Miss-Lou hero LaFrancis dies after long cancer battle

Published 11:37 am Saturday, June 8, 2024

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NATCHEZ — A hero to many throughout the Miss-Lou and beyond, G. Mark LaFrancis died at 11 p.m. Friday after a long battle with cancer.

LaFrancis has been a writer, photographer and film maker for more than 30 years.

He won many local, state and national writing awards and was selected as the 2018 Mississippi Scholar by the Mississippi Humanities Council for his extensive work as an oral historian and filmmaker.

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Along with Darryl White and Robert Morgan, LaFrancis produced the award-winning documentary “The Parchman Ordeal: The Untold Story,” about the wrongful punishment of more than 150 young Civil Rights advocates in 1965, and published the accompanying book “The Parchman Ordeal: 1965 Natchez Civil Rights Injustice.”

He is also well-known throughout the Miss-Lou as a champion of veteran’s affairs as the founder of his non-profit Home With Heroes Foundation, which since 2013 has supported countless veterans and their families.

He is a retired veteran having served 23 years in the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, earning two Air Force Commendation Medals.

He spent many years interviewing soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and composing poems from their stories and offering comfort to surviving family members in his book series, “In Their Boots.”

Stories that many veterans never talk about were shared with LaFrancis and he recorded these recollections in oral documentaries.

His passion for youth and education extended as far as his passion for helping those who’ve served our country in the armed forces.

He had been a teacher of film and photography for more than 15 years and also supported many programs to encourage younger generations to read, write, and create through film, photography and other media.

LaFrancis spent his last years establishing the Miss-Lou Military Museum and Veterans Welcome Center at 107 Jefferson Davis Blvd., which opened in November just after Veterans Day and continues to operate Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. providing a space to socialize, learn and connect veterans with resources to help them.

One such veteran is Capt. Jack Kerwin, who turns 98 on June 9, and served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and taught a few years after his service.

Kerwin said children appreciate the museum also. There is a table inside that teaches them how to fold an American flag into a triangle. Before the museum, there was a smaller version of it inside the VFW building beside Natchez Walmart with a free clothing bank for veterans, where “they could come in and pick clothing they needed and whatnot,” he said.

“He was always working on something to help somebody,” Kerwin said. “Mark always had the cap for veterans. He always had a smile and something good to say. He was consistent all the time, doing something constructive.”

Lt. Col. Larry Smith, retired, said he’s only known LaFrancis for a couple of years since moving to Natchez, adding he has made a lasting good impression in a short time.

“Like Mark, I’m a veteran and I met him through a casting call at Natchez Little Theatre. He’d written a play (Welcome Home Soldier) about a WWII veteran Battle of the Bulge survivor. My mother passed away and was always a big supporter of theater so I’d thought I’d try out. Much to my surprise, I was selected for the lead role.”

Smith recalled how “hands-on” a screenwriter LaFrancis was. The play was written and loosely based on the story of the late Paul Foster, a beloved local veteran who survived seven major battles of World War II.

“With his input, I did my best to get the character just right,” Smith said. “I haven’t heard an unkind word said about him from the many people who have known him from his work at the Democrat, teaching at Co-Lin and being an active part of the community.”

LaFrancis invited Smith to join the board of Home With Heroes after the production, where Smith now serves as the Vice President. “Since he’s been ill, I’ve been getting calls for help from veterans in the community,” he said. “Calls like, ‘My water or power is about to be shut off. Can you help?’ Those are big shoes to fill and I’m doing my best to continue his legacy. We’re not going to let his nonprofit die. We’re going to do all we can to not skip a beat and do our best to grow into filling those shoes and leading the legacy that he wanted to leave.”

LaFrancis’ life’s work has left a lasting impression on many others who’ve known him.

“I am truly heartbroken to hear that our friend Mark LaFrancis has passed away,” Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said. “Mark’s love for others, including all he did for our veterans, made such an impact on Natchez. He contributed in so many ways, as Chairman of our Mayor’s Veterans Task Force, Founder of the Miss Lou Military and Veterans Museum, and as an author, producer, and even teacher to students wanting to learn about film and cinema. As our city’s Poet Laureate, he touched our hearts, and as a friend, he was always there to encourage and inspire us with his faith in God and his love for our country. My and Marla’s prayers are with Mark’s dear wife Eileen and their beautiful family. He was truly a Natchez treasure, and this is indeed a loss for our entire community.”

Roscoe Barnes III, Ph.D, another veteran and historian who works as the Cultural Heritage Tourism Manager of Visit Natchez said, “G. Mark LaFrancis was an amazing man who will undoubtedly be remembered for his love of the military and his service to military veterans. Visit Natchez had the honor of working with him on several projects, including the Miss-Lou Military Museum and Veteran’s Welcome Center, the Wreaths Across America, and several Veterans Day events.

“As a personal friend, I can tell you he was a man of integrity and humility. He was a gifted writer and filmmaker who contributed to the African American history of Natchez. Mark spoke softly, but persuasively. He had a great sense of humor. I used to tell him that he was my inspiration. His drive to see the success of the military museum, in spite of his illness, was nothing short of remarkable. He will be missed by all of us. Our hearts ache for his wife, Eileen, and the rest of his family. May his legacy live on.”

Lt. Col. Herman Curry who leads the Natchez High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps remembers the impact LaFrancis has had on students.

“He was a great guy, a leader, and actively involved with me in the cadet program at Natchez High School,” he said. “The programs he initiated were just outstanding. He was also actively involved with the media technology center at Fallin. My cadets asked if it would be appropriate to do a color guard at the funeral. They were fond of him and had warm feelings toward him.”

Curry said a memory of being asked by LaFrancis to be a guest speaker at a Wreaths Across America program three years ago stands out.

“It was amazing,” he said of the program. “Wreaths Across America was something he was dedicated toward doing every year.”

Adams County Supervisor Kevin Wilson said LaFrancis would always call him so he and his wife Dana could volunteer during Wreaths Across America.

“He was a good guy and never had a bad word to say about anybody,” Wilson said. “He worked so hard for veterans. My heart goes out to his wife.”