I DON'T remember meeting Francis Allen.
All I know is one day I started seeing him everywhere, at arty gatherings and charity events and book readings and live music shows and house parties, always in a white dress shirt with a cup in his hand, a silvery crown of hair floating above his beaming face like an off-kilter halo.
He’d greet me with a cheery “how’re you, darlin’?” and catch me up in one of his sweet-smelling hugs, the scent of his cologne staying with me for the rest of day.
A Statesboro native who could’ve passed easily for a good ol’ boy except for his frequent anti-authoritarian rants, Francis championed the environment, art and social equality in a voice and in action, yet he was the first person to remind not take it all so damn seriously. (I never did have an occasion to invoke the Bill Murray quote, “Lighten up, Francis.”)
Given his ubiquity and positive imprint, it seems impossible that he lived in Savannah for less than a decade.
“The day the moving truck showed up, the neighborhood changed for the better,” remembers dear friend Ann Hartzell of that morning in 2008. “He and Leslie brought something very special.”
After a long struggle with his health and shorter bout with cancer, Francis passed away at home in the earliest hours of last Thursday morning, Aug. 31.
He leaves behind his wonderful wife, Leslie Lovell, and two grown children, Lila and Cannon, as well as a community that continues to reverberate with his contributions.
“Savannah is small enough to have what I call a ‘closed feedback loop,’” he explained in 2014 when I interviewed him and Leslie for the grand opening of Roots Up Gallery, their showcase of outsider art and unexpected Southern treasures.
“You can see and feel the impact when you reach out to help.”
Reaching out is what he did, putting his hands into some of the city’s most memorable events and worthiest causes.
He helped bring food deserts to the collective consciousness as the “fairy godfather” of the Starfish Community Garden, one of the area’s first urban food growing projects.
He signed on to the board of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper right after 2010’s devastating fish kill, serving as a “moral and ethical rudder” through the lawsuits that eventually won justice for the beleaguered river. (I’ll never forget him tearing up the dance floor at one of the early ORK fundraisers, pumping his fist while Walter Parks and Swamp Cabbage sang “I tip my hat to a new Constitution, take a bow to a new revolution...”)
A passionate promotor of public art, Francis helped artists Matt Hebermehl and James “Dr. Z” Zdaniewski organize two installations of Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” murals, a project that inspired hundreds of passersby to share their hopes and dreams.
Equally ardent about making art accessible to all, he co-hosted the first local iteration of Slideluck, a colorful covered dish supper so successful that would-be art collectors and their casseroles had to be turned away at the Legion door.
The indefatigable music patron knew every R.E.M. lyric and helped Kayne Lanahan launch the Savannah Stopover Festival and Revival Fest.
He spread the literary love as the executive director of the Unchained Tour, squiring writer and Moth creator George Dawes Green, poet professor Chad Faries and other wild raconteurs around the state on a painted Bluebird school bus.
Perhaps Francis’ most visible legacy are the Little Free Libraries, those charming, house-shaped cupboards in front of the Sentient Bean and Chad’s treehouse in Thunderbolt and a bunch of other spots around town.
He and Leslie asked for donations to the project in lieu of gifts for their 2014 wedding, and they spoke excitedly of creating more book stations to connect the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home—yet another board on which he served—and the Southern gothic author’s adult residence in Milledgeville, Andalusia Farm.
The plan took a backseat these last few years as his health complications mounted, but he was feeling well enough last May to join a FOCCH board field trip to Andalusia, where we strode around the lush grounds cackling about peacock butts.
Last Friday evening at FOCCH’s Ursrey Memorial Lecture featuring novelist Ann Hood, board director Bishop Kevin Boland announced that the Flannery O’Connor Book Trail will be resumed and completed in Francis’ honor.
The bishop had sent Francis a letter the week before of the board’s decision to pick up the project, news that Leslie reports made him very happy in his last days.
I may not remember meeting Francis Allen, but I will never forget him.
He was the kind of person who made you feel like you belonged. He welcomed the weirdos and reveled with the freaks, finding connections to the underdogs and the invisible.
He was not afraid to drawl truth to power, but I never saw him let his emotions get the best of him, always smiling, always sweet.
He seemed to embody that grace when I visited him a couple of weeks ago, after the doctors told him there was nothing left they could do.
Ever the gentleman, he insisted on standing up to give me a hug, and I noted sadly that he wasn’t wearing his usual douse of cologne.
We sat on the hospital bed from Hospice Savannah that friends set up in the art-filled kitchen on the first floor and talked about photography and poetry, about Savannah and all its complicated charms.
“It’s kind of weird, knowing you’re dying,” he said suddenly, pressing my hand. “I really have had such a good time.”
He seemed at peace with the mystery of it all. Those who attended his Festivus parties can attest that he was gleefully agnostic, a devout practitioner of what Ann calls the “no-religion religion”—just simple kindness and unflagging compassion for others.
Me, I’m a believer because of people like Francis, those who use every ounce of energy they’re given to carve out places for others to thrive and create—there’s just no way that the kind of big, powerful love disappears when they’re gone.
It can only transform, leaving the rest of us to fill the space left behind.