• U.S.

Brother To Brother

4 minute read
Rita Healy/Denver

Few things could stop Les Franklin. Born into poverty, he was offered an athletic scholarship, got a business degree and became a key executive for IBM in Boulder, Colo. He bought a dream home in a mostly white, gated community, worked for the Governor and even ran for Congress. In 1990 tragedy struck, when his 16-year-old son Shaka shot himself to death. But Franklin did not let grief paralyze him. He founded the Shaka Franklin Foundation for Youth, dedicated to the prevention of youth suicide. Through it, Franklin, 61, became an even more prominent presence in Colorado. His fund raisers drew donations from the Denver Broncos, Coors, Norwest Bank, Texaco and Conoco. The half-million-dollar foundation is developing recording studios, a 240-acre mountain retreat, a computer lab for kids who are at risk and a hockey arena. “Les’ program is very successful,” says Dar Emme, founder of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program in Westminster, Colo. “Taking the grief of losing a child and turning it into something positive is absolutely wonderful.”

Then, three weeks ago, Franklin’s other son, Jamon, killed himself.

Jamon, 31, had worked for the foundation, driving kids to activities, helping them with their computers, their ice skates and their recording projects. But his behavior at home worried his father. “I knew he was depressed,” says Les. “He’d sleep for a week. And then he was like a Ninja warrior, moving silently around the house, coming out at night to eat. I’d smell the food.” Franklin says he left his son notes saying he loved him, but Jamon refused antidepressant medication, assuring his father that he would never follow his brother’s path.

On Aug. 14, Les and his wife Marianne returned from a trip to Europe to discover a sickly sweet smell permeating their home. Then Les found the source: Jamon’s decomposing body in the backseat of a restored Cadillac in the attached four-car garage. Jamon had apparently suffocated himself with carbon-monoxide fumes.

When Shaka shot himself, Franklin had been stunned. “I didn’t think black people killed themselves. I thought it was a white man’s disease.” Shaka had been a football star at the local high school. But sidelined with an injury, he began to worry about his mother Cherilyn, who was divorced from Les and would die of cancer in 1991. On Oct. 19, 1990, Shaka picked up his father’s pistol and killed himself in a bedroom of the Franklins’ dream house.

Jamon’s death, however, has made Franklin furious. “I know he never got over his brother’s death, his baby brother, six years apart,” Les told TIME shortly after discovering Jamon’s body. “But he promised me that he’d never hurt me the way his brother hurt me, and in the final analysis he broke his promise, and I’m very angry.” He adds, “There will be no Jamon’s place. Shaka was 16; he was a baby. Jamon was a 31-year-old man. I’m not going to give him that. He knew I loved him. He made a horrible, horrible decision.”

Les Franklin suspects his divorce hit his kids hard. But he also sees a genetic component in depression. He has heard that his father, with whom he has no ties, once attempted to kill himself, but it never registered until now. Depression never held back Les Franklin during his climb out of poverty. “Did Jamon have it hard?” he asks rhetorically. “Come on, look at this house! I was an IBM executive! And now I’m concerned about affluent black kids. There are the same patterns you see in the white community; they have more idle time, more time to think. I don’t know too many gang members who kill themselves. They kill you.”

Les will remain the Shaka Franklin Foundation’s chairman, but he is putting aside his work in suicide prevention. For the first time in his life, he feels defeated. He is also selling the home he worked so hard to build. “My two kids died 25 ft. apart, one in the bedroom and one in the garage. We thought it was our dream house, but it holds only sad, sad, hard memories.”

“I thought I was a decent father,” he says in the house where the smell of death still lingers. “I’ve cried so hard my face hurts.” And yet something within him still grasps at a solution. “Somehow we’ve got to bring happiness back onto the planet so that people will want to live…” He reaches for a more precise word. “So that children will want to live.”

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