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A Long-Silenced Voice Speaks Up on a Special Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1971, John Francis stared out at an oil-cloaked San Francisco Bay and vowed never to ride in a motorized vehicle again. Soon after, he increased the stakes of his sacrifice by abandoning the use of speech--refusing to utter a word, even to his bewildered parents.

The silent vigil ended Sunday, on Earth Day, as the 44-year-old environmentalist and Ph.D. candidate gathered family and friends in a Washington hotel room to hear his first words in nearly two decades.

After strumming a plaintive serenade on his banjo for about 10 minutes, Francis lowered the neck of the instrument, took a deep breath and spoke: “Well, I want to thank you for coming,” he said.

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Although the beginning--after such a long wait--may have seemed mundane and anticlimactic, his loved ones applauded. One relative, blinking back tears, said, “Bless you, Johnny.”

In a surprisingly smooth, deep voice, he went on to explain his monk-like silence, which had been planned originally as a one-day gesture on his 27th birthday.

“I always talked too much--talk, talk, talk. It was a trap that we all fall into,” said Francis, a native of Inverness, Calif., who most recently lived in Wisconsin. “I didn’t follow my talking with any action.”

He timed his return to the speaking world to coincide with Earth Day because, he said: “Earth Day is a special time for the planet, a very exciting day. I want to remember this day, to recommit myself. It’s time to talk. . . . I think we’re poised for change. People’s awareness is starting to open up.

“I don’t know if it will last for tomorrow and the next day, but that is what I would like to see--Earth Day be not just today, but every day. But I’m happy for anything, any one step in the very long journey that we’re on.”

After the trauma of 1971, which was brought about by an oil spill in the bay, Francis worked a variety of jobs--from forest ranger to boat builder to musician--always walking, never speaking. Then in 1979, he began his studies in math and science, earning a bachelor’s degree from Southern Oregon State College in 1981. He then walked to the University of Montana, where in 1986 he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies.

As a graduate student there, he worked as a teacher’s assistant and leader of college discussion groups--all without saying a word, relying instead on a combination of mime, banjo, sign language, written notes, watercolors, smiles and pleasant humming sounds.

His professors and other supporters point out that Francis’ silence has spurred people’s determination to discover what he has to “say.”

Francis describes his ongoing travels as “a vehicle for self-exploration. It wasn’t to get people to listen; it was to get me to listen.”

He is preparing a doctoral thesis on oil spills at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin. He recently walked from Wisconsin to his family’s home in Philadelphia, then on to Washington. He plans to walk to Florida this fall and sail to the Caribbean, where he will complete research for his Ph.D.

Once his thesis is done, Francis intends to walk and bicycle to Cape Horn in South America, and from there sail to Europe and walk through Asia, “with the spirit of hope that in some way I might contribute to the benefit of the world.”

Francis said he plans to work and teach his way around the globe, returning to the United States in 2001.

Francis also writes an occasional journal called “Planet Walker,” with a circulation of about 1,000, in which he discusses environmental issues and documents his travels.

The most recent issue features Francis’ walk from Missoula, Mont., to Madison, Wis., where along the way he dodged brown bears in Yellowstone National Park, soaked sore feet in the Mississippi River, and weathered recurring Midwest rainstorms by “playing a few tunes with cold hands. . . . I plucked out a tune with a rhythm that would quicken my pace. The music always left me humming.”

Francis wrote that one of his great discoveries on his trip has been that “kindness . . . could come from the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances.”

People often have opened their homes to him, and educational foundations have awarded him grants to complement private donations. On one such occasion in southern Minnesota, he recalled, he was approached by a pickup truck, from which a man in dirty coveralls stepped out with a clenched fist. The man handed Francis a $100 bill.

Sunday, as astonished relatives asked him questions and listened to his answers--as much to hear the sound of his voice as to soak in his message--Francis seemed to warm to the idea of talking, then suggested that his silence had served as an asset rather than a handicap.

“This is so strange, having to make the mouth try to say what my mind is thinking,” he said. “I suppose I’ll get used to it again.”

However, his father, John Francis Sr., a retired Philadelphia electric company worker, seemed relieved that his son was talking again. The 20 family members and friends in attendance--many of whom had never heard Francis speak--agreed that they were looking forward to having an easier time communicating with him.

“Our conversation was limited,” recalled the elder Francis, sipping from a newly opened bottle of champagne. Only a half-hour before, his son had been responding to questions about when he was going to talk by pointing to his watch and shrugging his shoulders. Now a huddle of people stood by hanging on his every word.

“I’m sure he’ll be as committed to environmentalism and world peace and all that, as much as ever,” Francis Sr. said of his son. “But now, I won’t have to go through a whole lot of gyrations anymore.”

To Francis, his journey has highlighted a basic truth: “Sometimes we have to give something up to find something else.”

Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this story.


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