Remembering Mike Francesco: A Community Builder

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Mike-Franscesco-photoAs I sat in the pews of St. Catherine’s last Friday morning, I couldn’t help but admire the courage and clarity of Andrew Boyce and Conner Boillat as they described and honored the very full life of Mike Francesco.

Mike touched the lives of many in our little neck of the woods, even those who may have never known him. He, together with his late son Michael, Jr., conceived and built what has become the hamlet of Mendon’s community cornerstone.

For almost four decades, I was one of those who was blessed to have experienced the wonder of Mike. While I can’t pretend to offer more than his family, I can share memories – and, more importantly, the context of those memories – that affirm their stories from a non-family perspective.

I met Mike and Rose in the mid-1980s shortly after I moved back to Mendon in the house I still live in. I wasn’t married then, still in my twenties, and was generally a quite busy fellow, a solitary bachelor dwelling within a family-sized home.

Technically, I wasn’t living alone – my brother and his young family lived with me for a short time until they could settle in their own home. Following them, upon her graduation from the University of Buffalo, my sister stayed with me until she found a job in Albany.

Still, realizing their companionship was only temporary, I was interested in meeting my new neighbors. In that quest, I began transitioning from the wider groups in which I was active in to some Mendon-based organizations.

I can’t remember the very first time I ran into Mike and Rose – and for me, the two were inseparable – it could very well have been at St. Catherine’s Church. I do remember they immediately took a keen interest when they discovered I had lived in Chili attended the same school as their kids (my brother Kenny was in their daughter Karla’s grade).

I will say this, though, the “keen interest” was mutual. I couldn’t help but see hints of my own family, my own heritage, in Mike and Rose Francesco. Rose especially. She looked and spoke like my mother’s mother. Same kind of homespun wisdom, too. Mike, while a different size and shape, had that same little “knowing” twinkle in his eye as my grandfather.

Through the years, we’d see each other every Sunday at St. Catherine’s. As my own family blossomed Mike & Rose took an equally keen interest in our kids, always wanting to know what they had done lately. Always insisting we reveal the latest tale of their lives.

Returning to those early years, besides Church, I also became active in the Rotary Club and the Mendon Republican Committee. Both had me out and about in the community and I would regularly see Mike and Rose.

What I recall most, however, were my door-to-door canvassing with party petitions. This is where I really got to know my two neighbors. Here’s the funny thing: these were usually “in-and-out” activities. Knock on the door, say hello, get a signature or two, then move on to the next house.

But not when I got to Mike & Rose’s house. Sure, they’d sign right away, but then they’d insist I come in and talk. I couldn’t say “no.” And it wasn’t just out of respect. I actually looked forward to these visits of shared comradery. I felt like I was “going back home” to visit family. In exchange, they seemed to enjoy my storytelling.

One of the many stories I would tell them was how impressed I was with their family campus – a group of three homes set back off of Route 251. Besides them, their two adult children and their growing families lived there.

It was a dream of mine to one day have a similar arrangement with my own family (remember, I wasn’t yet married – I didn’t even know Betsy at this point – but it didn’t mean I couldn’t plan ahead). Keeping the family close has always been the ideal. I told them I know a perfect place (in Chili) to build my family homestead. It already featured a line of tall trees on each side of an existing private road.

Mike laughed when I revealed where it was. I quickly joined in with a chuckle because I knew what he knew. This land was in a regular floodplain of Black Creek. No one would ever want to build a house there.

Most of the stories were one way: me telling them about my family experiences. They rarely spoke of their own experiences. They asked a lot of questions and I was only too happy to regale them. And I could see by the genuine smiles on their faces that they were equally happy hearing them. Perhaps, I thought, I was rekindling their memories of times past just as they were doing for me.

Mike and Rose didn’t have to use words to communicate, though. Their actions spoke much louder. Rose’s constant hospitality (I swear I gained weight every time I visited) vocalized volumes. Mind you, she was also an entertaining speaker, too, always and never afraid to tell it like it is.

With Mike, it was a couple of things. First, there was that twinkle in his eye. It said more than anything. From “I’ve seen a lot, so I know what you’re saying” to “I get what you’re not saying and am glad you trust me enough to not say it.”

More significant, though, and echoing my own family’s history of “father and son” building partnerships, was his working with his son Michael on Mendon Square. I had followed that development since the beginning.

Wait! That’s where I first met Mike! I just remembered!

I needed fieldstone for landscaping the front of my house when it was being built. My brother and I had collected a large pile from around the house. It was quite a mass, the first of which was used to build the fireplace in my family room (built, by the way, with my grandfather and father with me and my brother finishing it off).

Well, when the house was finished and before the landscaping was started, I came to the house one day only to discovered the land had been graded and all that fieldstone collected by me, my brother, and my friends was gone! In a bind, I needed to find where I could get more fieldstone. Then it struck me.

They had just started digging several foundations on the Mendon Square project. (For those not familiar, this is Assembly Drive in the hamlet of Mendon.) I convinced my brother to bring his old beat-up truck. That old Ford, wearily weathered when my father and brother teamed up to build the family’s first Mendon homestead on Dixon Woods, was reminiscent of the same pick-up my grandfather and father had in their “Carosa & Son” masonry business days.

You see why Mike’s working with his son meant so much to me.

Anyways, while scoping out geological specimens in Mendon Square, I found Mike. I explained what I was trying to do and asked him if it would be OK to take a couple truckloads of the stray stones we saw strewn along the freshly dug foundations.

Mike said, “Yes.” He just didn’t agree to let us take the stones. Both his words and that twinkle in his eye said he approved of what we were doing.

And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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