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A Man of Silence Is the Talk of an Idaho Town

Times Staff Writer

To a stranger walking through this central Idaho town on a hot Monday, the soda fountain inside Broyle’s Drugstore looked like a cool place to rest.

John Francis unslung his banjo from his back and leaned it carefully against the counter.

The former Marin County, Calif., resident settled onto a stool and indicated by pointing to the menu that he wanted a vanilla shake . He handed the teen-age girl behind the counter a piece of paper that said:

“This is to introduce John Francis, who gave up the use of motorized vehicles not long after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1972. . . . Since 1973, John has maintained a vow of silence.”

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Eager to Communicate

The girl smiled nervously, unsure how to react to the 6-foot-2-inch black man with an open smile and dreadlocks. The pharmacist emerged from the back of the store, looking as if he intended to evict the gesticulating customer, but then he too read the printed statement and Francis was allowed to stay. Soon, Francis was “talking” with youngsters and working men at the fountain.

He fluttered his hands and worked his facial muscles. A humming sound accompanied his pantomime. So eager was Francis to communicate that it seemed he was going to break into speech.

John Francis, 40, was in Hailey for less than a week. In that time he visited with dozens of people, including the singer in the country band at the Mule Shoe Saloon, a forest ranger in the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, a postal clerk, ladies at a piano recital and an old friend he hadn’t seen since the days when he was still talking.

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At least until the first snow falls, the residents of Hailey, population 2,109, are going to be talking about the man who did not talk.

On June 15, John Francis graduated from the University of Montana with a master’s degree in environmental studies. His thesis chronicles his decision to stop using motorized vehicles, and then to stop talking, as a personal statement similar to vows of silence traditionally taken by some religious orders. His silence was originally to have been observed for only one day:

“It was my 27th birthday, and to commemorate its passing I was struck with the idea of remaining silent for the day. It would be my birthday gift to myself and the friends that had to put up with my chatter.”

The “word fast,” as Francis calls it, gathered momentum. Everyone who came in contact with Francis had to decide whether to make the extra effort to communicate with him.

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This was nowhere more true than on the University of Montana campus, since the currency of formal education is the spoken word. (Francis graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Southern Oregon State College five years ago.)

“I really liked learning to read pantomime,” said Roger Dunsmore, professor of humanities at the University of Montana. “Some of my colleagues were just the opposite. They hated it. They also mistrusted John’s silence. They thought it was some kind of grandstanding.”

When it came time for Francis to fulfill his duties as a teaching assistant, Dunsmore said, some members of the administration wondered: How can a man lead a discussion without talking?

Dunsmore had no such doubts: “I’d seen John come into our wilderness studies course and basically give a lecture with his banjo, watercolors (Francis paints people and scenes he encounters in his travels) and the blackboard.” Francis went on to successfully teach an introductory environmental studies course.

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As Francis’ adviser, Dunsmore met with the mute student roughly once a week from September through June. He said that on some days he was more capable than others of picking up on Francis’ communication. When the professor was tired or out of sorts, the two resorted to passing notes back and forth. On those days, Dunsmore said, he felt like he had let Francis down.

Filling ‘Empty Space’

Dunsmore routinely has his wilderness studies classes observe days of silence. He claims to sympathize with Francis’ decision to be silent, saying that people tend to use language “to fill up empty space.”

Now that Francis has left Missoula, Dunsmore, 48, continues to play a tape of the silent student’s banjo tunes every morning to wake up his 7-year-old son, Jack.

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Dunsmore said Francis taught him “the significance of small things. Being silent and refusing to ride in cars aren’t huge political acts--but yet they are,” he said.

A high point of Dunsmore’s career as an educator was Francis’ thesis defense before a committee. Francis joked, mimed and plucked his banjo.

“Everybody had a good time and laughed,” said Dunsmore. “I had a flash when we signed the thing off (approved the thesis) that we had just given Gandhi his master’s degree--like it was a historical moment.”

Before he became silent, Francis planned to be a doctor. He took a year of pre-med classes in his native Philadelphia. Abandoning that ambition, he worked as a lab technician, community organizer, brakeman for the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad, oyster tender, forest caretaker and manager of a musical group.

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There was no one in this varied past who directly inspired Francis’ silence, and, in fact, it’s only since he has been silent that Francis has learned about others who have followed a similar path.

Robert Ellwood, professor of religion at USC, said there is little precedent for maintaining silence in Western culture, “which emphasizes so much the importance of the word.”

Sporadic Bursts of Testimony

Quakers--of which Ellwood is one--do observe silence in their meetings, but the quiet is broken by sporadic bursts of testimony. Some Trappist monks in this country maintain an incomplete silence, Ellwood said. (Francis has visited Trappist monasteries, where, he said, his decision to be silent was not questioned.)

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An elective mute who still has followers in this country was Meher Baba, an East Indian sage who did not speak from 1923 until his death in 1964. He communicated originally by spelling words out on an alphabet board. Later he abandoned the board and resorted to sign language, which was interpreted to listeners by two disciples.

Ellwood said he has seen in Hindu temples images of the god Shiva “with his mouth conspicuously closed,” while disciples gather at his feet to gather wisdom without benefit of preaching.

