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The Francis Family Comes Back Home

Posted July 07, 2016

One hundred years ago, an enterprising veterinarian from Shandon, Ohio, became the first dean of the new School of Veterinary Medicine at A&M College in College Station, Texas. His name was Dr. Mark Francis, and he was poised to forever change the face of veterinary medicine in Texas.

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William Bebb Francis III (right) and grandson, Grayson Martin (left), look up at their family’s legacy.

His appointment was the culmination of 18 years of innovative research and lobbying dedicated to tick fever in Texas. But for Mark Francis, founding A&M’s veterinary school was only the beginning. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Mark Francis was also starting a century-long family tradition of thoughtful entrepreneurship, a deep love of animals, and a passionate devotion to Texas A&M.

The Francis family ties to Texas A&M run deep. All but two of Mark Francis’ descendants have attended Texas A&M. The most recent graduates are his great-great-granddaughters, Sarah Francis Martin ’01 and Hannah Francis ’03, and Sarah’s eight-year-old son Grayson appears poised to follow in his family’s footsteps.

Meeting the Descendants of Dr. Mark Francis

In the fall of 2015, Bebb and Iris Francis brought their grandson, Grayson, to visit his great-great-great grandfather’s college for the first time. The Francis name appeared everywhere—an emotional experience for the family. Although these halls didn’t exist when Mark Francis taught the first classes of Texas veterinarians, the visit still felt familiar to Bebb, Iris, and Grayson.  Looking at statues of Mark Francis and reading about all he meant to the college touched them deeply.

Standing in front of the bust displayed outside of the Mark Francis Room, Grayson looked at the brass face. “Do you know who that is?” Iris asked. Grayson nodded.

“It’s your great-great-great grandfather,” Bebb filled in, smiling. Looking between the three Francis faces (Mark, Bebb, and Grayson) it was easy to see the family resemblance. There was something about the cast of the nose and the set of the brow that had passed down through the generations. Grayson turned to his grandparents and said, “I wish I had known him.”

Mark Francis’ legacy is not limited to physical appearances, but also includes a defining set of family values. Bebb never met his great-grandfather, who died in 1936, but he recognizes his great-grandfather’s boldness, thoughtfulness, compassion, and empathy in his photos passed down through each generation of the Francis family.

Mark and Anna Francis Make Their Home in College Station

Mark and Anna Francis arrived in College Station, Texas, in the summer of 1888 when Mark accepted an invitation to head the A&M College of Texas’ new Department of Veterinary Science. Operating on an appropriation of $2,500 from the state, he faced the challenge of building the first veterinary training program in the state.

In the beginning, the veterinary department’s resources were scarce. A&M College was a relatively new land-grant college, having only opened its doors in 1876. Mark’s new program operated out of a single 14 x 16 foot room that served as an office, classroom, and laboratory. However, he was a man known for his grit and determination. As Bebb stated, “He started with a foundation, then went from there.” He recalled, “There is a great story of Mark walking around with a candle in his pocket—always being prepared in case there was a need for it.” With that attitude, Mark laid the foundation for a new era of veterinary education in Texas and set a standard for generations of Francis men and women to follow.

In the early years, Mark Francis divided his time between teaching and research at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. In the 1880s, tick fever was devastating the Texas cattle industry, so his research focused on finding a solution. By the turn of the century, Mark Francis and his partner Dr. J.W. Connaway had developed a vaccine, effectively ending the Texas fever epidemic. Next on his agenda was lobbying for the establishment of an actual veterinary college.

In 1903, Mark helped found the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA), serving as its first president until 1905. Working with the TVMA, he was instrumental in lobbying the legislature to pass laws standardizing veterinary medicine practice and licensing in Texas and pushing for money to start a veterinary school. Mark and his colleagues were also working on a new research project: developing an inoculation against hog cholera. Finally, in 1915, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allotting $100,000 to build Texas’ first and only veterinary school at the A&M College of Texas. Mark Francis’ resolve paid off, and when the School of Veterinary Medicine opened in 1916, Mark Francis became its first dean and professor of veterinary medicine and surgery.

