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10 years after his son's death, Stillwater father nurtures his legacy

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David Francis ripped open a bag of cypress blend mulch last month and carefully spread it around the base of a Black Hills spruce in the yard of his Stillwater townhouse.

The tree is one of nine that David and Linda Francis have planted during the past nine years. Come October, there will be 10.

The stand of trees — a mix of Black Hills and blue spruce — is a living memorial to their son Jon, an Afton resident who died 10 years ago July 15 while hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. A wilderness searcher found Jon Francis' remains a little more than a year later, on July 24, 2007; he had fallen to his death from the north face of a mountain known as the Grand Mogul.

Each spring, the Francises put a seedling spruce in a pot and leave it at Jon's grave in Rutherford Cemetery, just a few blocks north of their house. Each fall, they replant the tree in their yard.

A small homemade sign nestled among the trees reads: "It's not what we gather, but rather what we scatter that defines our life. — Jon Francis"

"It's from one of his college papers on theology," David Francis said. "I was just amazed at how much he knew about religion. Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, he learned a lot. (A friend) wrote a note after he died saying 'Jon had a pastor's heart' — and he did. He had unconditional love and tolerance."

At the time he disappeared, Jon, 24, was working at Luther Heights Bible Camp near Ketchum, Idaho. He also was a youth minister in Ogden, Utah. He majored in religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and had planned to go to Luther Seminary in St. Paul to become a minister.

"He was on his way (to Luther)," David Francis said. "That's a painful loss because he was going to be nearby for three years and would have gotten into an area where he would have just excelled."

Francis walks to the cemetery a couple of times a week to water the tree and visit with Jon. He sits on "his" rock — the pink one, eight in from the north.

"It's become a mantra: 'Jon, I love you. Jon, I miss you. You were just an amazing son,' " he said. "He's constantly in my thoughts. One of the hardest parts is not having the pleasure of his presence. He was just an amazing young man, and I loved spending time with him. .... When you lose a child, you not only lose their presence, but you also lose their future."

Francis wishes more people knew his son's story.

"People find his life inspiring," he said. "I think that's one of the important things we do is tell his stories and bring some good from his loss."

Since Jon died

In the past 10 years, David Francis, 72, has emerged as a national advocate for missing adults. He has written a book, "Bringing Jon Home," and founded the Jon Francis Foundation, which provides information and advice to families searching for people missing in the wild.

He was pivotal in the passage of the state's "Brandon's Law," named after 19-year-old Brandon Swanson, who disappeared in southwestern Minnesota in May 2008. The law requires law enforcement agencies to file missing-persons reports and begin investigations when an adult disappears.

The Jon Francis Foundation has provided crisis and grief support to more than 40 families in 14 states and Canada. The latest search, in May in southwestern Colorado, was the best-organized search to date, Francis said.

Joe Keller, 18, of Cleveland, Ohio, went out for a run on the morning of July 23, 2015, in Antonito, Colo., and never returned.

The foundation helped the Keller family by assembling a team of 25 ground searchers and 11 certified search dogs and covered a large area around Keller's last known position, Francis said. The team logged 30 "dog days" — cumulative days of canine search — and more than 20 ground-search days.

Sadly, Francis said, Keller was not found, and his disappearance remains a mystery.

"Every time the foundation helps with a search, it's like peeling off a Band-Aid. ... The pain is just as sharp," said Jocelyn Francis Plass, one of Jon's three older sisters and the first executive director of the foundation.

"We were way out of our depth (when Jon disappeared), and it wasn't the result we wanted. But I couldn't handle the not knowing. I'd be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life," she said. "So if we're able to help one family find that resolution, then I feel like we're doing something."

Plass and her husband, Doug, and their two young children moved to Idaho after Jon disappeared to help coordinate the search. They ended up staying in Stanley, where they own a restaurant called The Redd.

The grief journey

Francis is writing a second book. Its working title is "Life After Death," and it's about what he has learned on his "journey of grief and loss — what works, what doesn't," he said.

One chapter — titled "But Did You Enjoy the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?" — deals with the awful things people say after a death, he said.

"They should teach grief in high school," Francis said. "People just don't know what to say. We have heard it all: 'He's in a better place.' 'The good die young.' All those cliches. When we were out West, we were assaulted by 'Jon died in a beautiful place.' 'Jon died where he wanted to be.'

"No, he didn't want to be on the mountain. He was on his way down to go back to camp to continue his ministry."

Anniversary dates, birthdays and holidays continue to be hard, David Francis said. "Like Father's Day," he said. "He didn't call me because he can't or send me one of his homemade cards, which were better than Hallmark."

But the passage of time has helped.

On what would have been Jon's 31st birthday — March 5, 2013 — Francis realized the pain wasn't quite as "godawful" as it had been the year before.

"I didn't feel quite as sad," he said. "It's not as raw, it's not as sharp."

And he no longer felt as guilty about feeling some joy in his life.

"One of the things we have learned from parents who have lost a child is about year seven, they started to feel normal again," Francis said. "Joy creeps back into your life, so that happened to us a couple of years ago. Joy started to creep back in, especially because of our grandchildren."

Granddaughter Camille, age 7, and her mother, Robin Francis, live in the Stillwater area; the Francises babysit her about 20 hours a week.

"I've reinvested a lot of my love — that's part of grief, you reinvest a lot of your love," he said. "Camille has been a benefactor of that."

Family and friends gathered in Idaho July 15-17 to mark the 10th anniversary of Jon Francis' death. They told stories around the campfire at Luther Heights Bible Camp, held a barbecue and hiked to a lake they call "Lake Jon" — near the bowl of Grand Mogul, where Jon's remains were found.

David Francis said one of his most important missions is to share his son's story — around the campfire, in the media, at the cemetery — so that people won't forget him.

"I came across a Jewish proverb that says when you stop mentioning a loved one's name, they die twice," Francis said. "As long as I have breath, I will mention his name and tell his story and let other people know that he was an amazing young man, and we are continuing his legacy of making a difference in the world."

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