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Sunday, August 2, 2009


Francis the Axe Man

Hampden-Sydney College, VA

We kids used to call him Crazy Francis, but we did not say it in a disrespectful manner. Francis had a way of talking to himself as he walked the country roads almost daily, and you could hear him coming for a quarter of a mile. He became the neighborhood attraction in his own natural sort of way. You see, he always carried this big axe slung over his shoulder and the blade glistened in the sunlight. The local movie theater in Farmville (it was called the Lee) used to run westerns and horror films on Saturday afternoons, and at our ages it was pretty easy to let our minds run wild after one of those Frankenstein or Dracula flicks.

I was riding my old single-speed Sears bike the five miles to home one afternoon about sundown after a real thriller when I ran up on Francis on the back Hampden-Sydney road. He was looking up into the sky and chanting in his normal fashion, axe over his shoulder. I can remember swinging as far to the other side of the road as the ditch would allow, putting as much distance between him and me as possible.

On occasion, in later years, Dad would hire Francis to do some yard work for us. That was when I got to know him a little better. I overcame my fear of his axe and replaced it with awe at how swiftly and efficiently he used it to dismantle a tree or clump of brush. He never wasted a lick.

During the summer of 1980, when I was still seriously involved in my Appalachian documentary, I made a special trip to Prince Edward County to photograph Francis. An administrator from Hampden-Sydney College called and informed me that Francis was still alive and well, and that the College would like to have a framed portrait of him to place in its historical museum. I was living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the time and realized this might well be the last opportunity I’d have to make a photograph of this local character.

It was one of the most stressful sessions I’ve ever had because I think that even after all the years, and my growth in understanding, I was still a bit apprehensive about facing this man head on with a camera. He did not have his axe over his shoulder on this occasion, and I detected genuine warmth radiating from within. I left feeling much better about an old neighborhood acquaintance from the past. Francis further supported my belief that we all have our own particular ways of connecting with the cosmos.

Francis Randolph died on Friday, January 17,1997. He suffered from no acute illness at the time; he was 83 years old. THE RECORD OF HAMPDEN-SYDNEY COLLEGE, Winter-spring issue, 1997 further states that “Despite students’ running gags to test Randolph’s mental acuity, says one alumnus, class of ’35, Hampden-Sydney’s permanent resident usually got the better of them, whether they knew it or not. “There was this tradition,” he recalls, “for the upperclassmen to tell the freshmen to offer Francis a nickel and a dime, and see which he picked. He always chose the nickel, and the students would laugh uproariously about Francis’s not knowing the value of the coins, just selecting the bigger one. Well, I asked Francis about that one time, and he said, ‘I pick the nickel because if I picked the dime, they’d quit.’”

“He was such a fixture that he seemed almost eternal; not so long ago, an alumnus came to visit his son, now a student at the college. Looking out the window, the father said, ‘That man looks just like someone who used to walk around here when I was a student; Francis the Axeman we called him.’ With a smile the son replied, ‘Dad that is Francis the Axeman.’ And so it was.”

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