My Friend, Fran

01/22/2020 by Rebecca Toews
Guest post by Pat Schneider, Longtime Bridging volunteer

I first met Fran at Pax Christi in the early 1980’s. Fran was in charge of the custodial staff of our newly finished church and there was a landscaping project for which he was looking for volunteers. We were laying sod down and Fran was the foreman and we volunteers were what he had to work with. It seemed that Fran was everywhere showing us how to lay and stack the rolls
of sod and making sure we did it right.

Years flew by as we raised our young family and focused on making ends meet. Meanwhile, Fran had given up his custodial duties at the urging of Father Tim who convinced Fran that his penchant for trying to match up unwanted furniture and household items that were in good shape with individuals and families in need deserved its own charity and space. I guess you might even say that the baby crib that Fran had accepted resulted in the birth of Bridging. Now, Fran and Jeanne were regulars at Mass as we both attended 5:00 PM Mass on Saturdays. I noticed that
Fran would whisper something to Father Tim whenever he went up for communion and whatever it was, it always brought a smile to Father Tim’s face.

After Father Tim’s reassignment, Fran use to whisper something to Father Pat Kennedy at communion and he too smiled. I’m convinced he was telling them that he had volunteer opportunities open at his newly formed charity. Fran would tell me that Father Pat would pull Jeanne over after Mass sometimes and jokingly tell her, “You know Jeanne, if this guy ever causes you problems, we can always grant you an annulment.” From first hand observation and later conversations with Fran, there were only two loves that Fran placed ahead of Bridging: his faith and his family and there was never any doubt that Jeanne was the love of his life! When he would tell me the story of how they met, his face would light up, his smile would grow even wider and you just knew they were meant to be together. And it’s hard to separate the three loves of his life because his family became an integral part of Bridging, on a voluntary basis of course ‘,~:: . And his sisters, Kate and Mary were volunteer sorters.

Fran Remembrances

In 2008, I retired and at Fran’s invitation, began volunteering at Bridging. I signed up as a shopping assistant on Mondays and while I didn’t realize it then, Fran had picked my heart strings as well as my pocket. My life would never be the same because for once in my life, Fran helped me realize that serving others in need with compassion and respecting their dignity would allow me not only to practice the tenets of my faith but enrich me in ways I can’t put into words. But it wasn’t just me that he won over. I found many role models in both the staff and volunteers that Fran had attracted and my life was further enriched with these new found friendships. Somewhere, somehow, I made it onto Fran’s shortlist. These where the phone numbers of people that Fran called upon when he had a special project he needed completed. High on that list were his sons and daughter. His sisters, Kate and Mary were volunteer sorters so I think his special projects happened, at least in part, to make sure no one in the family felt left out.

Here are a few of my more memorable moments with Fran’s special projects

Christmas Toys Pickup

Bridging had discontinued stocking toys on shelves at this time and donors were redirected to other agencies. Fran, however, had a gentleman in the northern suburbs whose small company produced beautiful wooden cars, trucks and trains in large quantities and he would donate boxes full of these to Bridging just before Christmas every year. Since Bridging could no longer accept these, Fran made arrangements to pickup a truck load of these, load the truck with boxes full of these creations and store them in his brother-in-laws garage. He would then contact local charities like St. Joseph’s Home and let them know where and when these could be picked up. The way it worked was that Fran would call me on a Wednesday and the conversation would go something like this …

Fran: “Pat, this is Fran Heitzman. What are you doing on Friday morning?”

Pat: “Well, I’m not…”

Fran: “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. You’ll meet me at the warehouse at 9:00 AM … “.

I knew that Fran loved the children and had found a way to serve them through these other charities by making sure they had access to these toys that Bridging couldn’t accept. ‘WWFD’ stands for What Would Fran Do? And the refrain is, ‘Give it all away!’

Motel Remodeling Clearance

The calls always went pretty much as described above. On this occasion, everything left that hadn’t been purchased when a motel near MOA was changing ownership was offered to Bridging (i.e., mattresses, box springs, tables, chairs, light bulbs, unattached electrical fixtures… ) The only caveat was Bridging had to move it and it had to be out of the motel by 5:00 PM that day. I learned the fine art of scavenging from Fran on that day as my first job was going room to room collecting light bulbs and light fixtures. When we determined that we would not be able to load and move all the tables and chairs available to us before the motel’s doors closed, Fran had a couple of us move them outside into the parking lot and stand guard over them until the truck was unloaded back at the warehouse and returned. When they locked up the motel, the last of the tables was in the parking lot. Never a dull moment with Fran but then goods for Bridging’s clients was always a priority for Fran.

Cancer Sale Leftover Distribution

There was a giant garage sale for money to fight cancer in a large shopping center that stood empty. . .it was huge. There was lots of everything, clothing, bedding, furniture, appliances and the list went on and on. At the end of the multi-day sale, there were still a lot of good quality items that had not been purchased. Bridging along with other charities were invited to take whatever their clients could use on a first come, first serve basis with everyone starting at the same time. The twofold challenge was first to claim possession of an item for Bridging and move it to a collection area and to then load it into trucks for the trip back to the warehouse for unloading. Fran made sure that we understood that furniture was our top priority along with household essentials and that all participating charities were to be respected … we just needed to be faster at surveying and collecting the items that would benefit Bridging’s clients.

Landscaping Roseville

At Fran’s request, I met him at the Bloomington Warehouse. We hopped into his ‘Bridging Founder’s’ pickup truck and I drove up to a quarry near the Roseville warehouse! (not near enough from my point of view.) Fran had been to this quarry before to order small boulders and river rock as part of landscaping Bridging’s newly acquired Roseville warehouse. He needed more of the small rock so this time, he had them load a scoop from the loader into the bed of the pickup. Down dropped the bed as the spring tension increased. Fran, not satisfied this would be enough, told the guy to put another half scoop in. The guy’s eyes grew wider as he looked at both of us and the truck and questioned if we really wanted to do this. Fran said sure, we don’t have far to go. On the way back to the warehouse (I took backroads all the way), every time we hit a bump, you could hear that backend drag. But we made it back safely because I’m sure Fran had a direct line to God even back then.

Trips to Roseville

I was one of the lucky ones that Fran would ask occasionally to drive him up to Roseville to visit with the staff and volunteers and sometimes clients. My motives for driving were somewhat selfish because I treasured these trips with Fran as he would tell stories about how he and Jeanne met or about the early days of Bridging. We sometimes would stop for lunch on the way back and I would never let him pay because his stories were so entertaining. We laughed and smiled a lot and those trips were always the best part of my day.

Until We Meet Again

While there are more stories I could share, these are pretty representative of the Fran I know. Faith, Family and Bridging were embedded in Fran’s DNA Compassion is what drove him and he treated everyone he encountered with dignity, respect and most often a big smile. On the inside, I am smiling for Fran because I believe he has been reunited with his Heavenly family and the twinkle he always had in his eyes tells me Heaven will never be quite the same but I believe that’s where we will find Fran if we are so blessed when our time on earth is done. If you see me with any tears, they are not shed for Fran but rather for myself because I will miss his physical presence but the memories will remain forever and the memories and ongoing mission of Fran’s Bridging will always bring smiles.

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