A Tribute to Francis Whitaker

by Dorothy Stiegler

Published in the November 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Publisher's Note: Francis Whitaker, renowned Master Blacksmith, passed away October 3, 1999, at the age of 92. He was one of the most impressive men I have ever met. An interview with Francis appeared in our September and October, 1997 issues. It is now posted on our Web site, www.anvilmag.com. I asked Dorothy Stiegler, blacksmith and long-time friend of Francis's, to share her thoughts about Francis' last days.

Dear Rob,

Thank you for asking me to share my thoughts about these last few days with Francis with you and with the other blacksmiths and farriers who knew and loved him so very much.

I was privileged to be taken into the fold of Francis' family during his very difficult and private -- although public -- time. His son Stephen and his wife, three of his deceased wife Portia's sons, Charles, John and Paul and their wives, as well as his close friend Sara and I knelt by his bedside as his life was reduced to echoes. He waited for each of us to arrive and about 30 minutes after the arrival of the last of his sons, Francis allowed himself to let go. We all noticed the change, and within an hour he was gone.

During the 40-hour vigil, the boys sang ballads and played the guitar, and we all sang along. They told the story of Francis and Portia in song impromptu; it was very touching. They sang of Francis and Sara, of times long ago, and of the present. The hours were filled with the music Francis loved, and laughter, as we all told stories of our times together with this giant of a man. And there was love -- the greatest of all was the love.

One of the men brought along the "joke file" from his office and we read the funniest jokes known to man and laughed and laughed. Francis always loved a good joke and we told a lot of them those two days.

I never did see Francis in pain, nor did Sara or anyone else indicate to me that he had been in pain prior to my arrival. I was glad for that, as I had wondered about it. He was not hooked up to a battery of machines like so often happens. He was given oxygen to help his breathing and he had a stomach shunt tube. Other than that, Francis looked very peaceful and slept away the last few hours.

He held his hammer tightly in his hand and we all made sure after the nurses attended to him that it was returned to its rightful spot. We placed beautiful flowers upon his chest to give him comfort during the vigil.

We shut the door to the outside and family and loving friends surrounded Francis in his final hour. We all knelt by his bed, holding hands and singing gentle songs of comfort to each other and to Francis. When he was with us no longer, we lingered there in loving silence for some time. Then, following a tradition which had been started by one of Portia's granddaughters, from the beautiful bouquets that lined the window sill of his room we selected a flower for each of our children and placed them with the flowers that were already on his chest. When we finished, there was a flower for each grandchild -- there were a lot of them, too -- and one for my own grandchildren, Tyanna, Grant and Lindsay. Lindsay's rose was placed in his hand, which still held the hammer. It was very moving and very spiritual -- I am forever changed by the experience.

We spent a lot of time the next few days designing the memorial, to be very "Francis." A lot of thought was given to how each of us perceived what we wanted to see take place. We had a beautiful portrait of him at his forge and an anvil and tongs, his hammers and his last unfinished piece. There was a trumpet solo by one of his sons, the ringing of the anvil, eulogies by two of his sons and me, and special memories by various ones who stepped forth from the audience. Following the ringing of the anvil (signifying the master calling the apprentices), everyone who wished to came forward and struck the anvil three times in like manner; the procession was long and joyous. The unfinished piece was then picked up by former students and long-time friends Bob Bergman, Bill Fiorini and Dan Nauman, and carried off to his forge a short distance away. We all followed behind and the near-400 attendees filed into the blacksmith shop where some of Francis' ashes were ceremoniously placed into his forge fire, along with some of Portia's. We rang the anvil 92 times in remembrance of his 92 years. Many of the folks attending rang a number for themselves and for friends who could not attend.

As I look back on this now, one week later, I realize that I am exiting a fog, like a slow-motion picture. In those few memorable days in Colorado, I feel that I represented every one of the blacksmiths who loved him; and I am very humbled by the experience.

I realize now more than ever the importance of picking up where Francis left off, before a beat is missed. There are several who are already moving in that direction and I, too, will do my part. His book, "Recipes in Iron II," will be completed by Judy Berger, Tal Harris and George Dixon. Allison Finn, his current student in training, will complete his unfinished piece. The school will prosper under the direction of his long-time protegé, Gordon Stonington. The documentary on his life will proceed under the careful direction of Dan Nauman and his teachings and techniques will be carried forward in the work of all of us who believe in doing it right the first time.

Dorothy Stiegler, Carmel Valley, California

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