Ten years after the family tragedy that nearly destroyed his life, Les Franklin is haunted by memories. “It’s the gray eyes,” he says, describing a vision that comes to him at night as he struggles to find sleep. They are the eyes of his late son Shaka, a 16-year-old high school football star who fatally shot himself in the family’s Denver home one day in 1990. “It’s seeing him lying on the table in the hospital with plastic gloves on his hands and a sheet up over him, a bullet hole through his head,” says Franklin, 61. “I see his mother laying her head on his chest and just sobbing, sobbing her heart out.”
At first, Les Franklin was understandably shattered by what he had seen. In time, however, that awful vision of his dead son became the inspiration for a one-man crusade, now in its 10th year, to ensure that no other family suffer as his did. Within months of Shaka’s death, Franklin—one of Colorado’s most prominent businessmen and the director of the state’s job-training services—created the Shaka Franklin Foundation for Youth, a suicide-prevention program that has offered counseling and after-school activities to hundreds of young people in Denver. On top of that, he has taken his message of hope to countless others across the country by giving more than 100 speeches each year on the subject of youth suicide, which annually claims the lives of 4,400 Americans under the age of 24.
But Franklin has suffered a second tragedy that, given his history, seems almost inconceivably cruel. On Aug. 14, as Franklin and his second wife, Marianne, 50, arrived home from a European vacation, they noticed a cloyingly sweet smell coming from the garage of their home in south Denver. Inside, slumped in the back seat of Franklin’s prized 1975 Cadillac El Dorado, they found the decomposing body of his only other child, Jamon, 31, who had killed himself, possibly a week earlier, by inhaling carbon monoxide fumes.
Since that moment, Franklin’s mood has swung between guilt and anger, self-doubt and despair. “I’m just trying to hang on,” he says. Jamon Franklin, who was living at home at the time of his death, had apparently never recovered from his brother’s suicide, which was followed just five months later by the death of the boys’ mother, flight attendant Cherllyn Gale, 45, from cancer. “All these things snowballed,” suggests Les’s close friend, actor John Amos. Yet in the days after Jamon’s Aug. 18 funeral, which was attended by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, Les experienced such a sense of defeat that he talked of taking his own life. “Those boys were everything I ever dreamed about,” he says. “I wanted to prove I could be a good father. I don’t understand it.” Yet he hasn’t given up his crusade. “Maybe my mission in life is to tell people to pay attention to your children—and never stop paying attention till you die.”
Experts in suicide are quick to point out that Jamon, who repeatedly refused professional help, may well have been suffering from an undiagnosed psychological disorder such as clinical depression. Diane Ryerson, cochairwoman of the Colorado Suicide Prevention Coalition and a great admirer of Les Franklin’s work, points out that mental illness is a factor in up to 90 percent of all suicides—and it often runs in the family. “Nobody will ever know why Jamon killed himself,” she says. “This shows that you can have extremely good parenting and still be at biological risk for a disorder that can put you at risk for suicide.”
But such words are no consolation to Franklin, who admits that his older son’s death has left him in utter despair. Born in poverty to a single mother in Colorado Springs, Franklin always seemed determined to ignore any barrier in his path. At 14, he became one of the first African-Americans to play ice hockey on a recreational league team and later attended the University of Northern Colorado on a basketball scholarship. After graduating with a degree in education and following a four-year hitch in the Air Force, Franklin went to work for IBM in Denver, where he met Cherllyn Gale. “She was cute,” recalls Franklin. “She was 21 and I was 25, and we started dating. When I was 28, we got married.”
Franklin’s drive and ambition found room to grow at IBM, where, despite being black in a mostly white world, he rose quickly to the executive level. In the early ’70s, with Cherllyn and Jamon, then 6, Franklin moved the family west and served as the chairman of the United Negro College Fund in Los Angeles for two years. Shaka (named after the 19th-century African king Shaka Zulu) was born there in 1974. After the family returned to Denver later that year, Cherllyn was diagnosed with breast cancer and survived a first bout with the disease.
But fault lines were starting to show in the Franklin marriage. “Les put in long hours. He was aggressive and wanted to move up the ladder,” says Bob Patton, a longtime family friend and president of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think Cheri was as dedicated to making money as he was.” In 1982 Les was offered a better job with IBM in New Jersey. Cherllyn refused to go, and the couple separated, then split for good.
The fallout from the divorce was traumatic for the boys, especially when Cherllyn chose not to seek custody or even visitation rights with her sons. According to Lynda Pat-ton, Bob’s wife, 6-year-old Shaka particularly felt the rejection. “He was still young enough at that age that he really needed her,” says Patton. “I always felt that sort of began the destruction [that was to follow].” Suddenly cast as both mother and father, Les Franklin rose to the challenge but in his own rather businesslike way. “One of the things Shaka said to me was, ‘Dad, we don’t spend enough time together,’ ” recalls Franklin. “I thought by telling Shaka, ‘Just call and tell my secretary whatever time you need,’ that that would take care of it. I messed up.”
