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The passage of time, the passing of a legend

Kim Dean, NLJ Managing Editor

Dr. Willis Franz was scheduled to give an oral history presentation for the Weston County Museum District on Nov. 12, but due to health issues the presentation was cancelled, and he passed away 10 days later on Nov. 22 at Weston County Health Services, at the age of 103.
At the presentation, Dr. Franz planned to discuss medical changes he saw during his career, which are included in the article below, which was originally published in the News Letter Journal on Jan. 15, 1981.
It is indeed rare these days to find a general doctor practicing medicine for any length of time solely in one community, and even more rare to find one who remained active in the community, still living in his home and able to drive right up to his death at 103 years of age. He was a rarity, caring for and blessing his community in numerous ways throughout his lifetime. 
Dr. Franz proudly served his country in the army, from 1943–1949, before he and his wife (Jean Lindahl, a nurse) would make the move from Minnesota to Newcastle. The relocation, he has said, was because the couple did not like the Minnesota climate, and were looking to move to a more mountainous area. They had been camping in the Big Horn Mountains and the Black Hills and liked the area, and it just so happened that at that time Newcastle had a new hospital (the building that now houses Mondell Heights Retirement Community), which was another draw for the medical couple. This was during the oil boom days, and the hospital was busy and needed more help. 
Some people may recall the friendly doctor traveling the streets of Newcastle before they were paved, carrying a flashlight and his little black bag. In interviews, Dr. Franz said he believed that he practiced during the “Golden Age of Medicine.” He practiced general medicine in Newcastle for nearly four decades, and saw many changes in the field during that time, and since.
During a 2011 interview with the News Letter Journal, Dr. Franz talked about the tough times of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and how he later earned money as a dishwasher while working his way through medical school. He spoke of growing up in Montana and attending a one-room schoolhouse. He talked of the hard times, but not in how difficult they were, but rather how they shaped his character and his decisions.
I’m sure many families have their own favorite memories of the long-time doctor, including the many babies he delivered, the house calls, and surgeries he performed. Those too young to remember his years of practice may have instead benefitted from his years of experience by being treated by the local doctors he mentored, including Dr. Lanny Reimer and Dr. Chuck Franklin.
“He was one of the general practitioners who was trained in surgery. Of course today, you’re either one or the other, not both,” said Dr. Reimer, in 2011, who grew up with the Franz children. “He’s been a teacher to me through childhood days in Scouting, on into medical school, my career as a physician and in my life. I have the utmost respect for him and his work ethics.”
While Dr. Franz was well-known, beloved, and respected for his medical deeds, the doctor was equally known for his handsome, good looks. His daughter, Barb Crow, recalled a time when he visited her in college and how all the girls thought he was so good-looking, and wanted to know who he was. He was a man who “aged well,” as some would say, with health, charm and appeal that have belied his number of birthdays through the years. In fact, women of all ages have commented on the man’s apparently secret access to the fountain of youth during interviews I’ve conducted through the years, including my granddaughter just three years ago. After introducing Josie, then 10 years old, and visiting with Dr. Franz about his 100th birthday, she looked at me with wide eyes and a great deal of emotion in her voice after returning to our table and said, “Grandma, that guy is 100? He ONLY looks like he’s 70!”
When asked in 2011 about his secret to longevity — when he was a mere 91 years old — he replied, “I guess genetics play a part. My parents lived a long life. I didn’t abuse myself too bad either, and my wife’s a nurse.”
Dr. Franz continued to remain important to the community after his retirement, serving on various boards and giving generously to causes he cared about — and being recognized by the community numerous times for his hard work, morality, respect, conscientiousness, and compassion.
In 2011 he noted that his greatest accomplishment was the satisfaction of being in a profession that helps people.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go into the profession in the first place. I wanted to do something to help people,” Dr. Franz said.
This, he did. The good doctor is one that will be loved and remembered for his deeds as a gifted, caring man, who served both his country and his community for many, many years.

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