Restored memorial connects man to his roots

Man’s grandfather died while trying to save a boy who fell in river

By Kyle Spurr, The Bulletin, @kylejspurr

On the bank of the Deschutes River in Bend’s Drake Park, an oft-forgotten memorial draws few visitors with one exception.

Philip Mickel stops nearly every week to connect with the most heroic — and tragic — part of his family history. His grandfather, Frank T. Johns, who was the Socialist Labor Party presidential candidate in 1928, died near there while attempting to save a young boy who fell in the river.

For years, Mickel felt an added sadness whenever he visited the memorial, which was created in 1970. Vandals had completely scraped away the photo of his grandfather.

“Why people do things like that, I’ll never understand, but they do,” he said. “I don’t have many memories of it being complete and not vandalized. It was always damaged and the picture was missing.”

That changed this month when Mickel, with the help of the Deschutes Historical Society, replaced the photograph of Johns on the etched-bronze memorial.

The memorial marks a significant historical moment in Bend’s history. It also has a deep personal meaning to Mickel and his family.

Mickel, a 70-year-old retired Oregon State Police trooper, grew up in the neighborhood across the river from the memorial before his family moved to Prineville, where he still lives today with his wife, Linda Mickel.

“It’s a roots thing for me. It connects me with my former home as well as my ancestors,” Mickel said.

Local historian Nathan Pedersen — president of the Deschutes County Historical Society and community librarian with Deschutes Public Library — took an interest in the story while preparing lectures and articles on Johns. Peder­sen reached out to Mickel, one of the few local descendants of Johns, for any photographs or written materials.

“He filled in a lot of empty spots on the map of Frank’s life story,” Pedersen said.

While researching together, Pedersen and Mickel decided to restore the dilapidated photograph on the memorial. Mickel said he was not surprised by the vandalism in the public park.

He spent $117 to replace the photograph, which was unveiled Nov. 10.

“It was pretty awful before,” Mickel said. “It was just a scratched up old plate.”

Through the whole experience, Mickel learned more about his grandfather and what happened that day.

Johns, a 39-year-old presidential candidate from Portland, was giving a stump speech May 20, 1928, along the Deschutes River when he heard cries for help, according to the historical society. A 10-year-old boy, Jack Rhodes, was fishing off a footbridge when his fishing line got caught underneath the bridge. He leaned over the railing to free the line and fell into the water.

Johns threw off his coat and jumped in the river. Both were swept away by the current and drowned.

“He leaped from the speakers’ stand, ran to the river bank and jumped into the water,” according to an account in The Bulletin. “He had to swim about 75 yards to reach the lad. Both sank once as he was attempting to tow the boy to shore. When they came up, Johns gave the boy a push toward shore and sank. The boy disappeared about the same time.”

Kelly Cannon-Miller, director of the Deschutes Historical Museum, said the story has become a part of the local lore. People often come into the museum and ask: Did a presidential candidate really drown trying to save a child?

“It’s definitely one of those urban legend stories that we can confirm,” Cannon-Miller said.

Following Johns’ death, the Bend community rallied together and raised $700 for Johns’ widow, Ruth Johns, and their two daughters, Margaret and Mildred.

The boy’s father, John Rhodes, helped spearhead an effort to have Johns awarded the Carnegie Medal, a national award for those who risk their lives attempting to save the lives of others. The award came with a pension for Johns’ widow and two daughters.

“What I love about the story is how the community responded,” Cannon-Miller said. “The fact that our community rallied around his family, and the fact that he cared so much meant so much to the community.”

Johns’ body was sent by train back to Portland, where he is buried. A memorial service was held for him at the public library in Portland, where the Socialist Labor Party rented space on many occasions for lectures and meetings.

Mickel’s mother, Margaret Mickel, was 13 when her father drowned.

“I never heard her talk much about it,” Mickel said. “I’m sure it was too painful.”

A photograph of Johns always hung prominently in Mickel’s childhood homes. Mickel remembers handling the Carnegie Medal and reading a newspaper clipping about the incident. The medal and Johns’ pocket watch, given to him by the Socialist Labor Party, are on display in the Deschutes Historical Museum.

“That’s all I knew about it until Nate started to open this window into my family history,” Mickel said. “I had no idea anybody else was interested in grandpa and the family until then.”

Johns is remembered proudly, and is probably the most heroic person in the family, Mickel said. Or at least the most heroic who has had the chance, he said.

“You never know one moment to the next,” Mickel said. “Any of us could be heroic, or maybe not, depending on our decisions.”

The week after the memorial was unveiled, Mickel visited to see the repairs. For years, Mickel was often the only person around when he came by to pay his respects. The memorial is in a sheltered part of the park, down a hill near the bank of the river.

As he approached, Mickel noticed a group of adults and children surrounding the memorial. One child was climbing on it, while others were reading the text below Johns’ photograph.

The memorial, left in disrepair for years, had come back to life.

“In all the times I’d been going there, I never found anyone when I arrived,” Mickel said. “I thought it was wonderful.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,

kspurr@bendbulletin.com

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