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Iconic journalist dies
Mar 23, 2006 12:00 am
March 23, 2006
Brooks Franklin, a loved, respected and revered member of the community, an award-winning journalist and the backbone of The Lebanon Democrat editorial staff, died Wednesday after a short battle with cancer. He was 47.
During his time at the Democrat, Franklin built an ever-lasting legacy – one that touched the lives of co-workers, readers and prominent officials at every level of government.
One of the ways Franklin was able to find early success was by befriending and earning the trust of Wilson County's law enforcement community.
Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe, who at the time of Franklin's arrival was the chief of the Lebanon Police Department's detective squad, remembered Franklin as a solid, trustworthy reporter. He also came to know him as a good-natured, humble, fun-loving man.
The two had an intimate professional and personal relationship which will be sorely missed, the sheriff said Wednesday.
"I've talked to him nearly every day for 25-30 years," Ashe said. "It's kind of hard to imagine not walking into my office, sometimes two or three times a day, every day and hearing, 'Brooks wants you to call him.'"
A legendary and award-winning reporter
Franklin's career as newspaper reporter began in 1979, just three years after he graduated from Smith County High School.
He joined The Democrat staff in 1979. He left briefly for Nashville, writing for the Nashville Banner and serving as a publicity manager for Aristo Music Associates before returning to Wilson County in 1991. Over the years, Franklin became a nationally recognized newsman, winning numerous national and state awards for reporting and editorial writing.
"Brooks Franklin was the voice of The Lebanon Democrat for the better part of three decades," said Clint Brewer, who was Franklin's colleague and editor at The Democrat for nearly 10 years. "He was one of the finest journalists this state has ever produced, covering some of the most significant events in Tennessee history with a skill and professionalism matched by few in this profession."
Brewer described Franklin as a fearless newsman.
"Brooks' best attribute as a journalist was the fearlessness with which he pursued stories that gave a voice to those who otherwise would have none," the newspaper editor said. "He was a giant in the newspaper world and a good friend. He will be missed."
Franklin was the recipient of dozens of Associated Press and Tennessee Press Association awards for news and features reporting, and last year took home the top TPA award for personal humor column writing for a piece about his failing eyesight. It was his first win for humor, and one that gave him great pride.
Franklin won three Malcolm Law Awards for investigative journalism in 1992, 2004 and 2005.
He covered countless major events in Middle Tennessee including the death of legendary football coach Bear Bryant, the 2000 execution of Robert Glen Coe – who was the first individual to be put to death by the State of Tennessee in 40 years – numerous gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections and almost every major trial in Wilson County is the last 30 years.
Building sources and a trustworthy reputation
But far more lasting than the clips and plaques adorning Franklin's walls were the bonds he made with hundreds of officials, community leaders and residents he reached out to every day.
Indeed, news of Franklin's Wednesday morning death at Carthage General Hospital spread quickly through his hometown and throughout Wilson County, as it was difficult to find a member of either community who had not come to know Franklin over the years.
District Attorney General Tommy Thompson was an assistant D.A. gearing up for his first political run when Franklin joined The Democrat. He said above all, Brooks was a professional.
"I've had more dealings with Brooks than any other reporter during my career," Thompson said. "I never found him anything but professional. He was a journalist in the purest form. He was concerned about accuracy. He was concerned about sources. He had more sources than anybody I knew."
And the district attorney general echoed comments of other law enforcement officials about Franklin's unwavering integrity.
"You could talk to him about anything and in any depth … And if you talked off the record you could do it with absolute confidence," Thompson said.
Criminal Court Clerk Linda Neal also knew Franklin for more than two decades and described him as friendly and immensely trustworthy.
"If you talked to Brooks, you knew you could trust him, even though he was always all over town having to talk to everybody," Neal said. "And he was someone you could confide in on a personal level, as well."
Judge J. O. Bond, who presided over countless hearings Franklin covered for the Democrat deemed Franklin as a "great" news reporter.
