August 31, 2008

Joe Franco (1909-2008): Celebrating a long, loving life

Joe Franco flanked by granddaughter Eliana Franco Gilbert
and her parents, Rita Franco and Craig Gilbert
(Probably at Joe’s grandson's Eli Joseph Franco's
Bar Mitzva, May 2005, when Joe was age 95.)

Meet Craig Gilbert, guest blogger and dear friend since 1993 when we met at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia. A manager of financial software, Craig was a principal of Front Row Systems, Inc, a software firm he co-founded, and operated 25 years. Craig is an active organic gardener, has written on ethics, and participates in the Dances of Universal Peace.

Soon after Craig's father-on-law, Joe Franco,
died last spring at age 98, Craig sent me an email while I was living in Tel Aviv "to share the special life of Joe Franco who meant so much to me." Craig has agreed to publish here his tender reflections on this giant person (of short physical stature). He adds, "for Joe's family, thanks to everyone for the outpouring of love we felt since his passing and that you gave him throughout his life."


I know you heard from David Soloway that Joe Franco passed away. I wanted to share a few words with you because you knew him, and like all special people, you immediately connected and saw beneath the covers. We spoke of him often.

I believe you first met Joe at our daughter’s baby naming at Bet Haverim where proud grandpa Joe was happy to offer the celebrants an impromptu singing of Verde’s "The Hebrews' Chorus (Va’ Piensero)." [In Verdi's opera Nabucco, the chorus sings of the Jews' longing for Israel following their expulsion from their homeland to Babylon by Babylonian King Nabucco.]

I enjoyed every minute with Joe. The years that I accompanied him to Congregation Or VeShalom [a Sephardic synagogue in Atlanta], I felt as though I was going with Mick Jagger. He was a rock star. People would gather round, and he would always have a word to say about their parents or grandparents.

After Joe passed away, I felt the need to tell you many things, how deeply touched I was by him and his passing so that you could savor the beauty of his life. Please indulge a few random thoughts.

Stories and songs in seven languages
When Joe passed away, it left a large empty feeling in me. I needed his stories, his songs, his sharing his life experiences. In ten minutes he could tell dozens of intertwined stories involving Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Mussolini, Kamal Ataturk, and Suleiman Ha’Gadol [Suleiman (Solomon) the Magnificent, who invited the Sephardic Jews to Rhodes, where they called him Ha'Gadol, Hebrew for the Great].

Joe would spontaneously recite Adlai Stevenson’s acceptance speech for the presidential nomination or Churchill’s speech to Europe to “fight on brave Norwegians.” Always on Joe's lips was a song in any of seven languages. I can’t tell you how much I miss Besame Mucho, O Solo Mia, or his Spanish translation of "God Bless America" or a French rendition of "Carolina Moon."

Humble beginning in the Aegean Sea
Joe was born in 1909 in Rhodes, a Greek island southwest of Turkey in the eastern Aegean Sea. He grew up in a three-story six-room house where two families (about 18 people) lived. No running water, no electricity. He slept on a bed of straw, which he shared with his brother Jack.

In Rhodes, if Joe earned a few dimes or quarters from the American sailors who docked there before or during World War I, it was more money than his father would earn in a whole month. In Joe's youth, when the sailors gave him dimes, he was amazed that the USA currency was made of real silver. He could not imagine how great a country it must be to use silver for coins.

He learned operas by standing outside a bistro, in Rhodes, which had a crank phonograph, and he picked up dozens of arias that way. He had a great talent for music and knew hundreds of songs in many languages. He often translated popular songs into various languages, and his translations were often (in his opinion) “better than the originals.” He was always singing and entertaining people.

Four continents and multiple talents
Joe lived on four continents and spoke seven languages: Ladino, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. He also knew a good deal of Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, and Swahili. He could hold three conversations simultaneously in three languages, well into his 90's. Joe's wide-ranging career spanned sales, insurance, real estate, and retail.

The valedictorian of his high school class, Joe traveled to Belgium seeking work. There, he accepted an offer to be an accountant for the railroad in the Belgian Congo [present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo], in Central Africa, where he lived two years.

In 1929, Joe joined his four brothers in Atlanta, where he graduated from Emory University in 1934. During World War II, Joe served as a financial attaché with the USA embassy in Bogotá, Columbia, where he acquired materials (principally rubber and cinchona bark to fight malaria) for the war.

Boiled prunes from a mayonnaise jar
I met Joe when he was 80. He was allowing a homeless man to live in the basement of his home. Not one to put on pretenses, he offered me boiled prunes from a mayonnaise jar. When I married his daughter Rita, I immediately felt comfortable calling him Dad, and his wife, Rae, Mom.

His grandson Lewis recently published a CD, “Swingin’ in Daddyland,” about feeling great to be a good daddy. It is no coincidence. Joe’s whole family has been living in Daddyland [a term from the CD title], striving to emulate Joe’s values and instilling them in their children.

I never heard Joe say a bad word about anyone, save for the Nazis and other enemies of "our people." He achieved great success in life in the areas of family, friends, education, business, and love. Even at 98, I can't believe Joe is gone, and it seems it all ended too quickly.

— Craig

Installation dinner for Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla,
Congregation Or VeShalom (February 2005)
Front, left to right: Joe Franco (then age 93), Rabbi Kassorla
Back: Arnold Zipperman, Craig Gilbert, Jack Arogeti (great-nephew, great guy)


Anonymous said...

Thank you Craig for this touching memorial. Joe Franco, of blessed memory, was indeed a living legend in our synagogue , wherever he walked, and with whom he spoke. He always had a sparkle in his eyes- I considered it a spark of holiness from G-d. What a man! What a legacy. Craig-I hope you continue to share memories of Dad- I know he considered you his son. With love and admiration for Joe Franco ,and his family. Hayyim Kassorla

BronzeBuckaroo said...

Reading about Joe, a man of real substance, puts to shame the false idols in popular culture at the moment.

JeSais said...

sounds like an amazing man... how fortunate you were to have known him. thank you for sharing this, it is so important that we honor those who are a part of our lives.

Tamar Orvell said...

Thanks to Craig for sharing his love and to you who commented here, whether you knew Joe or just read about him now. As long as we remember and keep learning, the lessons and examples from a life that has ended remain our inheritance.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Farmer Craig

Just wanted to say thanks for the wonderful post and photo of Uncle Joe - and all of you.

He was a wonderful man in so many ways. G-d bless the Franco brothers and all the Franco family.

I sure do miss Uncle Joe.