This past week as I have looked around our farm, I have been thinking at nearly every turn of the ubiquitous presence of Billy Franklin, who died last Tuesday. Billy was one of the most talented, well-informed, creative and industrious individuals I have known. Simply stated, he could undertake any task with total confidence and aplomb. In that regard he was a quintessential product of the Northern Neck.
Billy grew up in Lancaster County, and after high school, served in the U.S. Army where he experienced firsthand the horrors of the Vietnam War. During his military service he furthered the knowledge he had received from his father about operating heavy equipment. That knowledge now continues to reside in his son, Jason.
For many years Billy and his wife, Judy, the daughter of another beloved Northern Neck figure, the late Lacy Bush, a farmer from Brown’s Store, operated J & J construction outside of Kilmarnock. Billy thrived on challenging projects, moving vast quantities of earth, installing septic systems, constructing roadways and clearing debris to make land productive.
The productivity of the earth fascinated Billy. He farmed alongside his other work, and was happiest when on a tractor or an excavator. His fields were in neat order, with the crops planted as if they were parts of a mosaic designed to elicit visual delight from all passersby. At his home farm Billy raised pigs, which I think were his favorite animals. He would speak of them with great enthusiasm, and he cared for them with diligence.
Fifteen years ago, Billy and Curly Lewis designed a test pond for our farm. We did not know if it would work or not, thus the term “test.” Curly thought the small rivulet that meandered through our woods would produce sufficient water to fill the proposed pond. Billy was delighted by the prospect of installing it, and away they went. The site was land on which James Butler had timbered some large poplar trees a few years earlier.
Well, their calculations proved to be correct, and the test has worked. Today we have a modest body of water in the woods, holding the deposit from the stream, and affording a watering hole for deer and other wildlife in a peaceful bucolic setting. As I noted previously, Billy could make land conform to his wishes, and in our case, it continues as he planned it.
In recent years Billy experienced numerous health concerns. He underwent surgical procedures on his back on many occasions, ever hopeful that the last one would be the solution to getting him back on his equipment.
When speaking with him in the hospital, or after he had returned home when Judy would drive him to events, he constantly spoke of returning to work. He wanted to enlarge our pond, plant more crops, or simply dig more earth to make the land conform to his view of how it should be. Happily, he never lost hope, which was part of his personality, which attitude was perhaps augmented by what he had survived in his wartime experiences.
Billy always wore one of his baseball caps with a logo indicating that he was a Vietnam veteran. Several years ago, I introduced him to Danny Clark, the publisher of the Country Courier, the King William County newspaper. Danny is also a Vietnam veteran. Listening to them converse about their time in the service, I thought of how they had triumphed over that period of adversity to make highly successful and useful lives and careers upon their return stateside.
In previous columns I have mentioned the inscription over the simple tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, “If you seek his monument, look around you.” Here in the Northern Neck, if you seek Billy Franklin’s monument, look at his beautiful fields, his countless projects that have enhanced our landscapes, and the vistas that he envisioned and brought to fruition. That is how I remember him.
Guy Otis “Billy” Franklin Jr., December 23, 1941–June 9, 2020. R.I.P.