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Posted: November 29, 2012 11:10 p.m.

Morgan: Heights don’t faze this guy

Washing windows isn't on anyone's list of favorite things to do, but imagine the job of washing the windows at CNN Center where soaring glass window walls enclose the towering structure. Well, Covington's Fred Franklin has done it, but that's only one of his high-rise, nail-biting accomplishments. When Atlanta hosted the 1988 Democratic Convention, it was Franklin who rigged and lifted to the roof the sound and lighting stages, hung the ceiling banners and raised thousands of balloons to the roof that would be dropped at the end of the convention.

With high-flying experience like that, the daredevil Franklin went on to create a niche career as Franklin Restoration working on church steeples all over the Southeast. It's called steeple jacking, and there's not much he can't do, from repairing or replacing aging structures, to re-caulking and re-painting, to completely replacing roofs in a variety of materials. The job that puts him very close to God, literally and figuratively speaking, and one that Franklin calls "meditative" because he has to remain completely focused on both the details and safety. "I trust myself, but I trust my equipment more," he said. All his ropes, 50'x75' nets and pulleys are tested to hold 10,000 pounds. He works with only one helper, and, of course, tests his own rigging by jumping into it. "It's kind of like a big hammock," he said nonchalantly. He's never had an accident.

In recent years, he worked on the roof at First United Methodist Church. Another job some years back was at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta, founded in 1847 as Union Church when Atlanta was still Marthasville. Nelson Mandela spoke there in 1990. The church contracted with Franklin Restoration to replace its two aging steeples and when the job was done, Franklin obtained one of the discarded finials and later donated it to Chimney Park where it is part of the lighting displays that will be seen Sunday at the annual "Twilights at Chimney Park" festival. The event is staged by Friends of Newton Parks Inc., and Franklin's wife Cheryl Delk is a longtime board member. The two married in a picturesque outdoor ceremony at Chimney Park.

In fact, there would be no "Twilights at Chimney Park" if not for Franklin's hundreds of hours of donated time laying thousands of feet of extension cords from the power poles to the lighted elements. Anything high up in the trees or on poles is Franklin's work, as well. "We couldn't do it without Fred," said board chair Jean Austin emphatically. The lights seem magical when visitors come to the park that night walk into the darkening evening, but it is time-consuming and sometimes frustrating work even for Franklin. We all know how pesky it is when a string of brightly shining lights suddenly goes dark, and then it's back to the drawing boards to trace the offending bulb. And every year, there are more elements to be lit at the park.

Franklin's work at Chimney Park isn't death defying like his paid work, but he was a daredevil long before he learned he could make a career out of being one. He learned rock-climbing, rappelling and vertical caving as a Boy Scout, once camping two days inside a cave at Cloudland Canyon State Park exploring its depths. He got into competitive skateboarding and spent two years traveling the Southeast where he usually bested even younger skaters, his blue eyes twinkling as he recounts the memory. Then he got into recreational tree climbing after accidentally finding a number in the phone book for a group based in Atlanta. He learned how to rig ropes and pulleys for tree canopy research and participated in the making of a PBS documentary called "Tickle the Sky" about tree climbing. In 1995, he became the first person to climb the world's fifth largest tree, a sequoia found on private land in California.

Franklin's current recreational pursuits include surfing and sailing near Panama City where he keeps a boat, and kayaking and paddle boarding on the Yellow River with close friend Lamar Brown who, with wife Kimberly, runs the Yellow River Yak Club to promote the recreational use of the river. In paddleboard racing, the always-competitive Franklin easily takes first in his age category. The peace and quiet of the river make the sport a "Zen experience," Franklin observes, something this high-flying daredevil needs to provide balance to his challenging profession.

Equally satisfying to him is his volunteer work at Chimney Park where he gets to express his support for parks and trails. "I enjoy the camaraderie of working with good people at Twilights," he said. "We're like adults playing in the woods but at the same time, we're all contributing to the awareness of Chimney Park and the appreciation for an outdoor experience."

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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