Francis – the humble strongman
Anton Benedict Francis was a man who epitomized the true spirit of sport. He persevered against all odds, never gave up, tackled obstacles in his stride, enjoyed the moments he had however few and far between they may have been, and always stuck to the task at hand. His nature should have made him a perfect fit for the sports desk of a newspaper though many observers would have had different views.
He was already past his fighting best when he joined the fledgeling sports desk of the Daily Mirror that was still in its early years. My former The Island colleague Nava (Navaratnarajah) rang me one morning to request a position for his brother-in-law at the Daily Mirror, and I agreed to interview him. But I never had an inkling that it would lead me to meet a man who would later be my colleague and friend for years to come as we strived together in a determined team to make Daily Mirror the number one English daily in the country.
Francis was already in his late sixties and had never handled a computer in his life - two strong indications that would have ensured he would never be able to start an absolutely new career. He possessed a load of newspaper clippings and other documents that he showed me in his eagerness to prove that he was amply qualified to join the sports desk though it was clear they meant little for the task at hand.
He was a man ready to fight an unknown battle with his minimal array of weapons, which made me decide that he deserved an opportunity to give it a shot even though I myself was not entirely convinced of my decision. The decision to get him in the fold was met with a lot of apprehension among my colleagues and even The Editor. Francis was informed in no uncertain terms that he would have to learn quickly and perform or depart.
Francis was slow off the mark and needed constant nudging as he was somewhat reluctant to learn his ABCS of the computer. It is a tribute to my colleagues that we all went through the painstaking process of helping Francis to become a full part of the Daily Mirror Sports Desk.
He was way older than the rest of Sports Desk members and sometimes had tiffs with his colleagues who would often poke fun at him. But he sportingly endured the banter and provocations most of the times. He had twinkling in his eyes when he often recalled his cherished achievements as an athlete and a cricketer in his younger days.
He was troubled by constant health issues but always made his utmost to attend work. He was dedicated, determined and always tried to give his best. However, I doubt if he ever grasped the complexities of modern-day sub-editing fully, compounded even more by the digital technological advancements. He particularly relished it when the responsibility of page layouts was transferred from the sub-editor to a specialist layout department.
Francis never skipped an opportunity to have fun. Despite the age which would have distanced anyone else from the crowd, Francis was always a natural, mixing with the rest quite effortlessly. He was a permanent fixture in all editorial parties, trips and especially sports competitions.
His passion for sports never dwindled. While being a part of the sports desk, he started coaching women’s cricketers.
Francis was a gentle soul, a religious man and was devoted to his alma mater St. Benedict’s College. He had friends everywhere and cherished reporting on the mercantile sports events.
He may never have been a star in the field of journalism. But he proved many wrong with his resilience and courage, surviving one and a half decades in an alien sphere that he entered as an inexperienced man encumbered by frequent health issues and the disadvantage of advanced years. He managed to stay on top despite setbacks and would remain an inspiration in the hearts of all of us who were around him.
Channaka de Silva