Father works to cope with son’s death through book, safety outreach efforts and namesake foundation

David Francis
David Francis

Once in a while, David Francis entertains the idea of running again for the Minnesota Legislature.

Then, he catches himself. He’s already involved in so many campaigns: He speaks to youth groups, hiking groups, church groups, political groups, anyone who might listen, on subjects ranging from wilderness safety to challenges of faith to the need for better legislation to support searches for missing adults.

All of these talks are built around his mission to keep the Jon Francis Foundation (JFF) alive. David Francis, the father, desperately wants the foundation to give meaning to the death of his son on an Idaho mountain in 2006.

You probably recall the story. On July 15, 2006, 24-year-old Jon Francis left the Idaho Bible camp where he was working to climb Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountain Range.

“Going solo into the wilderness is the most dangerous thing you can do,” David Francis said in a conversation with MinnPost. “But it is also the most rewarding. In Jon’s case, he said that at those times, he felt like he was in the presence of God.”

Highly publicized story
The story of the search for Jon and, ultimately, the search for his remains, received substantial news media attention in both Minnesota and Idaho. By all accounts, the Stillwater High/Augustana College grad was an outstanding young man, loved and respected by many.

It was a story that included politics. Not only was Francis, a DFLer, making a bid for the Minnesota Senate at the time his son disappeared, but the Francis family also was frustrated — as was Gov. Tim Pawlenty — by Idaho authorities’ readiness to quit the search for Jon three days after he left a message at the peak. “… All glory to God for the climb and the beautiful Sawtooths,” Jon had written on the registry at the Grand Mogul summit.

It was a story that was filled with devotion. Although the Custer County sheriff’s office quickly withdrew from the search, the Francis family was overwhelmed by volunteers — friends of Jon, friends from the family’s church, total strangers — who poured into Idaho to help them continue the search. After the first week, all knew that this was a recovery, not a rescue, mission. But still they searched.

Jon Francis
Jon Francis

And, after a service was held in September of 2006, David Francis resumed his campaign for the Minnesota Senate, a race he ultimately lost to Ray Vandeveer by 5 percentage points.

In retrospect, he says, staying in that race was a mistake.

“The time I spent campaigning should have been spent searching for Jon,” he said. “Maybe we would have found him that fall. The campaign was a distraction from what really mattered.”

Jon’s remains weren’t found until July 24, 2007.

Father worked to help pass legislation
Since then, David Francis has been driven. He has helped pass legislation that was signed into law in 2009 that expands the state’s missing children’s law to include adults. The law is known as Brandon’s law, Brandon Swanson, who was 19 years old when he disappeared in 2008. (Prior to the passage of the law, it was difficult for families to get authorities to quickly begin searching for adults.)

Francis winces when he recalls a conversation he had with Pawlenty at the time of the signing.

Francis was dressed in his best suit for the occasion.

“David,” the governor said, “you look like a lawyer”

“No sir, my parents were married,” Francis responded.

In retrospect, he hopes the governor knows he was kidding. Francis doesn’t necessarily agree with Pawlenty’s politics, but he does appreciate Pawlenty trying to push Idaho authorities to be more aggressive in their search for Jon.

Francis also has written a book, “Bringing Jon Home: The Wilderness Search for Jon Francis” (available online and at some area bookstores.)

It is a compelling read. With the help of a hard-nosed copy editor, Marly Cornell, it is far more than the sad story of a young man lost on a mountain.

“She was taking paragraphs out that I really wanted,” said Francis. “We’d argue. She’d say, ‘David, you’re wailing too much. You’ll wear the reader down. What do you want the reader to feel?’

“I’d tell her, ‘I want the reader to feel as sad as I do.’ She’d say, ‘No doubt, but you can’t.’ “

They’d fight, threaten and resolve.

The result is a story that creates some triumph in tragedy. It’s a story of the beauty — and danger — of the wilderness. And, it’s also a book that deals with a crisis in faith that tragedy can create.

Father’s faith shaken
David Francis, who has held various lay leadership positions in his church, talks openly at pulpits across the region of how his son’s death has led him to continuing questioning of his once-firmly-held beliefs.

“I’m not a big fan of God right now,” he said. “I keep asking, ‘God, where were you?’ I know that I’ll never have the answer to that lament. A few of my friends keep trying to fix me. God bless ’em for trying.”

But the big effort in his life is to get his small foundation with lofty goals on sustainable ground. The initial JFF mission has been bold and unique: to help pay for transportation and lodging for searchers and their dogs.

Francis, a retired Navy former nuclear submarine officer, remains stunned at how ill-prepared the sheriff’s office in Custer County, Idaho, was for conducting a complete search for Jon. There were no dogs and few expert climbers available.

Instead, shortly after arriving in Idaho, Francis and his wife, Linda, were told, “You need to be thinking about giving your son up to the mountain.”

Currently, the foundation is helping fund three searches around the country.

“We want to help resolve unresolvable loss,” said Francis. “That loss, that not knowing, is agonizing beyond anything I can explain.”

But to broaden its base, the foundation is doing more and more in the area of back-country safety through presentations to groups of all demographics.

Keeping JFF growing has become a full-time mission, although he admits there are times his eyes turn ever so slightly to politics.

“That we’ve elected Michele Bachmann and the others we have from our district embarrasses me,” Francis said. “They’re all marching in lock-step. The only problem is they’re going the wrong direction.”

Those sound like the words of a person ready to get back into the political ring.

“Thing is, even if I would have won [in 2006], the way things went this year, I would have just been thrown out again,” he said with a smile. “But you never know. Long ago, I was bit by the virus, and I don’t think I’ve been cured yet.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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