A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Jennings, Louisiana for a memorial service for an old friend of mine. Frank Touchet was a law school classmate, a former colleague and a long time friend. He passed away rather suddenly, after battling for many years with various health problems. Going to a funeral is never something to look forward too, but when it is for someone your age, or close to your age, it makes you stop and think. That seems to be happening to me with more regularity these days.
I first met Frank Touchet in the fall of 1984, in my first semester of law school at LSU. Frank was in my class, but not in my section. To be honest, I don’t really remember the circumstances of our first meeting, but it was not long before we had become friends. Frank and I were different in a lot of ways. He was a coonass boy from Lake Arthur, Louisiana and I was a goat ropin’ redneck from greater Livingston Parish. Frank had long hair and an ear ring. I was more of a button down, short hair kinda guy. But we also had a lot in common. We both had ‘real world’ experience before law school. I had worked as a deputy sheriff and Frank spent 10 year or so as a forensic scientist at the crime lab in Lake Charles. We were both married when we started school and were both raising kids at some point during our law school careers. But, I think the biggest factor was an intangible one.We both sized each other up and came to a conclusion that, for both of us, was the highest form of flattery. At some point, we both looked at each other and thought “that’s a pretty good ole boy right there.”
After law school, I started practicing in Baton Rouge. Frank started his practice in Livingston Parish. He was living in Denham Springs, where his first wife was teaching school. Frank’s practice was primarily criminal and family law, and he was very good at it. Frank was, above all else, a people person. He was outgoing and jovial. But he was a hard worker and had a heart for people. One of the reasons Franks never got rich practicing law was that he was incapable of saying “no” to someone who was in trouble and needed help, especially a single mom who needed help. He told me at times that those situations reminded him of his own mother, who was a single mom trying to raise a houseful of children on her own.
A few years later, I moved my practice to Livingston Parish and Frank had established his office in a small house, literally across the street from the courthouse. On days that I had court, I would usually wind up across the street at Frank’s office, for a cup of coffee, a good cigar and a visit. Frank was an accomplished cook and a lot of days, if I happened to walk in around lunchtime, I’d find Frank in the kitchen with an apron on, fixing lunch for “his girls”, Peggy and Cindy. . Frank and I grew close during those years. When you practice law by yourself, it is always good to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and when necessary, to play the Devil’s advocate. Frank and I worked together on cases and had cases against each other. Sometimes it seemed it was me and Frank against the world. On a personal level, I was his lawyer and he was mine. When we worked together, we used to joke that I was the brains of the operation and Frank was the balls.
LIke most lawyers, we worked hard and, when the time was right, we played hard, often together. We made many a trip to the casino together, partied in New Orleans and sometimes just cracked a bottle in Frank’s office. We had that kind of relationship where we could disagree and yell at each other (when he was mad at me, his favorite phrase was “What the hell is wrong with you, you dumb sonofabitch”), then laugh about it and carry on like nothing had happened.
Frank was a people person. He also had a certain style. Frank had long hair, a beard, “bling” and an earring, before that kind of thing was popular. I was more of a dark suit, white shirt and tie sorta guy. But over the years, I think he has influenced my fashion choices. I’ve let my hair grow a little longer and I currently have a fashion sense that sometimes baffles my wife. I don’t have an earring yet, but who knows what tomorrow might bring? Frank was also unique among people my age in the fact that
he was fluent in Cajun French. I asked him about that one time. He was raised in Lake Arthur, and Jennings, Louisiana. He said that he grew up speaking French at home. He told me once that his grandmother did not speak English, and his mother spoke English and French, but preferred French. He and his siblings spoke English at school and to each other at home, but spoke French to Momma and Grandma.
I was with Frank when he divorced his first wife. I was his best man a few years later when the got married again. In that capacity, it was my duty to organize the bachelor party. We wound up with a group in which Frank and I were the senior members. It started out in Baton Rouge and eventually wound up in the French Quarter. Turns out the other celebrants couldn’t hang with us old dogs and the night ended with just me and Frank having breakfast at the Tiffin Inn in Metairie at 4 o’clock in the morning. The wedding was on April 15. I asked Frank why he picked that date. He said that way he could always remember his anniversary! A couple of years later, I handled his divorce from Wife number 2 and actually got the final judgment signed on April 15. Nobody thought that was funnier than Frank Touchet.
