Dr. Francis Fesmire, right, with Austin Royal, son of late Baylor classmate Ken Royal, during 2013 class reunion.
photo by Ebbie Cruddas
As a fellow member of the Baylor School Class of 1978, I was certainly sorry to hear about the sudden death of classmate Dr. Francis Fesmire on Friday.
My heart goes out to his family, colleagues and other close friends.
Although death took him at the age of only 54, Dr. Fesmire had already accomplished plenty in his medical career, which surprised none of us high school classmates who watched him become the class valedictorian. And I am sure he no doubt had other notable professional achievements on the horizon had he lived longer.
While my contact with him in recent decades was minimal but amicable, I can surmise that he was very respected in the Erlanger community for all his work to improve health care. And I am sure he probably showed his sense of humor plenty and did not take himself too seriously – even while dealing with the most serious of situations that are emergency room medicine and heart disease.
For example, he always seemed to get a humorous kick out of the fact that he was a 2006 Ig Nobel Prize winner for coming up with an unusual digital rectal massage as a cure for hiccups. The award is given good-naturedly by Harvard University for unusual achievement in scientific treatment.
Dr. Fesmire also appeared to still enjoy working in the trenches of medical care at a time in his career when he no doubt could have probably been more selective in his area of focus.
I first met Dr. Fesmire during the 1971-72 school year, when we were sixth-graders at Bright School after I believe his family moved to Chattanooga. He was a student in the other class under Mrs. Mary Alice Peters, and he always sang her praises for motivating him academically.
We remained friends through the first few grades at Baylor, occasionally sharing our growing interest in golf by playing together. On one occasion about the time we were finishing the ninth grade, he went with me and my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, down to Atlanta to see our first professional golf tournament. It was a fun-filled day.
I also remember that we watched Gary Player hit a shot on one hole, and instead of waving to us fans in acknowledgement of their applause afterward, he simply touched the bill of his cap, perhaps as a way of tipping his hat. For several months afterward, whenever we might be playing golf or whatever else, Francis and I would imitate Gary Player’s unusual action.
I also recall that Francis, whom we called Frank back then, scored the winning basket to defeat McCallie when we were in ninth grade in a wild, come-from-behind game at the still-standing Baylor gym, I think.
In the later grades, we maintained our friendship, although he focused mainly on basketball, and I had begun to focus on different sports. He also began to turn his attention more to academics. Although he had not been the top student academically in the lower school grades, he worked himself into the position of being the class valedictorian our senior year.
As several classmates mentioned after we began talking via email following the sad announcement of his death, he was obviously the smartest person in the room.
He seemed to have an endless energy for soaking up knowledge.
I remember being at his Fairhills Drive house in about junior high or maybe earlier, and he already had a little model of the heart in his bedroom and was quite familiar with the organ.
Another time in the later grades at Baylor, we were both sitting in the library, I think, and I was trying to figure out a William Blake poem that was full of symbolism. I asked him if he could help me decipher it, and he quickly knew what it represented.
I had also played chess some when it was popular in the lower grades at Baylor, but Dr. Fesmire had never played. However, I remember seeing teacher David Harris show him the basics of it during a break in classes in one of the high school grades.
Mr. Harris wasn’t explaining the game by saying that the rook moved in a straight line or the bishop moved diagonally, which he probably would have if he had been explaining the game to me. No, he was giving the future Dr. Fesmire sophisticated playing strategies that only someone with a high intelligence could understand.
I lost track of Francis for the most part after he went off to Harvard and medical school, although I would regularly see his sweet mother, Carolyn Pierce. He did come to most of our reunions, and this past fall at our 35-year reunion, he was kindly getting all his classmates to sign his yearbook, which he apparently had not done as a student.
I think I wrote that I knew he would become a big success in life.
Handing his yearbook to everyone for a signature as they arrived was typical of this man known for his somewhat unique-but-likable personality and his distinctive voice.
Another time about five years before that, I saw him at a special class lunch at Big River Grille and called him Frank, which I always had. However, a classmate softly told me he was going by Francis now.
Although that was fine with me, I never actually realized why. However, in 2011 he sent an email out to his Baylor classmates about his novel he had self-published, and he confided that he had decided to change his name from Frank to Francis when he went away to Harvard. The reason, in his words, was that he thought chicks (girls) would dig him, thinking someone named Francis had to seem more interesting to a female than a Frank.
After seeing his email about his book, I told him I would be glad to do a story on it. He emailed me a document of it, and then we talked on the phone one day.
One interesting aspect of being a journalist is that sometimes your interview subjects share intimate details about their life, information I would likely not be told in everyday conversation. And that was the case with our talk.
Dr. Fesmire confided that the book, “Nashville Skyline,” had been somewhat autobiographical, and he discussed a little about when his father took his own life while we were at Baylor and about his own Christian faith journey.
I remember telling him that I was probably not mature enough to help him at the time of his father’s death or to let him know that I was sorry he was hurting, but I know it must have been a hard time for him.
A few weeks later, when the well-written book was actually printed, he sent me complimentary paperback and hardback copies, signing both of them and thanking me for writing the article. In his doctor’s style of chicken scratch writing that he had developed as a youngster, he also wrote out a theme of the book: “the past, present and future are one.”
With his talents and personality, Dr. Fesmire was certainly an original gift to the world for any time period.
Goodbye Francis/Frank. Like Gary Player, I tip my hat to you.
Dr. Francis Fesmire’s inscription in his novel
photo by John Shearer