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Remembering 'the gentle giant of River Falls'

River Falls resident Francis Johnson, shown here in a 2017 video where he received a grant to purchase a new bicycle, died Feb. 27. A memorial service is set for Saturday. Image courtesy of of UW-River Falls Student Involvement

Francis Johnson was a difficult man to miss.

He was a common sight on River Falls streets, where he rode his bicycle 12 months a year, unfailingly adorned in bright-orange outerwear.

Johnson’s hulking presence didn’t diminish once he got indoors.

After parking his bike out back, he would enter South Fork Cafe, his voice booming through the rear entryway.

South Fork waitress Marissa Lulling remembers the routine.

“Here we are,” she recalled Johnson announcing through the restaurant. “What’ve we got in the paper today?”

Thus began a similar routine that played out in establishments along Main Street, where Johnson was a constant presence — his jovial personality, keen intellect and deep appreciation for human interaction on display for all.

That’s what made Tuesday, Feb. 27, all the more difficult for community members as the bad news spread around River Falls: Francis Johnson, 70, had died shortly after collapsing while riding his bike early that morning on Second Street near Locust Street.

Members of an exercise group working out nearby witnessed the collapse. One of those people, Monique Squire, tried helping. She said others performed first aid before medics arrived.

Squire said there was some measure of comfort in knowing that Johnson, a bachelor who lived alone in a modest Cedar Street house, was surrounded by others when he passed.

“He didn’t have to go through that alone,” she said. “I’m glad we were at least there.”

That he was embraced by strangers in his final moments is little surprise to those who knew him; Johnson generated a reputation for doing just that during his life in River Falls.

A memorial service for Johnson will be 4-7 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at O’Connell-Benedict Funeral Home in River Falls. A prayer service begins at 3:30 p.m.

Community members plan to wear orange on Friday, March 2, in honor of Johnson. Participating groups include Chartwells staff at UW-River Falls, campus University Center workers, CHILD Center staff and some River Falls School District staff.

‘The gentle giant’

He worked for the past 18 years in food service at UW-River Falls. Chartwells manager Sue Boettcher said Johnson, who worked in receiving and did food deliveries, didn’t hesitate to strike up conversations with anyone on campus — from coworkers to students to faculty.

“Just by what he did every day, he made a huge difference and sure touched a lot of people,” she said, choking back tears.

The mere mention of Johnson drew wet eyes Wednesday among the Main Street waitresses, bartenders and cashiers who knew him over the years.

Among those mourners, a common description emerged, as articulated by South Fork waitress Kristal Melcer.

“He was the gentle giant of River Falls,” she said, wiping a tear.

Johnson didn’t have a wife or children, Melcer said. Rather, “he had a community.”

Retired UW-River Falls geology professor Bill Cordua came to call Johnson a friend over the years from their time at South Fork, where they’d trade stories over countless cups of coffee. He thought of Johnson as “Sir Francis.”

It would have been fitting, had Johnson existed in the days of King Arthur’s court, Cordua said, saying his friend possessed the qualities of “a knight riding through the land doing good deeds.”

“And he’d come through in the breach for you if you needed him,” Cordua said, adding with a laugh, “though not necessarily in shining armor.”

Next door at Bo’s N Mine, manager Joe Colberg kept a barstool propped up and a pint of Bud Light at the spot along the bar where Johnson bellied up. Colberg said the mini-shrine was a tribute to the man who loved to talk with others.

“He would spark up a conversation with anyone,” he said. “Even if he had no stories to tell, he’d make up a story to tell.”

‘Legendary’ strength

Colberg said he came to call Johnson, who would wow bargoers with tales from his younger years,“the living legend.” And even if Johnson took creative license with some stories — Colberg recalled one of Johnson plucking a parking meter from wet cement — his massive frame and strength made you a believer.

He recalled the mitts on the man.

“You couldn’t even see a 16-ounce beer glass in his hand,” Colberg said.

River Falls resident Sue Spielman reminisced about Johnson’s legendary strength over an afternoon beer at Emma’s Bar, where he was also a regular.

“He’d toss bales (of hay) like they were a hockey puck,” she said.

Emma’s owner Lynn Johnson — no relation — grew up with Johnson and graduated with him in the same River Falls High School Class of 1965.

He recalled how his friend was raised on a farm in what was known then as “The Bohemian Settlement” along County Road E in the town of River Falls. Johnson worked as a farmer for many years, later taking a side job as a wood cutter before going to work at the university, his friend explained.

“He was one of the kindest, gentlest guys I’ve ever known,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than Francis.”

A ‘light’ around town

Elise Koop got to know Johnson while she completed graduate work at UWRF.

The two struck up friendship, during which Koop learned about Johnson’s affinity for bike riding. To keep the wheels turning, Johnson would harvest parts from the 15-or-so bikes he kept at home — a process that Koop hoped to remedy.

She eventually received a “kindness grant” through the Random Acts organization and presented Johnson with a $500 gift card to CrankWorx in River Falls. The experience was depicted in a YouTube video where a grateful Johnson gives Koop a bear hug before later picking out a new Trek bike.

She said Johnson told her the feeling of pushing off a curb on his bike gave him the sense of “almost like an eagle” taking flight.

“Biking, to him, was almost a spiritual experience,” she said. “Biking was really his outlet to how he felt free.”

She is now organizing a GoFundMe effort in Johnson’s memory that would pay for CrankWorx to give away one bike a year to a needy community member.

“Let’s continue Francis’ ride, River Falls,” the post reads.

And if you found yourself on Second Street, you almost couldn’t help but encounter Johnson riding along, lanterns lashed to his handlebars. Koop said the man she befriended shined even brighter.

“He was like an ember or a spark … a light to the campus — and the town,” she said.

His presence certainly lit a fuse at the CHILD Center at the university.

Minda Matthys, director of the center, said she’ll never forget how children would be outside playing and begin chanting “Fran-cis!” at the sight of his van, arriving to deliver meals.

“The kids just genuinely adored him,” Matthys said.

Down at Holiday Station Store, assistant manager Taryne Ternes remembered how Johnson was a regular presence. A newspaper and coffee were always part of the process, she said.

He’d generate belly laughs from workers as he riffed on the day’s news and accurately predicted the weather, Ternes said.

River Falls resident Tanya Ebel couldn’t help but notice when conversation at Holiday turned to Johnson. She stopped to recall how he would cut wood and bring it to her house. She fondly remembered how Johnson spent time devouring newspapers and coffee at South Fork, where he’d share news of the world with fellow customers.

“He was one special man in this world and we’re really going to miss him,” Ebel said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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