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Brooksville's Frances Griffin, a portrait of survival


Frances Griffin says she is "not a crying person." • But in 1978, when her oldest son, Lonnie Coburn, became the first Hernando County sheriff's deputy in decades to be shot and killed in the line of duty, she wept on and off for months. • Twelve years later, after another son and a daughter died within weeks of one another, both of colon cancer, she didn't sob, just shed tears. • And yes, she said, she "went berserk" in January, when her daughter, Jeanne Moore, died of a heart attack a month after shooting her husband.

But since then, mostly, she's just let "her fountain flow," she said.

"Don't get me wrong, I have tears. But to me crying is when you boo-hoo, and I don't boo-hoo."

Griffin, 81, has seen four of her six children die before they turned 50 — die both peacefully and violently, one of them shot, one a shooter. She's known enough grief to have her own way of talking about it, adjusting the meaning of "cry" and placing "over" in a whole different category.

For Griffin, it's a verb meaning not quite "recover" because you never really do that, she said. It's more like putting the worst behind you.

She's sleeping and eating again. She recently treated herself to a fresh perm. She's been able to resume her afternoon routine, sinking deeply into the old easy chair in her double-wide mobile home east of Brooksville to watch The Young and the Restless, without constantly thinking about her daughter's death.

"I've overed it," she said.

• • •

It would be natural to wonder why, with her life, Griffin needs soap operas.

She grew up one of eight children in the Annutteliga Hammock settlement of northern Hernando County. It was so remote that the ice cream she was allowed to eat at her first job — as a 14-year-old soda jerk at Murphy's Drugs in Brooksville — seemed like a big city novelty.

"I was country come to town," she said, "and I sure pigged out."

She graduated from Hernando High School in 1950 and Mrs. Rice's Business School, upstairs from the drugstore.

She has managed the offices of a Realtor and a concrete company; she's owned a taxicab and a cab company.

She met a 27-year-old road construction worker, Hugh Coburn, while she was a lunch-hour waitress at the Hilltop Lounge, a well-known bar that, she is careful to say, served only beer at the time. They went on their first date on her 18th birthday and married a year later.

She cared for their four children and always held down at least one job, she said, while Coburn didn't do much of anything. Early in 1963, after he drove off with a buddy to North Florida, supposedly to sell cemetery plots, she set his belongings out on the curb.

Soon afterward, in August of that year, Griffin married a county commissioner and rancher named James Griffin.

It was too soon for many people in town — too soon after Frances' divorce, too soon after James' previous wife, Annie Jane, was found dead of a gunshot wound on a Sunday afternoon in February 1963.

Though her death was ruled a suicide, the rumor was that James Griffin had killed her.

"That went around like wildfire," Frances said. "We were talked about."

• • •

Griffin was in Texas, visiting family, the night in 1978 that Lonnie Coburn was killed in Ridge Manor by two men who earlier that day had raped and murdered a pregnant woman, Karol Hurst.

When Griffin heard the news, she said, "I went right into the bedroom and lay across the bed. I couldn't talk. I couldn't move."

Lonnie, who was 25 years old and a new father at the time, has been treated as a martyr ever since — all the more so because the men who killed him, originally sentenced to death for Hurst's murder, remain in prison, alive.

There's an annual motorcycle ride in Lonnie's honor, and a stretch of State Road 50 has been christened Deputy Lonnie Coburn Memorial Highway. Griffin planned to be front-and-center Thursday morning at a Sheriff's Office's ceremony honoring fallen deputies.

And yes, she said, all of the recognition has helped.

But not as much as the support of her family. Not as much as getting back to work after her son's death, first at the Sail Inn bar south of town and, a few months later, buying her first cab.

"One day, one of my (fares) told me, 'Miss Frances, what you have to understand is, when you go into the garden you pick the prettiest flower, don't you?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'That's what God did. Lonnie was the perfect flower and God picked him,' " Griffin said.

"You know, her words helped me more than anything else. And from then on, I never cried about Lonnie."

• • •

Griffin's second-oldest son, Guy Coburn, was a teenager when she realized he was gay.

"I didn't understand it," she said. "So I went to the library and took out every book they had on homosexuals, and I found out that they are born that way."