The fledgling veterinary school was only one of the  challenges facing the young couple. When they arrived by train in 1918, they found themselves in a small town, thousands of miles away from home with few of the amenities we enjoy today. There wasn’t much to College Station at the time other than the tiny college and a train station. The treeless landscape was dominated by prairie and cotton fields. The town sprouted up around the college, and by 1900 the census registered only 391 residents. Four miles away, Bryan was the center of Brazos County life with 3,589 inhabitants. Mark and Anna settled in a home on Lamar Street, where the Memorial Student Center (MSC) sits today. “The house has since been relocated to the historic district on the southside of town, and when you look at the reality of day-to-day life in the early 1900s, you quickly understand and appreciate my great-grandfather’s and my great-grandmother’s perseverance and their deep commitment to Texas A&M,” Bebb said.

Fortunately, Mark had his devoted wife Anna by his side to love and support him. Anna once wrote to Mark, “Do not deny me the opportunity to share your troubles and concerns. Our marriage is a partnership. I may not be able to offer anything positive, but I’m a good listener. Sometimes that helps.” According to Francis family lore, Anna was considered the “Grand-Dame of Texas A&M.”  She was one of few women to grace the campus during those years, and Anna was known as a gracious hostess to all the students and faculty. She was kind with a touch of formality. A century later, Iris treasures Anna’s heirloom jewelry and china, holding onto it for future generations to enjoy.

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Mark and Anna Francis

The Sons of Mark and Anna Francis

Mark and Anna’s sons, Andrew and William Bebb, became the first Francis men to enroll at A&M College, starting a family tradition that lives on to this day.

Andrew was part of the class of 1915. In those days, all students were required to join the military through the Corps of Cadets. Andrew was a standout in the Corps. Sadly, Andrew died of tuberculosis in 1917.

William Bebb (Bebb Sr.), named after one of Mark’s professors who later became the first governor of Ohio, enrolled in 1913. Bebb Sr. was named “Best Drill Cadet” in 1914, and Bebb still has his grandfather’s medallion and his class ring from 1916.  Bebb Sr. went on to serve in the army in World War I. As Bebb noted, in choosing the name of his second son, we get a glimpse of some of his great-grandfather’s qualities—loyalty and a deep appreciation of commitment. “My great-grandfather truly must have admired Mr. Bebb. Otherwise, why would he have given my grandfather a name (“Bebb”) that is so difficult to pronounce?” Bebb laughed.

After the war, Bebb Sr. earned an advanced degree in hospitality from Cornell. He then moved to Dallas, where he eventually started his own furniture store. The hard-working entrepreneurial streak that defined Mark Francis had been passed on to his son, Bebb Sr., Bebb recalled, “My thoughts on my grandfather—a very focused formal gentleman, who was gracious and trusting. Obviously, growing up with Dr. Mark Francis as his father and watching all that his father was accomplishing helped mold my grandfather’s values.”

In 1922, Bebb Sr. married Vera Bell. Together they had one son, William Bebb Jr. (Bebb Jr.). Bebb doesn’t remember very much about his grandmother because she died when he was young; but, he says that in her portraits he sees a “very stately and loving mother and wife.” The family has always agreed that Bebb Sr. married a woman who possessed personal values similar to those of his mother, Anna.

Bebb Jr. Becomes an Aggie, Soldier, and Entrepreneur

Following in the footsteps of his father, Bebb Sr., and his uncle, Andrew, Bebb Jr. also attended Texas A&M. However, his studies were interrupted when the United States entered World War II. He was deployed to the South Pacific. Bebb Jr. returned home safely, but regretfully never graduated from Texas A&M.

Instead, Bebb Jr. moved home to Dallas, where he entered business and met the love of his life, Ann Netterville. They married in 1948, and in 1949, they welcomed their first child, Mary Lynne. Two years later, their only son William Bebb Francis III was born and is the last family member to carry on the Francis family name.

Like his father, Bebb Jr. was a businessman and entrepreneur. Bebb remembers working summers on a printing press in Bebb Jr.’s printing shop. Toward the end of his business career, Bebb Jr. switched to medical administration, overseeing several medical practices in the Dallas area.

While Bebb Jr. worked, Ann stayed home to raise her children. “Mom was the typical 1950s baby boomer mom,” Bebb said. “She was devoted to my father, to my sister, and to me.” When Bebb and Lynne started elementary school, Ann went to work as a legal secretary at her brother-in-law’s law firm, Spafford, Gay, and Whitham. “She was a loyal and devoted employee with an unbelievable work ethic,” Bebb explained.

