Patriotic till the end: Colorado Springs veteran, 87, dies building flagpole

By KASSONDRA CLOOS | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 29, 2015

Age was no barrier for Richard "Dick" French, who, at 87, set out to build a 20-foot flagpole in the yard of his Colorado Springs home to show off his immense patriotism.

For months, he talked up the project to family members and couldn't wait for the weather to warm up so he could get started. On Easter, he planned to hold a ceremony for his family and raise a large American flag and flags for each of the military branches for which he served as a photographer in the 1940s.

He got to work Saturday, but the project was left unfinished when he suffered what was called a sudden "cardiac event" and died.

"It was exactly the way he wanted to go," said his granddaughter, Laurel Barrett, 27. "It was a shock. My mom and I were the ones who found him."

Barrett said French was a lively man with a great sense of humor. He was the kind of guy who would put a plow on his riding lawnmower so he could clear the driveways for the "old ladies" nearby who were younger than he.

"He had a joke for every occasion," said his daughter and Laurel's mother, Jean Barrett, 58.

He was stubborn, too. At 86 years old, he refused to let anyone help him re-tile his garage roof, Laurel Barrett said. He made a makeshift elevator to get supplies up to the roof, and did the project himself.

"It made them crazy," his neighbor of 10 years, John Cunningham, said of French's family. "They'd come over there and there he was, up on the damn roof again."

When French briefly hospitalized in November, his family hired someone to finish the roof, Jean Barrett said.

"We locked up the ladder," she said, laughing.

Cunningham said French was always inventing things, working on projects and "puttering around." He also rode his lawn mower around town as transportation. If a police officer had ever tried to stop him, he or she certainly would have gotten an earful, Cunningham said.

A few years ago, French started throwing "flag parties," basically his version of the Fourth of July - but held whenever he felt like it to share his love for his country with the youngest generations of his family.

"He would pass out flags and tell military stories and make everybody pose with the flag and take pictures," Laurel Barrett said.

Pictures were involved with pretty much everything he did throughout his life, she added.

French was born in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 23, 1927. He spent 1944 to 1947 in the military at Fort Lewis, Wash., where he was a photographer for the Coast Guard, Army and Merchant Marines, Jean Barrett said. He took pictures of presidents and showed one to Cunningham of President Dwight D. Eisenhower visiting what was then Camp Carson.

French also traveled for his work, which included a stint on the USS Mount McKinley while the military was testing the atomic bomb.

His family has many of the pictures he took - including some that make Laurel Barrett think he was the "original inventor of the selfie."

After French was discharged from the military and returned to Colorado Springs, he worked for the carpet and drapery company he owned with his father, French and Company, and lived in the house his father built near the Olympic Training Center.

French grew increasingly patriotic as he aged, his daughter said.

"He didn't like the way the country was being run now and it really upset him," she said. "The madder he got, the more patriotic he got, and he kept saying we need to go back to the values we used to have. ... He just wanted people to remember it was important to be patriotic."

French had four daughters: Linda Shields, Janet Cooper, Jean Barrett and the late Mary French. He is survived by eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, Carolyn, whom he met at the age of 15, died in 2013.

When French's family holds a celebration of life ceremony later in April, there will be a patriotic theme, and everyone will wear flag lapel pins, Jean Barrett said.

The flagpole project likely won't be finished because French will be buried with the flags he planned to raise.

But one thing is certain: wherever she is, Laurel Barrett will always fly an American flag in her grandfather's honor.

©2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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