Punahou welcomed environmentalist and founder of the nonprofit organizationPlanetwalk, Dr. John H. Francis III, to campus as this year’s Spirit and Service Speaker.
By Rachel Breitweser ’03
Punahou welcomed environmentalist and founder of the nonprofit organization Planetwalk, Dr. John H. Francis III, for three weeks in January as this year’s Spirit and Service Speaker. He was hosted by Punahou Chapel and Luke Center for Public Service. In addition to speaking with students in Chapel, Francis visited classrooms, led campus walks, joined panel discussions and participated in off-campus activities, including a Hokule‘a sail with Nainoa Thompson ’72.
“On January 17, 1971, I witnessed a crude oil spill of nearly a half-million gallons in the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge. The oil spill was my first experience with a major environmental insult.”1
Driving his fossil-fuel burning car over the Golden Gate Bridge, John Francis felt partially responsible for the mess washing up onshore. So, one day the 26-year-old decided to stop using motorized vehicles and to walk wherever he went. A few months later, he chose to give up speaking for a day – two decisions that led to a 22-year walking pilgrimage and a 17-year vow of silence.
Now in his 70s, the Philadelphia-native has since resumed speaking and using vehicles for transportation to share his commitment to the environment with a wider audience. He teaches that sustainability starts with how we treat one another since we are an integral part of the environment.
In 1983, Francis left his Northern California home to begin a pilgrimage across the U.S., studying the environment formally in institutions of higher learning and informally on roads, highways, cities and towns. “My parents were terrified,” said Francis, when he first notified them of his new lifestyle. Although he experienced some adverse situations on the road, support quickly grew as his story spread.
He eventually earned a Ph.D. in land resources during his vow of silence and by completing the journey between institutions – from Oregon to Wisconsin – by foot, boat and bicycle. “See you in two years,” he wrote in response to one acceptance letter, in anticipation of his trek. The universities were creative in accommodating him, even letting him audit classes until funding was approved.
After he resumed speaking in 1990, Francis assisted in writing oil spill regulations as project manager for the U.S. Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act staff in Washington, D.C. Over the years and on various legs of his journey, he has traversed from the West Coast to the East Coast, through the Caribbean, and from the northern to the southern tip of South America.
Author of “Planetwalker” and “The Ragged Edge of Silence,” and a 2008 TED Talk speaker, Francis lives in West Cape May, New Jersey, where he is the state’s Director of Public Affairs and Public Safety, and works remotely as an associate
professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“As you add to the miles you walk in a day, and the weight you carry, invest in hiking boots that cushion and support your feet. Dress in layers and bring water, an energy snack, a small flashlight, and a few Band-Aids to help prevent and treat the inevitable blister.”1
It wasn’t easy for Francis to give up his “60-mile-an-hour habit”1 of riding in cars. When he first started walking as a means of travel, he would make plans with his friends and then calculate, “if I start today, I can meet them there tomorrow.”
He walked upwards of 20 miles a day, camped and stayed with friends or good Samaritans during his trek across the country. On the road, Francis immersed himself in each new place by painting and writing haiku. He taught himself the banjo – “because a piano is too heavy to carry” – and played it while walking and singing along in his head.
What started out as a personal commitment soon expanded into “the realm of service.”1 So committed to his values, after being struck by a car, Francis refused the service of an ambulance and instead walked 15 blocks to the hospital. He continues to be an avid walker – he walked from Makiki to Diamond Head and back during his O‘ahu visit – but is sometimes reminded by those who accompany him that “getting an Uber” is an option these days.
“Something in the way I talk, argue, and defend walking is troubling. The silence instructs me to listen.”1
Francis’ silence started as a gift to his friends on his 27th birthday to quiet the arguments his new life sparked. “I thought I knew everything and didn’t have to listen,” he said. For the first month, he still carried on conversations in his head, having imaginary arguments. After a while, he was left with his own voice and the discovery that “there’s a way to disagree that doesn’t require violence or disrespect.”
Francis did not feel restricted in communicating despite being silent. “Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal,” he explained. Through gestures, he got his ideas across. One of Francis’ commonly used mimes was two fingers marching through the air to signify his pilgrimage. “One part of communication is sending the message; the other part requires us to pay attention and listen to receive the message. They’re equally important.”
During his vow of silence, Francis admits he did accidently talk: He bumped into someone in a grocery store and said, “Excuse me,” out loud. When Francis resumed speaking after 17 years, he was astonished to hear his own voice again. He turned around and thought, “Who’s saying what I’m thinking?” Ironically, Francis once wanted to be a Trappist monk but decided against it due to their practice of monastic silence.
“When we change our self, we indeed change the world. As we continue our journey we can make a difference in our community and in the world, one step at a time.”1
At Punahou, Francis interacted with students from the Kindergarten to the Academy during Chapel services and visited 15 classrooms. Moved by Francis’ life, teachers are considering practices, as Francis describes, “that allow students to explore silence as a part of communication but also as a part of finding themselves.”
“John’s visit was a reminder and inspiration to slow down and listen to each other,” reflected Dan Kinzer, co-director of Luke Center for Public Service who coordinated Francis’ visit. “He also taught us, through his story, that we can create our own path – that there are few, if any, set rules on how to make a positive difference in the world.”
Through Punahou, Francis met fellow pioneer Nainoa Thompson ’72, one of Francis’ heroes. The two National Geographic Explorers talked about a potential future collaboration that involves the ancient Hawaiian trails that circle Hawai‘i Island.
Francis encouraged further exploration into silence at Punahou. “Students might explore silent communication, silent vigils and silent expressions of learning while they’re attending school. I felt that’s what struck a chord during my visit.”
1. John Francis, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence (2009).
John Francis’ visit was made possible by the Class of ’41 Chapel Fund, the Chaplain Kenneth O. and Doris A. Rewick Community Service Fund and the CASE Accelerator for Student Entrepreneurship.