Iris also saw the family resemblance in Ann, who seemed very much like the Francis women before her. “Bebb’s mom and I would just sit and talk. She also mirrored Bebb’s grandmother, Vera. They were very refined, formal ladies yet loving and gracious ladies,” said Iris. “Ann was a woman of character and made sure that I learned about the family. She wanted to make sure that I carried on the traditions of the Francis family. I treasure the fact that I had an opportunity to spend time with Bebb’s mother and that she shared so much of the family history with me.”

Of course, seriousness and formality were not the only traits passed down in the Francis family. At the very top of the list was Mark’s deep love for animals. Bebb remembered his father having “an immense empathy for animals.” Bebb and Lynne’s childhood was marked by a parade of creatures rescued by his father. “There was Josie the epileptic dog, a few tortoises picked up off road sides, parakeets, and then there was Charlie, the pigeon,” Bebb said. “My dad found Charlie with a broken wing, and he nursed Charlie back to health for over a year. Dad loved that bird.” Bebb laughed that “there was even my ‘dime store’ turtle, ‘Hershel,’ that Dad decided to feed wet dog food (because Dad felt badly that the turtle was not getting enough to eat). Well, that darn one inch Hershel the turtle grew to where Dad could barely hold him—so off to the creek he went to live happily thereafter with all the other Dallas dime store turtles.”

In the 1950s, Bebb Jr. and Ann often gave the children baby chickens and ducks for Easter. For one memorable Easter, Ann picked out ducklings. Lynne and Bebb were delighted with their new pets, but the ducks quickly grew up and Ann and Bebb Jr. had to find a new home for them. They loaded the kids and ducks into the station wagon and drove to a pond at the country club golf course. “Dad let the ducks out, and we started driving off, but the ducks started following us, quacking,” Bebb said. “Dad stopped and petted them, then put them further back. Lynne and I were looking out the tailgate crying. My father was an animal lover and a compassionate man.  He felt just as bad as Lynne and I did, but he knew this was best for the ducks.”

Lynne and Bebb Break Tradition

When Lynne was finished with high school, women were still not admitted to Texas A&M. She married Judd Stephens and today, Lynne is retired, and they live outside Atlanta.

Bebb was the first of the Francis men not to attend Texas A&M, a decision he called “almost sacrilegious.” Instead, he attended  Stephen F. Austin State University. However, after his freshman year, he transferred to Louisiana State University where he joined the cheerleading squad, studied history, and was a member of Sigma Chi fraternity.

Bebb was accepted at both LSU Law School and St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio. He wanted to practice law in Texas, so he chose to accept admittance at St. Mary’s, graduating with his doctor of juris prudence degree in 1976. At the beginning of his third year, Bebb attended a law school mixer where he met Iris Ann Mahan, a student at Our Lady of the Lake University. He was immediately enchanted by the gregarious red-head, and they married only four months later. “It was obviously the best decision I will ever make,” Bebb said. “I mean, can you blame me?”

Iris was a country girl from South Texas, where her parents raised cattle and peanuts and Bebb was definitely a city boy from Dallas. While teenage Bebb worked summers on his father’s printing press and hanging out with his buddies, Iris spent her teenage years riding horses and deeply involved in the 4-H program. Back then, you could often find her decked out in a pink hat and boots. “It was city boy meets country girl,” Iris laughed.

The quick engagement caught the Francis family by surprise, but Ann and Bebb Jr. handled it with grace. A mere three weeks after seeing his parents over the summer and never mentioning a girlfriend, Bebb called home to share the good news. “I said, ‘Hey Mom and Dad, I’m getting married!’” Bebb recalled. “Can you imagine? I didn’t even know Iris over the summer. Now that I’m the father of two wonderful daughters, I would have had a coronary if either Sarah or Hannah had done that to me.” Always classy, Bebb’s parents just said, “Really? What’s her name?” Bebb replied, “Her name is Iris. Would you like to speak to her?” At which point Bebb handed the phone to Iris. “I am still amazed that Iris married me after pulling that stunt.”

The following weekend, Bebb and Iris drove to Dallas to meet the Francis family. They were greeted with a surprise. In true Francis-family fashion, Ann had arranged a family dinner party, complete with numerous relatives, candlelight, and the best china, to welcome Iris into the family. Bebb and Iris were married in January 1976.

Bebb graduated and was privileged to work with many talented and seasoned lawyers in San Antonio, gaining knowledge in numerous areas of law. In 1990, Bebb was honored to be named a fellow in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. Today, Bebb focuses on the “dynamic and ever-changing” area of telecommunications law.