Some years ago, Frank gave up practicing law. He moved to South Carolina for awhile and eventually found his way back to Jennings, Louisiana. To be honest, Frank and I lost touch for a long time during those years. He was dealing with what he was dealing with and I was busy with work and kids and a lot of other things Then one day out of the blue, my phone rang and Frank was on the other end. Strangely enough, we were able to take up right where we left off. We had that kind of friendship. Over the next 10 years or so, we talked regularly, if not often. Frank’s health, which was never good, was getting worse. He seemed to be dealing with a lot of things. Then one day, he called me on the phone and his entire tone was different. He was different. It turns out he had met the love of his life, his new wife Karen. His whole demeanor was different. For the first time in a long time, Frank was happy.
As the years went on, Frank’s health got worse and worse. He had to give up his restaurant where he was owner and chef. After that, he had a weekly gig cooking for the local Baptist church on Wednesday night. As his condition got worse he had to give that up to. During this time, I actually visited with Frank face to face one time, about 2 years ago. My wife was meeting her sister in Crowley one day. I tagged along and hoodwinked Frank into giving me his home address. Unannounced, I showed up at his door for a visit. He was glad to see me. He didn’t get out much at that point. Not only did he welcome the company, but it was a chance to talk and pass a good time. We talked for hours. One thing Frank could do was talk. He would always tell you about his medical condition, what doctors he was seeing and what medicines he was taking. And he also liked to talk about football and wrestling. Frank and I were both old time “rasslin” fans. Not that NWA or WWF mess. I’m talking about the good ole days with Skandar Akbar, Cowboy Bill Watts, Dr. X, The Big Cat Ernie Ladd and the Junkyard Dog. Back before wrestling got all fake and stuff.
We said goodbye that day and, it turns out, that was the last time I would see Frank. We continued to talk. He would call to check on me, to refer a client or just to talk. Mostly he would talk and I would listen. About 6 weeks ago, I got a call from Frank. He just wanted to talk. He was not in a bad or down mood. But, he had called to tell me this might be the last time we talked. He had come to the conclusion that the doctors and the medicine were not going to be able to do him much good anymore. And, as usual, he wasn’t worried about himself. He wanted to make sure I would be there to help Karen and his son Adam when his time came.
Then, a couple of weeks later, I got a call from a mutual acquaintance that Frank has passed away. I was stunned, but not shocked. He told me it was coming. I found out the arrangements. There was a memorial service that Saturday at the Jennings Church of Christ. I decided I needed to go. Although Frank and I had stayed in touch, I wasn’t sure what his circle of influence was outside of his immediate family. I thought it would be sad if they had the service and not many people showed up. I need not have worried.
When I got the the church that day, the first thing I realized was that I was going to have trouble finding a place to park. I finally found a spot and made my way into the church. The Jennings Church of Christ is not a mega-church, but it is not small by any means. The place was packed. And it was packed with people whose life Frank had touched. As I sat there waiting for the service to start, there was a photo slideshow playing. Very quickly I noticed that most of the pictures were not of Frank. They were of people who were important to Frank. That seemed appropriate, since that is the way Frank was. Life was not about him, it was about those he loved and who loved him.
The service started and I was struck by another thought. During our relationship, Frank was not particularly religious or spiritual. Not that he did not believe, but it was not a big thing with him. Just something we never talked about. But I soon discovered that after coming home to Jennings again, Frank had also found a personal relationship with the Lord. He was a deacon in the Jennings Church of Christ. He was the cook for First Baptist Church. He had not one, but two different preachers stand up and say good things about him. One was a Baptist and the other was Church of Christ. I hope someone can say that about me when my time comes! And, not surprisingly, most of what they had to say about Frank was how he put others first, how he had a heart for people, how he had the ‘works’ kind of faith, not just the ‘words’ kind. How Frank would see a need and go out of his way to help meet it. How when he was at his worst, he still tried to help others. How he was one of those rare people in this day and age who, when he found out you needed something, would stop what he was doing to try to help you. In short, the same things that I found out about another starving law student almost 30 years ago.
I left there that day with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. It wasn’t really a funeral, it was a celebration of Frank’s life. I am sad that I will no longer get my phone calls. There won’t be another time when my cell phone rings and I look down and it says “Frank”. But, that does not mean I won’t think about him. And it doesn’t even mean I won’t see him again. One of the hymns we sang that day in Jennings was “When We All Get to Heaven” . And when I do, I am sure Frank will be there, stirring up something in the pot and talking about wrestling. Until then mon ami.