘Pasaporte! Pasaporte!’ I said, ‘I don’t need to show you a passport. I’m Dr. Francis, an ambassador from the U.N. I’m walking around the world, and if you don’t believe me ask your commandant, Jesús.”
As he walked away from the camp, Francis said, he started shouting the words of the old spiritual Dr. Martin Luther King had quoted in his 1963 March on Washington speech — “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we’re free at last!” Then he found himself wondering just what he was free from and why he’d had the fantasy that he had been a prisoner and had escaped. “One hundred miles later, I figured out that my decision not to use motorized vehicles had been appropriate at one time, but now it had become a prison. It had calcified. … There are moments I have to revisit my decisions to do a certain thing and be a certain way.”
Today Dr. Francis’s plan is to retrace his walking journey across the U.S., this time with the support of a wide range of organizations — from the Sierra Club to the Rotary to the United Steel Workers — mobilizing to use his trip as a way to build support for the environmental movement. He says the current President’s relentlessly anti-environmental policies are just another call to arms for us to take personal responsibility for protecting the environment now that it’s obvious the government isn’t going to do it for us. “It’s all about doing what we’re going to do,” Dr. Francis says. “I think we all can make a tremendous difference, even by just being nice to each other.”