The small towns that dot the expanse of Montana are the lifeblood of America.
The two-lane highways that meander their way across bridges, over mountain passes, and cut their way through the never-ending farmland eventually make their way to a small town. An unfamiliar town becomes familiar as you cruise down main street past the post office, the local watering hole, and eventually the school.
It isn’t Mayberry, but it might as well be.
But sometimes towns like Mayberry have to bear a heavy heart.
Many of the hearts in Centerville, Montana and the surrounding area are a little heavier these days after the passing of Al Francetich.
If small towns in Montana are the lifeblood of America, then guys like Al are the heartbeat.
I was lucky enough to know Al and I’m not sure anyone could be more proud to be from the Coulee than Mr. Francetich.
This past February at the District 8C tournament, Al had the best seat in the house to watch his beloved Miners play for the district championship. But for anyone who knew Al, that wasn’t a surprise. He bled orange and black every day of his life.
He was a pillar of that community after all. Al played in Centerville’s only State Championship basketball game in 1952 where the Miners fell short to the Belfry Bats and served on the School Board for 20-plus years.
Where I got to share some of my favorite moments with Al was in the hospitality room at the Four Seasons Arena. He would arrive every morning with his stadium chair cushion and tournament program under one arm as he guided his way toward his perch from which he watched every game.
When the gym was cold and felt empty for early morning loser-out games he would sit draped in his 1995 Centerville Miner State Football Championship jacket with a cup of coffee and dutifully track the scores of the games as the day went along. Needless to say, he watched a lot of basketball.
When games got slow he would throw out a little comment just to get the others around the tables talking and then he’d lean back and wink at me. He knew what he was doing. If the game wasn’t much to watch he could watch the old curmudgeons around him argue for entertainment. Sharp as a tack that Al was.
What he really brought was a familiar face and a kind smile. He had stories to tell and was never without a listener. Al Francetich was the hospitality in the hospitality room.
That’s why the news of Al passing away hit me hard as I’m sure it did for the Coulee.
When I think of Centerville, I think of Al.
They just don’t make them like that anymore.
The small towns of Montana aren’t special on their own. They are special because of the people who call them home.
That is why losing Al, or anyone in a small community is so tough.
Often, small towns are a place that time forgot. The tumbleweed still rambles its way across the double yellow lines just outside of town and the fence near that faded mile marker will always lean just a smidge.
But time takes its toll where it affects us the most. It takes the pillars of our community and leaves an empty spot where they used to be. Their stool at the bar sits vacant, their old truck will sit idle, and the spot they sat in the bleachers for so many ballgames will be open.
So, let us remember to cherish those like Al while we’ve still got them and celebrate the ones who leave a hole in our hearts when they leave us.
Because a town like Mayberry isn’t the same without its people.
And the Coulee won’t be the same without ol’ Al.
Rest easy Mr. Francetich. We’ll miss you.