In the East, Ellwood said, there is respect for the philosophy that “the truest teaching is beyond words.”

Jonathan Marvel last saw John Francis in 1969. Marvel was a student at the University of Chicago; Francis was a VISTA volunteer working on the west side of town.

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Today Marvel is an established architect in the Sun Valley area with a custom-designed home in Hailey. His wife, Stefanie, is a weaver and the couple have two small children. Marvel’s wife saw an article about John Francis in a Portland, Ore., newspaper recently, and Marvel established contact again, inviting Francis to visit when passing through town.

“John is exactly the same (as he was 17 years ago), he’s just a little sillier now,” said Marvel. The architect had driven the few blocks home from his office for lunch, and was eating plain yogurt at a kitchen table littered with mail, magazines and Francis’ correspondence.

Marvel said he could accept Francis’ rejection of motorized transportation as an environmental statement. He regarded his friend across the table.

“But it doesn’t make sense to me that he’s not talking,” Marvel said. “I find that strange. I understand that business about people talk and they don’t say anything--and yet it’s such a basic human activity.

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“People just do not not talk, unless they’re born mute or lose their voice boxes through laryngectomy, and even then they learn to burp-talk. Silence is only an acceptable idea in the context of a religious group isolated from society.”

Marvel, 39, said he has tried to get Francis to break his vows by tripping him or jabbing him gently in the ribs. “It hasn’t worked yet.” He smiled affectionately at Francis, who did make a sound as he laughed.

John Francis Sr. is a retired lineman for the Philadelphia Electric Co. He lives with his wife, LA Java, a retired schoolteacher, in Philadelphia. They have two sons, John and Dwayne, 29, who work for the electric company.

The elder Francis seems bewildered by his son’s life style, and says he is happy only that John Jr. did not get in trouble with drugs or the law like so many other young people.

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As a child, Francis Sr. said, “John wanted everything everybody else wanted. He wanted a car; I got him a car. He wanted to go to medical school. . . .”

John Francis’ life veered away from a path his father could easily understand when two oil tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in 1972, spilling 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the bay. Dying birds, fish and seals washed up on the rocky shore where Francis liked to wander near his home in Inverness.

A 20-Mile Hike

It was the first time that an environmental catastrophe had touched Francis personally. Determined to live simpler lives that would demand less of natural resources, Francis and a friend spontaneously decided one afternoon to walk to a dance in San Anselmo, 20 miles away.

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When they reached their destination around midnight, they gobbled dinner at a fast-food restaurant and arrived at the dance just in time to hear the closing song: “Get Together,” an idealistic hippie-era anthem which suggested to Francis that, even though their feet ached, they had done the right thing by not driving the 20 miles.

After that, Francis kept on walking wherever he went.

He explains his decision to stop talking a year later by using his hands to mime voices chattering at both ears. The longer he maintained silence, he said, the quieter those internal voices became so that for once he could really listen to what other people were saying. He found people listening carefully to him for the first time too.

Roger Dunsmore said that any conversation with Francis is “incredibly slowed down” and that his silence is thereby good for people who have forgotten what it means to have a careful, thoughtful conversation.

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Another one of Francis’ professors observed, “John’s refusal to talk is extremely effective in prompting people to listen.”

Sara Miller, a recent graduate of the University of Montana who has just begun a graduate program in linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., befriended Francis during his frequent visits to the library on the Missoula, Mont., campus where Miller worked.

A Source of Wonder

Miller, 21, said, “It (his silence) has doubly instilled in me the idea that words really can make such a difference.

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“I’ve always had trouble trying to explain to people just why he doesn’t talk,” she added. “I can’t all the way understand what he’s doing. I think I’ll always wonder.”

Francis taught himself to play the banjo at the same time he was weaning himself of speech. One seemed to replace the other, and now Francis strums just about as much as most people talk.

He said he has spoken only once in 13 years. On the 10th anniversary of his silence, he telephoned his parents and told them of his plans to begin a walking pilgrimage. Although it will be interrupted by his continued schooling (he has been accepted in a graduate program in appropriate technology for developing countries at the University of Pennsylvania), Francis plans to eventually walk around the world. His silent journey is intended to prompt people to think about their own lives and the part they play in the environment and peace, issues which Francis believes are linked.

Francis accepts food and shelter from friends and acquaintances. He partially supports himself by selling subscriptions to his newsletter called Planet Walker. As well as detailing Francis’ own adventures, the newsletter reports on the efforts others are making to promote environmental responsibility and peace by unusual methods. ( For copies of the newsletter, write Planet Walk, P.O. Box 700, Inverness, Calif. 94937. )

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Francis also brings in some money with his mime and banjo playing, and by selling an occasional watercolor. He sometimes takes jobs building and repairing wooden boats.

After leaving Hailey, Francis planned to walk to Wyoming, then South Dakota and Minnesota. He hopes to arrive at his parents’ Philadelphia home in the spring.

It will be the first time he’s gone home since he gave up the use of planes, trains and automobiles.

Francis does not discount the possibility that he may talk again someday. He doesn’t know quite where this silent pilgrimage is taking him--that’s the point of making the journey, he said.

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