While his azaleas are long gone, the legacy of Joe Franks — a man who loved listening to Sinatra while waxing his car — lives on.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
As spring broke this year, I had a startling realization. I may be turning into Cadillac Joe.
Cadillac Joe’s real name was Joe Franks. He and his delightful wife, Ginny, and their two boys, Joe Jr. and Chuck, lived across the street in the neighborhood where I grew up. I was good friends with the Franks boys. My mom was one of Ginny’s closest chums.
Joe was a highly respected lawyer in town, though that’s not what made him something of a local legend.
Every spring, the Franks family lawn burst spectacularly into bloom with luscious beds of mature azalea bushes Joe had planted and groomed.
During the peak blooming stage, usually around Easter, a constant stream of cars cruised slowly past his house just to take in the impressive floral show — rather like people do at Christmastime to look at over-the-top lighting displays.
And thanks to several hundred pink and white dogwood trees that bloomed along the street just as the Franks’ yard exploded in color, Dogwood Drive lived up to its name, including a magnificent Cherokee Brave (pink) and Cherokee Princess (white) that proudly stood for more than half a century.
Over the years, our street — and the Franks house in particular — found their way into numerous newspaper feature sections and a host of top gardening magazines, including a couple of big spreads in Southern Living.
But what really made the show was that most Sunday mornings throughout spring and summer, Big Joe Franks lovingly washed or waxed his Cadillac in the Franks family driveway while playing Frank Sinatra.
His neighbors must have been fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes because nobody I know of ever complained. My mom even took to calling him Cadillac Joe. Looking back, I’m half convinced Cadillac Joe is the reason I have a thing for Sinatra today.
“Dad sure loved that Cadillac and his azaleas,” Joe Jr. confirmed with a booming laugh when I tracked him down by phone. “And, of course, Sinatra. That was the music of his life. Waxing that Cadillac and growing those azaleas were his passions.”
Joe, the son, is something of a legend, too. He grew up to become a beloved athletic trainer and successful men’s football and women’s golf coach at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. The playing field at Jamieson Stadium is named for “Little Joe Franks,” as my mom called him.
Today, Little Joe is semiretired and lives in Danville, Virginia, where his wife, Dr. Tiffany McKillip Franks, is in her 14th year as president of Averett University.
“How’re your azaleas doing?” I asked.
“The college has plenty of them. I don’t have my dad’s thing for growing them, but I do have a Cadillac Escalade just like Dad.”
I wondered if Joe had any idea how many azalea bushes his dad, who passed away in 2001, had planted and groomed to perfection.
“At least 250,” Joe said, explaining how his father’s favorites were red, white and pink azaleas. “If you recall,” he added, “there was a huge peach-colored one by the front porch. It was probably 7 or 8 feet tall.”
I remembered this bush and almost hated to inform him that the bright young college professor who owns the Franks house today is growing artichokes where Cadillac Joe worked his magic each spring.
“Yeah, by the time my mom was ready to give up the house, the plants were showing their age and had probably seen their better days” Joe told me, “I guess they just dug them up.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, pleased to inform him. “I think I might be channeling Cadillac Joe these days.”
Six years ago, my wife Wendy and I moved back to Dogwood Drive, purchasing an old house that sits two
doors from the one where I grew up. As she got to work restoring the house’s interior, I got to work outside.
To date, I’ve planted more than 30 trees in my yard, including five dogwoods, a trio of Southern redbuds and several cherry trees that bloom outrageously. I’ve also planted 24 azaleas and 17 hydrangeas.
A garden-loving psychologist wouldn’t be wrong in suggesting that I’m rebuilding the blooming street of my boyhood.
I hail from an old Carolina clan of farmers, gardeners, preachers and storytellers, after all, and grew up hearing legends of the dogwood tree’s origin.
One of them holds that long ago, the dogwood was a mighty tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Because of its role in the death of Christ, God both cursed and blessed the little tree. It would never again grow large enough to be used for crucifixion.
Yet it would also produce beautiful flowers in the spring, just in time for Easter, with petals shaped like a cross, clustered berries resembling a crown of thorns and specks of red that symbolized drops of blood.
Over the half a century since I’d lived on our street, most of the dogwoods disappeared from yards.
In fairness, dogwoods generally only live anywhere from 20 to 80 years, and the beauties I remember were probably at least already middle-aged. Even so, we count only 15 dogwood trees on the entire street.
For that matter, azaleas are also dramatically thin on the ground these days. Maybe they are just too finicky for casual gardeners and the new generation of busy young families that inhabit the neighborhood to keep up with.
In truth, I was never terribly keen on planting dogwood trees and azalea bushes until we moved back to Dogwood Drive, at which point a mysterious desire overtook me.
Joe Jr. was pleased when I mentioned this botanical phenomenon.
“That’s great,” he said. “Now all you need is an old Cadillac and Sinatra!”
He may be right. For the moment at least, an aging Subaru and Mary Chapin Carpenter will have to suffice.
Maybe someday I will be remembered as the legend of Outback Jimmy.