Eventually Franklin and the boys moved back to Colorado, where, once again on loan from IBM, Franklin went to work for Gov. Roy Romer as executive director of the state’s job-training program. The boys began seeing their mother on a regular basis, and it was around this time that Franklin met his current wife, Marianne Ward, then a jewelry-store gemologist, at a Denver fund-raiser. They lived together for 10 years before finally marrying in 1996. “Only reason I didn’t marry her sooner was because Shaka didn’t want me to,” he says. “His mother had remarried and Shaka was angry—very angry.”
In fact, Shaka never fully gave up hope that his parents would reunite until his mother began a new battle with cancer, one she would eventually lose. By the fall of 1990 he had even more reason to be depressed: Shaka, a 6’3″, 215-lb. tight end on the Thomas Jefferson High School football team, suffered a hand injury that sidelined him for several weeks. He stopped going to practice and started giving away his possessions to friends. Finally, on Oct. 19, Shaka took a pistol that his father kept in the house for protection and shot himself in his bedroom, where Franklin found him. He died later that night at a hospital.
There is, of course, no right way to react to a child’s suicide, and Franklin had to feel his way day by day. At first his friends feared that his grief might actually kill him. “I wanted to die,” he admits. “People say, ‘Be strong,’ but the last thing you want to do is be strong. You want to be weak. You want to die.” Although that feeling eventually faded, Franklin suffered from mood swings for years afterward. “He got these little flashbacks that would cause him to be in bad moods,” says Marianne, “and when he was in a bad mood, everybody got it. He visited the cemetery every week, and I could tell every single time he had been to that cemetery.”
Franklin found a way to deal with his grief by channeling his energy into a campaign to help other young people avoid the path that Shaka had taken. Starting almost immediately, he began speaking about suicide at schools and community centers. With money from corporations and private donors, he created an organization, now with an annual budget of $500,000, that offers suicide-prevention information, family counseling and innovative programs to keep young people engaged in life, including a hockey program and a multimedia center where kids can learn about music and video recording.
Working with the foundation became a kind of therapy for Franklin. But his surviving son Jamon was having a harder time coping. He was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta when word of his brother’s death arrived, followed quickly by news of Cherllyn’s rapid decline. Unlike his father, Jamon suffered in silence. “I think I saw him cry three times in all the years I knew him—once for his brother, once for his mother and one other time in high school over a girl,” says stockbroker Bobby Whiteside, 31, Jamon’s college roommate and friend since the age of 11.
But there was little doubt that Jamon’s grief gnawed at him. Les repeatedly urged him to see a counselor, but Jamon said he didn’t need one. Although he left Morehouse after four years, it took him until last year to complete the course work necessary to graduate. He flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a stockbroker but worked primarily for his father’s foundation, most recently as a building manager. At 31, he was still living in his old room at the Franklins’ 7,500-sq.-ft. house in a gated community in Denver, a cause of concern for both Marianne and Les. “We both felt that at his age he should be better at making decisions and choices,” says Marianne. “People would say how nice Jamon was, and when you told them he was 31, they would say, ‘Oh, I thought he was about 20.’ ”
Jamon’s behavior became increasingly erratic in the last year of his life. Several times he disappeared from the house for days at a time, only to return quietly—”Like a Ninja warrior,” says Les—as if nothing had happened. Marianne says Les seemed reluctant to push his son for an explanation, perhaps out of fear of angering him. “Les didn’t want to lose another son,” she says, “and so he probably allowed Jamon to get away with a few more things than most of us would allow.”
Still, neither Jamon’s father nor his stepmother knew quite how to react when they returned home on July 31 from a cruise to Mexico and found Les’s office in disarray. After checking with Jamon’s friends, none of whom knew where he was, Les called his old friend Amos, who filed a missing-person report with Denver police on Aug. 2. Les and Marianne decided to stick with their plans to fly to Ireland for a friend’s wedding. “Did I want to go on that trip?” asks Les. “No, but what do you do? Make a choice between your son, a 31-year-old grown man, and your wife, who planned the trip.” It was when Les and Marianne returned to Denver two weeks later that they discovered Jamon’s body in the garage.
Friends who have been with Franklin since Jamon’s suicide say he has reacted differently to this death than to Shaka’s. “Les seems more mad this time,” says Earleen Reed, 74, a cousin from Chicago. It’s not hard to understand why: Shaka was a teenager grief-stricken over his mother’s impending death when he killed himself, whereas Jamon was an adult who understood only too well the devastating impact of suicide on those left behind. For Franklin, who has spent so much of his time working to help others who think their options have run out, now is the time to let the others help him. “It’s the kids, always the kids,” says Franklin of the one inspiration now left to him. “It’s the kids who have come to my house and said, ‘I’m alive because of you.’ ”
Vickie Bane in Denver