By 1989, Guy had moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he worked as a bartender and actor. An operation for a blocked bowel revealed advanced colon cancer, the same disease that already afflicted his older sister, Kathy Whitman, and would kill her at age 35.

After Christmas of 1989, with Guy's condition rapidly worsening, Griffin told the owner of the cab company she worked for, "You're going to have to get somebody else to dispatch. My son's dying."

A mother rushing to the aid of a son who is gay and HIV positive, as Guy was by that time, wouldn't be remarkable now. Maybe it wasn't then.

But at about that time in another small Florida town, Arcadia, residents fought to keep their public school off-limits to three boys who had contracted AIDS from blood transfusions. And one of Guy's cousins drove all the way from Brooksville to visit him in Fort Lauderdale, but refused to shake his hand.

For Griffin, her closeness to Guy and Kathy on their sickbeds is what makes the makes the memory of their deaths bearable.

She and another daughter, Judy Mitchel, were with Guy when "a nurse told us he didn't have much longer."

"He started breathing real fast, and we crawled into bed with him and told him how much we loved him. His last words were, 'I love yo-ewwwww,' " she said, imitating the sound of a long, feeble breath.

"And then he was gone."

• • •

Griffin says Jeanne Moore died "under a cloud," which is putting it mildly.

In 2011, three years before her death, Jeanne had been fired by the city of Brooksville for staying home from work with a bad back though a doctor had cleared her to return.

Her husband, Shawn, a builder, had been sued five times in the previous six years by people who claimed he owed them money or failed to complete work he had agreed to do.

"They were very conniving," said Steve Wyatt, a close friend and employee of Bobby Meadows, a Brooksville business owner who filed one of the suits — one that named both Jeanne and Shawn.

"They'd steal your gold teeth if they could," Wyatt said.

Some people, including a member of Shawn's family, doubted Jeanne's claims of chronic abuse, which she told detectives had given her no choice but to shoot and kill her husband with a single shotgun blast on the night after Christmas last year. And though the Sheriff's Office hadn't finished investigating the shooting by the time Jeanne died, it did say she had never reported any domestic violence.

Griffin says what a loyal mother would say: that her daughter — who lived next door to Griffin — was not only "beautiful and intelligent," but a good person. Her big mistake in life, Griffin said, was "getting involved with that Shawn."

He was the dishonest one, and Jeanne "got tarred with the same brush."

The abuse was real, Griffin said. It was mostly verbal, "cussing and hell-raising," but Shawn was so cruel to Jeanne and to their children, now 13 and 11, "that they were happy the man was dead."

She was happy about it herself, she says, though she knew it would not be a happy time for the family.

On the night of the shooting — after all those years of being treated so respectfully by deputies — she was ordered off her property so detectives could work the crime scene.

Griffin worried about what would happen to Shawn and Jeanne's children. She worried that Jeanne might go to prison, and even more about her bad back and the alarming weight loss and chest pains that Griffin attributes to the stress of living with Shawn. And then there was the day, a month after the shooting, when those fears were realized.

Jeanne was rushed to the hospital, apparently "under the influence of unknown narcotics" and suffering from cardiac arrest, the Sheriff's Office report said. The last thing she said to her mother was not that she loved her, Griffin said, but "I can't breathe."

• • •

For weeks afterward, Griffin said, she had trouble eating and sleeping. She even stopped going to the Baptist church she has attended for decades. "I'd hear the old songs, and my fountain would start to flow," she said.

But her remaining son, Jim Griffin, has temporarily moved in next door. And she is feeling better about Jeanne's children, who seem be coping and will live full time in Valrico with Judy, a postal worker, and her husband, a retired military officer and defense contractor.

Griffin, whose second husband died in 1982, has started to enjoy church again and the detective novels that she checks out of the library by the stack. She has a brother who drives her wherever she needs to go and an aunt she calls to debrief after every airing of their favorite soap.

She can think about her pride in Jeanne's son from a previous marriage, a 20-year-old lance corporal in the Marines. She can remember Jeanne at her best.

"And when those other thoughts, the losses, try to push themselves into my mind," she said, "I push them right back out."

Brooksville's Frances Griffin, a portrait of survival 05/15/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 2:36pm]
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