An estimated 2,000 disadvantaged children and their families will visit the M-Bar-C Ranch in Freeland this summer. They’ll dress up in Old West-style clothes, ride horses and, for a brief moment, forget about the physical, mental, emotional and/or financial difficulties that makes their lives so hard.
For a few precious hours, they’ll just be kids.
That’s one of the many legacies left behind by Richard “Buck” Francisco. The former South Whidbey resident and ranch founder died Saturday, June 11, at the Washington Soldiers Home and Colony in Orting.
He was 92.
Francisco was well known in Western Washington, and enjoyed a colorful and eventful life. His death was even covered by the Seattle Times. Those who knew him say it’s easy to know why — the man was quite simply one of kind.
“Of all the people I’ve known in my 87 years… Dick was the most magical, fun and accomplished person that I’ve ever met,” said Herb Weissblum, a Freeland resident and 20-year friend.
At different times in his life, Francisco was a war hero, a boxing champ, a businessman, a horseman, an organizer of veterans and a warrior for disenfranchised children. Along the way he made chums with guys like James Garner, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan (the former president gave him the nickname “Buck”). He trained or advised boxers such as Olympic Gold Medalist Pete Rademacher and Irish Pat McMurtry, and later worked as a boxing coach at the prestigious Washington Athletic Club in Seattle. He once built an orphanage in Korea, the same country where he flew combat missions during the Korean War. And before that he set a pilot record in a Vought F4U Corsair, flying more than 4,000 hours in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
His list of achievements is long and many, and more than one were accomplished right here on South Whidbey. Along with the ranch, Francisco was also a founder and the first commandant of what is today the Major Megan McClung Marine Corps League Detachment 1210. He started the organization with Ed Donery in 2005, and under Francisco’s leadership and charisma the detachment became the largest community league in the country at the time with more than 250 members.
Friends say Francisco was a big man and could be very persuasive when he wanted to, especially to friends who were initially reluctant to join.
“He stuck his fist in my face and said ‘Listen you little [expletive], you’re joining.’” Weissblum said.
“So now I’m a charter member.”
When relayed the story, Donery chuckled in agreement, saying that sounded just like his old friend.
“Dick had a way with words,” he said.
But Francisco had a heart as big as his fists, particularly when it came to kids. He started the Forgotten Children’s Fund, an-all volunteer organization that purchases, wraps, and delivers gifts to needy children and their families. The same organization now owns and operates the M-Bar-C Ranch.
Francisco, who owned the restaurant Francisco’s, World Famous Since 1973 (he opened it the same year), bought the Freeland ranch with Don Rall in the 1970s as an island retreat, a place to get away from the city and ride horses with his family. They later turned it into a therapeutic ranch for children, only to refine it again as a place focused on fun rather than therapy.
Today it’s a special place for kids who don’t have a lot to smile about, Volunteer Coordinator Dale Kerslake said. She sees it make a difference in their lives, if only for a short while, and is grateful to be a part of it.
“It’s extremely rewarding,” she said.
Donery summed up Francisco as a larger than life personality and a man with too many attributes to count. He made a difference wherever he went, and people wanted to be around him.
“I loved the guy and everyone that knew him felt the same,” he said.
A service for Francisco is at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 18 at the Soldiers Home in Orting. Donery said the league is working to organize a 21-gun salute and that participants plan to catch the 7 a.m. ferry to Mukilteo. The service is open to the public.