"He always seemed to get his stories pretty accurate," the judge said. "On things he wrote about the courts, he didn't have to change anything the next day. He got it right the first time … He was always a friendly person and well liked around the court house. And we certainly, certainly feel bad about his passing away."
Attorney Gary Vandever, who started practicing law in Wilson County the same year Franklin began reporting, said the two became friends "almost instantly."
"And I always found him to be a super reporter," he said. "He always knew what was going on. He was very thorough in his reporting and he was very factual in his reporting. I can truthfully say I never had a problem with a single story that Brooks wrote."
The death of such a talented, thorough reporter is a true loss to the entire community, many said.
"And I think it's a loss to the journalistic community," Ashe said. "You may or may not have liked Brooks as a person … but you have to respect him from a journalistic standpoint. He was good at what he did."
Franklin's interest in journalism ran back to his youth, his friends recalled Wednesday.
His lifelong friend and Smith County High School classmate Buddy Mason recalled Franklin wrote articles for the school newspaper as well as many short stories while growing up in Carthage.
"A writer – that was what he always wanted to be," Mason said. "All Brooks ever talked about during his childhood was being a reporter. He wanted to report and be with a newspaper, and he got to fulfill his lifelong dream. He did an excellent job at it, too."
Getting his start and veering a course
Like many greats, though, when Franklin first started out he was nothing but green. After he graduated from Smith County High School in 1976, Franklin studied mass media at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, but stayed for only one year.
And when he first walked through the doors The Democrat almost 30 years ago, he was armed with more ambition than experience.
Even so, one editor saw fit to give Franklin a chance.
"When Brooks came and applied for a job with The Lebanon Democrat … I never will forget it," recalled Sam Hatcher, former editor and chief executive officer of The Democrat and the man who gave Franklin his first reporting job.
"When he came in, he was wearing a white shirt, a necktie, sports jacket and his hair was neatly trimmed. He said, in that long drawl that he had, he said, 'I've never wanted anything more in my life, Mr. Hatcher, than to come to work as a newspaper reporter.' And, he said, 'I really wish you'd give me a shot,'" Hatcher said.
"We were always looking for reporters … and I said, 'Well, what is your writing background?' He said, 'Well, I've written the church bulletin at my church … every week.' On a whim, I'd never done that before in my life, I hired him. That was on like a Thursday, and he came to work on a Monday. Within hours, he picked up a knack for news writing and never looked back."
Franklin's knack for news came largely at his own direction and a result of his own drive, one of his first co-workers said.
Bill Thorup began his career as a photographer with The Democrat at the same time Franklin started reporting.
Thorup said the two became fast friends as they learned the ropes together.
"We pretty much had free reign over what we wanted to cover," Thorup said Wednesday. "And we both basically just hit it off. And we could go into any situation and get a story and a picture out of it."
Thorup said he and Franklin paired up, doing everything together since he was the only photographer and Franklin the main reporter.
"It was sort a two-man show, to be honest," he said. "We just had a knack for it. We could go into a situation and make people feel at ease. And we befriended a lot of police officers who called us in the middle of the night to come out to crime scenes."
Like dozens of people who were shocked and saddened by Franklin's death, Ashe said Lebanon has lost a truly great reporter.
"It takes a lot of time for a law enforcement official to build a confidential relationship between those in the news business and those in the business of making news," Ashe said. "But he never, not one time in all these years, betrayed my confidence. And I think that's an amazing thing."
Throughout his tenure at The Democrat, Ashe recalled Franklin wrote about "everything from a hangnail to a homicide. He's covered it all."
He found the news when there was none to be found, and never turned a blind eye to anyone or anything, the sheriff said.
"And when he had to do something that would hurt, he was always quick to call me back and say, 'I'm sorry I had to do that.' It was all genuine from him," Ashe said.
Lebanon Public Safety Commissioner Billy Weeks also spent the past 25 years conversing with Franklin nearly every day.
Weeks, who was a rookie cop when Franklin began his career, developed a relationship with Franklin that transcended professional necessity.
"I argued with him every day," Weeks said. "But at the end of every day we were friends. And I'm going to miss that."
