Many knew him as Popie, a fiercely independent and blind man who nearly every day could be found walking the streets of Paso Robles, playing his harmonica in the park or having breakfast at Vic’s Cafe.

When I met Andrea Franklin at Paso Robles City Park during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, she told me about her father, James Jerry Franklin, and his recent passing. James was also a veteran, and he became blind later in life due to his service to his country. But he was a proud Navy veteran, and as Andrea says, he loved being a soldier. 

On January 4, James passed away at the age of 96 in Paso Robles. I regret not being able meet James or to hear his stories as he was known to be a wonderful storyteller. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the details of James’s service other than his draft card, dated May 28, 1946. He kept details of his time in the military to himself, noting that it was difficult but he was proud to contribute.

James was born on May 13, 1927, in Rogers, Texas to James Jerry Franklin Sr. and Mary Franklin. He was the oldest of 13 children. His siblings were Francis Mae, Robert E., Dorothy Ann, Lizzy, Quincy Bob, Eddie, Mammie, Bobby Joe, Maryetta, Earl Allen, Robert Charles, and Lillie Mae.

Following his service at the tail end of World War II and then during Korea, James moved to Southern California, where he worked as a foreman and laborer. He met his wife Dorothy, and together they had four children: Andrea, Angela, David, and Cynthia.

In 1988, James moved to Paso Robles with his daughter Andrea and her three sons and soon got his own place in the Riverview Apartments, where he stayed in his second floor space for over 30 years.

Becoming blind happened over time for James. Andrea remembers her dad as a strong man, resembling Popeye the Sailor.

And she says he was fearless. “He would take regular trips on the Greyhound bus all around the country,” Andrea said. “He would buy a 30-day bus pass and just go places just to be going. He would take the Greyhound bus down to Long Beach for his VA appointments.”

Those bus rides from the appointments would bring James back to Paso Robles around 2 a.m. 

Former Paso Robles Police Chief Dennis Cassidy got to know Andrea and her family closely and in turn that meant he and James got to know each other too. Dennis made an arrangement for officers to pick up James from the bus stop on those late returns from the VA (Veteran Affairs) office when he returned on those late-night bus rides. 

However, according to Dennis, James was reluctant to take the help from the police department. He was proud and strived to be self-sufficient.

“I always admired that of him,” said Dennis who hit it off with James from the moment they met. “Here’s a man that’s blind and has taken the effort and time to get resources available to him that allowed him then to do what he was able to do.

“I knew he was a veteran because of Andrea and because of conversations later with him … to me, I believe he earned the right to have the benefit of assistance from the department and from us as individuals.”

The unofficial policy continued even after Dennis moved up the ranks and retired — the torch continuing to be passed on.

Former Paso Robles Mayor Chris Iversen similarly knew James from his walks around town.

“I talked with him several times because he was just so kind of fearless about, in my mind, he was fearless, but I think he wanted to be a part of the community,” Iversen said.

In a way, Chris understood James because Chris’s own father, Edward, was also blind. Edward and James became fast friends.

“I don’t know if they agreed on politics or city business or whatever, but they, they had bond,” he added.

One of James’s neighbors at the apartment complex, Michelle Riviera, recalls that he was the “kindest gentleman that we knew … he was known to all the children as Popie.”

Once you met James, you soon knew him as Popie. 

“He had the best, heartiest laugh,” added Michelle. “When he laughed, it was so genuine and real and soulful. I mean, this was the best.”

Michelle remembers doing her laundry with James telling her children all kinds of stories related to music, or about his walks, art, or a new gadget he was using.

And he was known to be fearless, and trusting of those around him.

“He was such a good person,” Michelle said fondly of her neighbor who made a lasting impression on her family.

James could often be found playing his harmonica at local events and he was also an amazing artist. He would create models out of styrofoam and specialize in charcoal drawings and sketches that were displayed in businesses around town.

The Paso Robles Area Historical Society found a newspaper clipping (date, author, and publication unknown) about James displaying his art in Vic’s Cafe.

In the article, it reads:

A veteran of military service, including Vietnam, where a land mine changed his visual life forever, Franklin began mobility training at the Palo Alto Veteran’s School for the Blind in 1973. “The classes are generally eight to ten weeks long,” Franklin said. “We’re taught to do everything a sighted person can do … except see.

“Mobility training takes the longest time — its like becoming a kindergartener again … “

James would speak to students and organizations regularly about what it was like being blind and how he taught himself to paint.

“He would go and do speaking engagements, at some of the community things like some of the Rotary Clubs or the Kiwanis and he would talk about his mobility as a blind person,” said Andrea. 

Everyone who had the chance to meet James was impacted by him one way or another. He always made an impression, including on the late mayor Steve Martin.

“He and Steve Martin became really good friends,” Andrea said. “Steve Martin would pick him up and take him to church with him and his family.”

James loved the City of Paso Robles. This was his home, where he had a host of friends, and lived in the same apartment for 29 years until his death on January 4, 2024.

“My daddy’s favorite song to play on his Harmonica was ‘Amazing Grace,'” remembers Andrea — I was blind, but now, I see.

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