FRANCINE R. SMITH, 55, a science teacher and consultant, and the longtime head of the science faculty at Worcester (Mass.) Academy, died Sept. 10, 2013. She received her PhD in biology from Johns Hopkins University in 1985, where she was also a postdoctoral fellow. She was both a postdoctoral fellow and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after which she joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. An adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in 2002 she joined the Worcester Academy science faculty, where she remained until 2012. In addition to teaching at the high school and university levels, she provided science consulting and was an invited lecturer at several schools. She published widely and received awards from numerous academic, research, and philanthropic organizations. She was also a patient advocate at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and an organizer of the Jimmy Fund Walk and Rock, an annual cancer fundraiser. In 2002, several weeks after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband, Dr. David Echelman, was killed in an automobile accident. Her three sons and a brother survive.
Marcie Greenfield Simon ’79 offers this October 2013 reflection:
Fran Smith became my friend in August, 1975, on our first day at Wesleyan, where we both lived in Foss Hill Five. She became my hero in October, 2002, the day of her son’s bar mitzvah — one day after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. What ensued for the next eleven years was inspirational.
I have great memories of Fran in college – she was generous: always sharing her mother’s care packages of home-made cookies, or offering help with some tough assignment; she was fun: struggling through the step-shuffle-shuffle-ball-change as we auditioned for a 92nd St. Theater performance; and she was passionate about lab research: setting her alarm for 5:15 AM to be there for the hatching of the damn fruit flies. Fran was brilliant and humble, silly and wise. She flew from New York to Boston to surprise me for my 18th birthday. I was so happy and stunned to see her that I fell down the stairs, which dislodged a kidney stone and landed me in the hospital a few days later. We laughed about that for years. Fran was there for me when my father died unexpectedly at age 44 during my sophomore year.
Fran received her PhD in Biology from Johns Hopkins University, did post-doctoral work at University of North Carolina, and subsequently served on the faculty at UNC, UMass Medical Center and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Fran married David Echelman whom she met while at Johns Hopkins. Fran and David’s honeymoon was planned so that partway through, they could my wedding to Richard Simons. Over the next fifteen years, Fran and David had three wonderful boys, Daniel, Matthew and Adam.
When her boys were very young, Fran found her true calling. She wanted to bring her love of science into their preschool, so began volunteering weekly and became known as “Fran, the Science Lady.” As her boys grew, Fran became involved in elementary school science, and eventually joined the faculty of Worcester Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts where she taught for ten years. Twice the student body dedicated their yearbook to “Doc Smith,” and she was the only teacher ever to be voted twice as “Teacher of the Year.”
Fran had an illustrious career while been published many times and receiving numerous awards and accolades –but you can read that elsewhere. What distinguished Fran as a truly extraordinary human being was her ability to change people’s lives – literally. A good number of today’s young scientists were inspired by Fran, their chemistry teacher. So many adolescents, who were in pain due to personal issues and family hardships found solace because of the support, guidance and love provided by Fran.
Back to 2002. Fran and David decided to approach the cancer treatment aggressively. Five weeksafter the diagnosis, on the day before Thanksgiving, David was killed in an automobile accident. He was exactly the age my father had been at his death, and now, at age 44, Fran was a widow, the mother of three boys, ages 7-13, and one who had to get up from her mourning to return to chemotherapy.
I have never known anyone stronger. Fran followed through with the plan she and David had made which included chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. She was resolute that she would get well. And she did. She returned to teaching, was an ever-present mom who allowed her boys to grow with independence, and, never having been a distance bike rider, trained to ride in the Pan Mass Challenge, the largest bike-a-thon fundraiser in the country, with all proceeds going to Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
In 2005, Fran became the faculty advisor of Worcester Academy’s “Walk and Rock,” a combination walk-a-thon and music festival also dedicated to raising funds for Dana Farber. This event proved to be empowering and nourishing for many of Fran’s students who had experienced their own losses.
Outside of school, Fran lived vibrantly. There was great joy in Fran’s home, and she and the boys laughed a lot. They hiked, kayaked, traveled, went to theater and the movies and spent time with friends. Fran and I cherished our annual family get-togethers, dinner and game-night in the Berkshires. Our children became like family. Fran was the personal tutor for each of our daughters as they navigated the pleasures of AP chemistry!
About three years ago, when Fran and the boys were visiting our home, she complained that she’d been suffering pain in her arm. We tried to hide our alarm and worry – and were devastated but not too surprised to learn a few weeks later that the cancer had returned. And metastasized.
After signing on for a clinical trial at Dana Farber, the next big decision Fran made was to travel with Daniel, Matthew and Adam. She had never visited Israel, and wanted to go there as a family while she was able. The trip meant suspending the treatment for a few weeks, and it meant travelling with three strapping, athletic sons — the ultimate physical challenge. The “Brothers”, as Daniel, Matthew and Adam refer to themselves, did test Fran every day, and she passed with flying colors. It was a vacation of a lifetime.
Fran always went for aggressive treatment because she was adamant about living for as long as possible — wanting to see her boys graduate, first from high school, then college. She shared with me her hopes to see them married, and maybe even become a grandmother. She knew that participating in clinical trials was risky, but she trusted her Dana Farber medical team and was willing to try anything – even when she had to travel multiple times a week through Boston rush-hour traffic, and spend 12 or 14 hours a day at the hospital. I can’t count how many times she said, “I’ll do whatever I have to do – anything, to be here for my boys.” Fran was blessed with the most spectacular friends and neighbors who helped her every step of the way. Of course, to have good friends, you must be a good friend.
Back in the late ’70s, Fran, our roommate Cathy Chin and I had gone to a James Taylor concert. In 2012 Fran told me that she really wanted to see him again, and knew he performed every summer at Tanglewood, near my home. We made a date. By July 4th, Fran was already pretty tired. We were able to squeeze a nap in between Pittsfield’s Hometown Parade and the concert. It was a glorious day from start to finish – the kind of day you remember for years to come.
Worcester Academy invited Fran to be the graduation speaker this past May. Her youngest son, Adam, a member of the graduating class, was a student speaker, making the day even more special. With all her wisdom and life experience, Fran’s remarks hit it out of the park; she shared important life lessons about resilience, support, perspective, friends and happiness. Everyone in the auditorium that day knew Fran’s story. Her presentation was tremendous – she made everyone cry, but she made us all laugh, too.
At the beginning of August, Fran wasn’t feeling well. The doctors found brain lesions. Even then, Fran said she was still in fighting mode and there was reason to be hopeful. She agreed to start full brain radiation and then take whatever next steps were recommended. At the same time, she made plans to take Adam to his first day of college. Two weeks later, she did just that, and made his bed just as she had done for Daniel and Matthew on their first day of college.
In early September, about five days before she passed away, Fran shared with us that she was ready to go. She knew she had fought a good fight, and didn’t want any more pain and suffering. Even in that decision, Fran showed tremendous courage. We took Fran to sit outside one last time. She smiled serenely and commented how beautiful everything looked, including the garden she and the boys had planted in David’s memory.
I miss Fran very much, but when I feel sad and teary, I remind myself that I can honor Fran best by emulating her, by being resilient, brave, hopeful and, above all, by finding joy in life every day. And when I talk or visit with Daniel, Matthew and Adam, three truly remarkable young men, I know Fran, my friend and my hero, is still here on earth.