Author shares stories of family's perseverence
Not long before he died, basketball coach turned inspirational speaker Jim Valvano shared a few nuggets of advice.
Do something every day that makes you laugh.
Do something every day that makes you cry.
Do something every day that makes you think.
“If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day,” he said in a memorable ESPN broadcast. “You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Former Allen Countian Dave French, now an Osawatomie resident, took it to heart — and then some.
“I’d add ‘pray,’” French said.
Prayer, he explains, was central to French’s recovery from a string of family tragedies.
Eventually, writing became a part of his spiritual health as well.
It started as a little manuscript, a 10-page biography penned about 20 years ago mainly to answer questions his nieces and nephews had about their family’s origins.
Then, following a brutal five-year stretch of pain and heartache, French, whose coaching and teaching careers have stretched from the halls of Iola and Marmaton Valley high schools to Oswatomie, returned to writing in 2009.
What transpired in the 10 years since has become “The Last Hug: A Storm Is Coming.”
Mixed with equal parts catharsis and inspiration, French’s 57,000-word tome focuses on the redemptive power of the human spirit.
“I wrote from my heart,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
French will return to his boyhood stomping grounds from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday for a discussion about his book at Mid-Point Baptist Church in Moran.
FRENCH, 62, has had his fill of heartache, thank you very much.
From family illness, to tragic car accidents, grief and sorrow often were unwelcome guests in the French household.
Even Dave found himself on the wrong side of one of life’s cruel twists.
He and several relatives were in Colony in April 2010, painting a nephew’s house as a wedding gift, when French fell headfirst from a ladder, 10 feet onto the ground below.
The fall broke several ribs — one of which missed piercing his aorta by about a centimeter. He also suffered from a collapsed lung.
Doctors on duty at Allen County Hospital — as fate would have it, French’s sister-in-law, Becky French was among them — pegged his chances at survival at less than 50 percent.
“I remember her telling me a couple of times I was lucky to be alive,” he said.
Unable to work, or do much of anything in the weeks and months that followed, French found a literary outlet, one he’d traveled before.
Little did he know it at the time, but French’s writing helped lead him through the struggles, heartache, and even survivor’s guilt that threatened to smother him for the rest of his days.
TELLING HIS life story wasn’t really in French’s plans.
He wanted something short and sweet, “just to preserve the history of the family,” he said.
His family had moved around a lot when he was a child, from Texas, to Moran, then Iola, and eventually back to Moran, where he graduated high school in 1975.
It started with a discussion with his nieces and nephews asking about grandparents and such. It took about a year and a half to put together.
Dave came up with the title — “The Last Hug” — after thinking of his mother.
Jo Ann was small in terms of physical stature, but her hugs were tremendous.
“She gave powerful, long hugs,” he said.
Not long before she died, Dave’s mother asked for a hug — their last hug, it turned out.
Dave happily obliged.
The familiar warmth draped over mother and son as the two embraced.
Her hugs were always special, he noted. But this one was even moreso.
It felt different.
Soon after, his emotions welled.
“It was like she knew, in her own way, the end was near,” he said. “It felt like it was her way of letting me know she was proud of me and what I’d done.”
FAST FORWARD about 10 years, to the fall of 2009.
By then, French had become well established in the Osawatomie community, as a teacher, coach and mentor. He’d become a deacon at Osawatomie Presbyterian Church.
It was there, one Sunday in January 2010, he’d been asked to fill in for the minister.
“I had no idea what I was going to talk about,” he said. “That’s when it hit me.”
He dusted off his short manuscript, about going through life’s journey and keeping the faith amid a relentless barrage of tragedy, and shared his message with the congregation.
It was an uplifting service by all accounts.
It was then he realized his writing was incomplete; there was other pain to write about.
And a powerfully upsetting dream, of an oncoming storm, was more than a little unnerving.
Perhaps it was a reflection of his family’s own tragic history, wife Lori suggested.
He’d lost two siblings in separate car accidents: his brother, Matt, and his wife were killed on Christmas Day 1977. Sister Janice died in a car crash in 2005.
Another brother, Shawn, suffered traumatic brain injuries in an accident in Arkansas a few years after that.
The hits kept coming.
Son Aaron survived a heart attack while enlisted in the U.S. Navy
His other son, Andy, saw his promising football career derailed in high school because of an unrelated heart illness.
Soon, Lori had heart issues of her own, suffering a stroke in the process. (She’s now recovered.)
Then, in April 2010, came Dave’s own accident.
PERHAPS the worst part of French’s brush with death wasn’t the hours of grueling physical therapy; the struggles to walk from one room to the next; to be unable to lift anything much heavier than a book.
No, it was the guilt.
“Why did I survive?” he asked himself all too often.
The answer came slowly, but surely, through his writing. Through his connecting with family and friends, acquaintances he hadn’t seen for years.
French credits an extended support network, stretching from Osawatomie to Allen County, for his recovery, physically and spiritually.
Moran’s Lloyd Houk, a longtime friend, was one of his first visitors after the fall.
“He came and prayed with me,” French recalled. “It was tremendous.”
Then, French’s thoughts returned to his book, his mother’s last hug, and his dream.
Soon, he had found his purpose, just as important as diagramming the next football play or handing out his next history assignment.
He wanted to write, to share his gift to others through God.
As the years went buy, the chapters slowly came together.
First, came the writing, which he would do in his spare time.
“But I really didn’t know where to go to get it published,” he said.
French met his daughter’s mother-in-law, who in turn put French in touch with Dr. Gene Herndon, a book publisher.
He described the entire process like “walking out over thin ice,” uncertain of which step to take, and how far.
His wife and family remained a part of the process.
“If we do this, it’s us together,” he promised.
FRENCH’S 34 years in education, most of which have been in Osawatomie, continues.
He has left the classroom, but remains the aquatics director of Ozone 367, the Osawatomie School District’s activities center.
French oversees a staff of about 30 youngsters in the summer, 15 in the winter.
French also was instrumental in getting Osawatomie’s Over the Rainbow Community Garden off the ground in 2013.
Part of the non-profit garden’s mission is to encourage students to learn about agriculture. Produce sales have funded 70 scholarships for students in the garden’s seven-year history; 17 this year alone.
He also finds time whenever possible to get back to Allen County to visit family and friends. (His brother, Steve, was just re-elected to a seat on the Iola City Council.)
COPIES of “The Last Hug” are available online at thelasthug.com or via Amazon, Google Play Books, Apple Books or Nook. French also will be in Iola on Jan. 27 to discuss his book at the Iola Public Library.
(Editor’s note: Dave French’s extensive career in education and coaching included a stint in as seventh-grade basketball coach for this Register reporter at Marmaton Valley Junior High School in Moran.)