But Franklin was always a journalist, sniffing out news from the police even in the course of casual conversation.
"If we talked long enough he would pull something out of it that he could make news out of," Weeks said.
And like Ashe, Weeks often found himself on the defensive when Franklin was chasing a story.
"A lot of the time, Brooks was already armed with the information he wanted to talk about," the Lebanon public safety commissioner said. "He was pretty good at finding out things and calling and asking about them, whether they were good for the department or bad."
But the police department always received fair treatment, which paved the way to a mutually beneficial relationship built on trust.
"If we had something we needed in the paper, you could call him any time day or night and get help for what you needed," Weeks said. "I'm going to miss him … And I think journalism is going to miss him."
Brooks cared about the little guy
But while it was Brooks Franklin, a senior staff writer, who won so much respect and praise, it was "Brooks as a person" that won over countless hearts.
"I valued him more as a friend than I did as a journalist, after just a few years … It's just a tremendous loss to the community," Thompson said.
"Brooks was a guy who cared about the little guy," Ashe said. "He wasn't a man of many means, but he was a man of tremendous talents. He really cared about those who were less fortunate. That really is his milestone."
Along with Ashe, so many of Franklin's former colleagues said what made him so special was despite his countless dealings with criminals and violence, he never became jaded the way so many law enforcement officials become over time.
"While he liked us, he liked defendants, too," Thompson said. "He could identify their problems and the causes of their problems. And he had a lot of compassion."
Vandever, who said Franklin was "one of the nicest people that I ever met," agreed.
"He had a genuine concern for the people he was writing about," he said. "He had great empathy for people, especially for the victims he was writing about."
"The situation with India Clark really showed what kind of person he was," Weeks said, describing how Franklin single-handedly kept alive the story of a Lebanon High School teen who was shot at her home during a time when the rest of the county's attention was focused elsewhere.
"And it was probably one of the things I agreed with him the most about over some 25 years," Weeks said. "One of the things I admired him the most for was picking that up and helping us with it. And he truly believed it. It wasn't just something to get in the paper."
The compassion Franklin brought into the newsroom infiltrated all of his other stories as well.
Late last year, Franklin wrote a three-part series uncovering the silent but serious problem of poverty in Lebanon.
And when he was not offering to cover community events, he was so often in attendance.
"Brooks was the one I could count on to come out and cover events," said Elder Johnny Crudup, the pastor at the Garden of Prayer Tabernacle Church, and who met Franklin in the early 1990s when he helped establish the Wilson County NAACP. "He even came to my church for services when he wasn't covering stories."
"When my wife was struck with cancer, he came to see me and called me as a friend. He was just an awesome friend."
Nearly everyone recalled Brooks as just that – a friend.
Mt. Juliet Police Chief Winston "Ted" Floyd said there was never a time Brooks would not cross the street to say hello.
"It saddens me to hear of this tragedy," Floyd said. "Brooks always treated me fairly. There's never been a time, in any shape or form, that I could not trust him. He was a friendly and honest reporter. Each time I looked at the newspaper I knew his story was straight up. And when I see things like Brooks Bucks I knew he was not only an excellent journalist but wanted to help people too. That was the way he was."
It was his reputation not just as a friend but as a true humanitarian that led to the Brooks Bucks fundraiser, which was put on to benefit one of Franklin's most loved causes, Habitat for Humanity.
The three-year-old campaign, sponsored by Demos', has provided nearly $15,000 for the international nonprofit agency dedicated to building affordable housing for the underprivileged.
"He was a champion of the working poor and that's what I admired," Habitat for Humanity of Wilson County Executive Director Cyndi Todd said. "He had a way of saying what needed to be said."
Ashe said it was regrettable Franklin does not have any children to "take home all his plaques."
But in the eyes of many, Franklin still had a family.
"I have a family, but Brooks was really my brother," friend Buddy Mason said. "We went through thick and thin together, and he was always by my side – just a true friend who was always there when I needed him.
"He'll always be in my memories," he said. "I'll never forget Brooks. I know he's gone to heaven, and I know that we'll see him again."