Shirley Franke: ‘Til We Meet Again

When I passed my PhD exams in 2008, I took a much-needed vacation before launching fulltime dissertation work. My travels took me to see some old college friends in Knoxville, Tennessee, and while their presence would have been more than enough balm for a weary soul, the trip had a bonus balm in the person of Shirley Franke.

I have known Shirley all my life. Her greatest “fame,” though she would shudder at the thought, is that she and her husband were part of the Garfield Baptist Church Sunday school class that started Shepherds Ministries so many years ago. Of more personal significance to me, however, is that Shirley worked in children’s church, and her role (at least as far as I knew) was solely related to the third graders, the Big Kids in the Primary Department. Reaching third grade was a big deal because it meant that we got to spend church time with Mrs. Franke instead of with the other classes – this was, for reasons I don’t recall, a Really Cool Thing. Beyond that momentous year, I interacted with Shirley on fairly rare occasion, mostly related to my writing. Shirley was a gifted writer, and at key times in my life, she spoke kind words to me about my own writing. Coming from someone as respected as she has always been, her encouragement meant a lot.

Upon retirement, the Frankes moved to Knoxville, which put her in just the right place at just the right time in my journey through the upper echelons of education. Shirley and I met for lunch on a sunny Saturday, and I was not surprised to see her looking exactly as she always had – classically elegant, with her hair loosely pulled back in a bun.

Shirley & I, looking like scoops of sherbet.

Since our contact over the years had been so limited, Shirley wanted to know everything about where I was and how I got there. At that exact point, I was road weary and still so far from completion. There was no real light at the end of the tunnel (even the oncoming train was barely in view), and dreams for the future were usually preempted by PhD nightmares. But, I told her my story.

When I got to the part about wanting to be an Old Testament professor, Shirley stopped her fork in midair, set it back down, and leaned back in her seat as if I had just told her she had won a trip around the world. Then she leaned forward and said, “March XX, 19XX” – I don’t remember the date, but it was clear as a bell to her. And she told me the story of how she came to Christ long ago when a roommate – annoying on account of being a Christian – invited her to hear an Old Testament professor from Wheaton College. Shirley went just to get her roommate off her back. The professor spoke on a psalm – and Shirley was saved that night. She said to me, “A psalm! A gospel message!” Needless to say, she was thrilled to hear of my still-so-distant dreams, and her story and enthusiasm were salve for my soul. In her ever gracious way, she again managed to have just the right words at just the right time.

I learned this afternoon that Shirley has died – and I can’t help but think that one of her sooner-rather-than-later stops in Glory will be to thank an OT professor for giving her Good News so long ago. She encourages me still.

9 responses to “Shirley Franke: ‘Til We Meet Again”

  1. Such a deep truth. As Christians we are called to encourage one another…and my road is full of those who have encouraged me….Today’s thought…a special shout out to Dr. David Turner of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary whose “Women in Ministry” course came at just the time when I needed it most. There’s a very funny light in the classic golf movie Caddy Shack–the line is “Be the ball.” So the Christian version of this is Be the Light. That doesn’t mean that we have to be Jesus. It means that when we point to His light or encourage that growing faith in another, we get to be the light pointing to he larger Light.
    American poet Thomas McGrath says in a poem entitled (what else!) Poem.
    How could I have come so far
    (And always on such dark trails!)
    I must have traveled by the light
    Shining from the faces of all those I have loved

    1. I love it, Saralee. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Cindie Winquist Avatar
    Cindie Winquist

    I didn’t start going to Garfield’s Sunday School until I was in 6th grade. Too late to be in Shirley’s children’s church class, but I sure heard a lot about her and admired her from a distance. Thanks for sharing this beautiful memory of a very gracious encourager of many.

  3. I love hearing your memories of Shirley. I, too, remember dreaming of making it to 3rd grade, when I could be in Mrs. Franke’s class! She never spoke down to us, and she challenged us through Bible drills to learn how to find important verses in God’s Word. Even though it was a race to find the verse, we were always to treat our Bibles with respect, because it was God’s special message to us.

    By the time I got married, Shirley and Glenn were the mentors for the young married class at church. Shirley had an amazing gift of hospitality, and our class was blessed to enjoy creative parties at the home of the Franke’s for many years. Our loss is heaven’s gain.

  4. Wendy, You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you. I am Gloria Housley (Shirley’s niece). My mom was Glenn’s sister, Naomi Franke (Housley). My memory is attempting to get all the connections straight, but I think your Mom is Bonnie Widder? ( I hope?) When I would stay with my grandparents, Henry & Martha Franke, there were always SS visits. I hung around and went to Camp Fairwood with Gloria Churchward & Marlene Felker. I remember just waiting to get to 3rd grade when Aunt Shirley would be my teacher. I can still see myself sitting in extended SS with her teaching. Aunt Shirley was another great role model that continues to drive my love and passion for SS today. I remember being captivated by her lessons. She and my mother remain my strongest examples of great Bible teaching and application for children. thank you for writing this memory out for us. I saw Aunt Shirley in May at the Shepherd’s Dedication of the Franke Hospitality Center. Peggy and I had a cousin reunion after 30 plus yrs of not seeing one another. I’m so thankful that I listened to God’s “still small voice.” It was a very special day and the last time I would see my Aunt Shirley.

    1. Hi Gloria,
      I have heard your name often from my parents – Richard & Nancy. I’m their baby and Bonnie is my oldest sister. Thanks for adding your memories here!

  5. Hi Wendy:
    Thanks for your sweet words about Shirley and her encouragements to you. She was a “one-of-a-kind” woman: Godly, dedicated, talented, gracious, friendly, humorous, and elegant. How she must be enjoying the presence of the Lord that she loved so much and served for such a long time. We first came to know her when we ministered at Garfield Baptist Church from 1980 – 1987 but had contact afterwards upon scarce occasion. Heaven is richer because she is now there.
    Thanks, Wendy.
    Jeannie & Verne Smith

  6. Hi Wendy! This is Pamela Smith, Verne and Jeannie’s daughter (of Garfield days). Thank you for your blog. I love the way you write. And thank you for paying tribute to one of the women who most influenced me in my teens. How do I remember her? She was formidably gracious, classy, and wore her hair in a timeless bun. She was articulate, opinionated (but never crass), and when she spoke, we listened. I love the way she decorated for the holidays (so many candles!), introduced me to wassail (out of a sterling silver punch-bowl), and how it seemed everything she said and did was appropriate. I’ve always thought of the Shirley as the type of woman I’d like to be.

    I’m so glad we’ll be seeing her again. Heaven is better for having her there. And I’m sure her Heavenly garments will be made of taffeta and velvet, with a grosgrain ribbon belt :-).

    How you you and I reitroduce ourselves? I’d love to hear your story and share mine!


    Pamela Smith

  7. Let’s try that last paragraph again: How do you and I re-introduce ourselves? I’d love to hear your story and share mine!

    I hate it when I mis-write and mis-spell :-).


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