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Once-silent environmentalist gets heard

John Francis
John Francis didn't speak between 1973 and 1990 to protest pollution.Eric Risberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For someone who didn't speak for 17 years, John Francis is making himself heard.

The 61-year-old environmentalist kept silent from 1973 to 1990 to protest pollution, becoming a well-known figure in the San Francisco Bay area's crowded gallery of eccentrics. But in the 17 years since he broke his silence, he has been making a living doing the very thing he once eschewed: talking.

He has been giving speeches around the world, and is finding himself in great demand.

"I think it's the time for me to use my voice," Francis says. "For the greater purpose, that's what I'm doing."

In going from the fringe to the mainstream, he has followed the same arc as the environmental movement itself.

In the 1970s, long before Al Gore won an Oscar and movie stars drove hybrid cars, Francis became one of the country's first eco-celebrities.

Francis arrived in the hippie hot zone of Marin County in 1969 after growing up in Philadelphia. After two oil tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971, spilling black crude across San Francisco Bay, Francis decided to give up cars. Then, he stopped talking.

At first, the silence was only supposed to last a day.

"That one day was sort of a gift for myself and to give the town a rest. Because I talked so much," he says.

Broke silence to express love for parents
The day became a week, then a month. After that, Francis would revisit his vow once a year and decide whether to continue. Over the years, he made only a few exceptions to his no-talking rule, such as when he called his parents more than 10 years into his vow to tell them he loved them.

With his banjo and his backpack, he wandered the country on foot and bicycle to demonstrate his belief that a lone individual following his conscience could inspire change. He used hand gestures, nods, meaningful glances and, as a last resort, written notes to communicate.

In the tumult of the Bay Area counterculture, Francis' silence stood out.

"Because I didn't speak, everyone paid attention," Francis says.

Along the way, he earned a degree from Southern Oregon State College and a master's from the University of Montana without uttering a word. He also earned his doctorate in environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin in near-total silence, though he piped up to defend his dissertation after he had started speaking again.

At the University of Montana, where he was a teaching assistant, he used his personal sign language to lead classroom discussions — a surprisingly effective teaching method, he says, because students were forced to work together to figure out what he was "saying."

'The girlfriends I had loved it'
He also managed to date. "The girlfriends I had loved it that I didn't speak," Francis says, laughing. (He is now married and the father of two young boys.)

Stories about Francis appeared across the country as he roamed. Jim Willse, now editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., was an Associated Press reporter in San Francisco in the mid-1970s when he wrote one of the first stories about Francis.

"I didn't really believe he was everything he said he was," Willse says of their first meeting. "I thought he went home every night and got in his car and talked like a magpie."

But over the years, Willse came to believe Francis was the real article, and Francis became a frequent dinner guest at Willse's parties for local journalists.

"It was some of the best dinner table conversation I ever had," Willse says.

In 1990, Francis chose April 22 — Earth Day — to break his silence. "After 17 years of not speaking, to hear my voice, I didn't recognize it," he recalls.

Talking about more than environmentalism
He says he began speaking again because his ideas about saving the environment had evolved. Effective environmentalism, he decided, also meant fighting poverty and working for human rights and peace. And he needed to share that message.

Today, Francis flies more than 100,000 miles a year for speaking engagements and environmental consulting. He became a U.N. environmental ambassador and wrote pollution regulations for the Coast Guard. He has hobnobbed with Prince Charles and helped a luxury hotel in Antigua gain green certification.

Having dropped his boycott of motorized transportation in the early 1990s, he drives a Toyota Prius, bought for him by a Hollywood producer who optioned the film rights to his memoirs.

He remembers his days of silent wandering with joy.

"People look at you and say, 'The poor guy's walking and he doesn't talk.' And I'm going, no, this is wonderful!" he says.