River Falls loses Francis

We talk a lot in this space from time to time about the glue that holds a community together. Here’s another: The person who strikes up a conversation with strangers.

By all accounts, that’s what Francis Johnson was in River Falls, Wis.

He was a constant presence in town. He loved riding his bike, wearing bright orange outwear. He kept 15 of them at home to provide parts, according to the River Falls Journal, which pens a lovely tribute to him today. He died while riding his bike on Main Street on Tuesday.

Today, the people of River Falls are wearing orange in his memory, the paper says.

He worked for the past 18 years in food service at UW-River Falls. Chartwells manager Sue Boettcher said Johnson, who worked in receiving and did food deliveries, didn’t hesitate to strike up conversations with anyone on campus — from coworkers to students to faculty.

“Just by what he did every day, he made a huge difference and sure touched a lot of people,” she said, choking back tears.

The mere mention of Johnson drew wet eyes Wednesday among the Main Street waitresses, bartenders and cashiers who knew him over the years.

Among those mourners, a common description emerged, as articulated by South Fork waitress Kristal Melcer.

“He was the gentle giant of River Falls,” she said, wiping a tear.

Johnson didn’t have a wife or children, Melcer said. Rather, “he had a community.”

He was an ember that sparked the town, another resident said. When the university child care kids would see his van bringing them meals, they’d all shout “Francis.”

He got a new bike last year, thanks to the Random Acts organization.

A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to raise enough money to give a bike away to someone each year to honor Francis.

That’s a nice community you’ve got there, River Falls.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at O’Connell-Benedict Funeral Home in River Falls.