Meanwhile, the couple had two daughters, Sarah Agatha and Hannah Elizabeth. The girls loved their grandparents’ very different lifestyles. They spent happy weekends playing on the red-dirt farm in South Texas with Iris’ family or in Dallas visiting Ann and Bebb Jr., who they called “GD” (“Grand Dad”) and “Grammy.”

In 1997, the entrepreneurial Francis spirit showed itself again when Bebb followed his dream to open his own law firm. For the last three decades he has practiced with just one other person in the firm, his loyal and trusted assistant, Linda Bailes—a “beloved member” of the Francis family.

Bebb’s Daughters Bring the Francis Name Back to Aggieland

Although Bebb didn’t go to Texas A&M, his daughters picked up the tradition from their grandfather. During a return trip to see Ann and Bebb Jr. in Dallas, Bebb was surprised when Sarah announced her decision. She wanted to go to the university where both her grandfather and great-grandfather attended.

Her sister, Hannah, joined Sarah two years later. Both joined the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and became active members of the campus community. Hannah even volunteered handing out supplies at the 1999 bonfire collapse with her Zeta sisters.

Sarah graduated in 2001 with a degree in psychology. Sarah sold pharmaceuticals in North Carolina. She married fellow Texas A&M graduate and cadet, Greg Martin, who chose to attend Ranger school after Sept. 11, graduated and then deployed with the 82nd airborne. After returning from three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, Greg received his MBA from North Carolina State while simultaneously beginning his banking carrier at BB&T in Pinehurst. Much to the delight of Bebb and Iris, Greg was asked by BB&T to become a part of their College Station commercial lending team. So, finally, Greg and Sarah have returned to Aggieland with their future Aggie son—Grayson.

Hannah, the last Francis to graduate from Texas A&M, earned her degree in communications in 2003. She followed in her great-grandfather, Bebb Sr.’s footsteps and now manages a showroom in Atlanta selling high-end furniture and décor. Hannah is very active in the Atlanta interior design scene and has held several positions in the Atlanta Junior League.

Today, Mark Francis’ legacy lives on in his great-great-great grandson, Grayson. At 8 years old, he’s already following in the Francis tradition. Like many generations before him, he adores animals. He desperately wants a dog of his own, but for now is content to play with Bebb and Iris’ two rescue dogs. Grayson’s greatest ambition is to be a fighter pilot, no doubt inspired by his father and the generations of Francis military men before him.

Words for Future Generations

Back in the fall of 2015, Bebb, Iris, and Grayson sat in the CVM surrounded with artifacts that carry the Francis name as they wondered what Mark would think of the CVM today. The small veterinary school he fought so hard to build has grown to become a pillar of strength and comfort to the state and to the nation. “Just walking in and seeing what the college has done and continues to do, my great-grandfather has to be looking down and saying, ‘The people who followed the work I started here have done an incredible job,’” Bebb said.

What would Mark Francis say if he could speak to the 2016 graduating class? Drawing on the wisdom passed down through the generations, Bebb thought he knew the answer.  “Having seen my great-grandfather through the lives of my father and my grandfather, I know that my great-grandfather would say, ‘Work hard. Study hard. Persevere. Be true to yourself and to your profession. Never lose the passion and empathy that brought you to this great institution. And once you have developed and honed that foundation of knowledge, compassion, and self-confidence—trust yourself, trust your judgment and then go do what you have been so well equipped to do.’” Bebb continued, “Most importantly, my great-grandfather would tell them—‘At the end of the day, put your feet up and think of all you accomplished that day. Think about what you can improve on. And then tell yourself, ‘job well done.’ Get up the next day, and do it all over again. Only this time with more passion and with an even stronger sense of commitment.’”

We will never know for sure, but legend has it that Mark Francis, at the end of a long day, would put his feet up on his desk to relax. We can say with assurance that if not him, at least others were thinking, “Job well done, Dr. Mark Francis.”

As you talk and listen to his great-great-great-grandson Grayson and see the twinkle in his eye, you realize the legend of this great man lives on. There is a strong connection between Texas A&M University and the Francis family—clearly visible when you meet Grayson. Thumbs up, eyes glistening, Grayson spoke, “I’m going to come to school here one day. I’m going to be a pilot and a veterinarian.”

As Mark Francis stepped off the train 100 years ago, he had a vision of the future for this college. Now 100 years later, Grayson’s future is still to be determined—but hearing the excitement in his voice as he speaks of his great-great-great-grandfather, he seems destined to a life of devotion to animals and to Texas A&M.

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