Formerly a Hickory toy maker, Lincolnton resident Al Franklin now spends his days making wooden crosses for military men, children, nursing home patients and any person in the community who touches his heart.
“This time of year people need to think about people (like that),” he said. “I can make anybody happy by giving them something.”
Despite suffering two mild strokes, two light heart attacks and missing four fingers, he has yet to slow down.
“If it hadn’t been for Christ,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Franklin, 70, said he lost all the fingers on his right hand, except for his thumb, while working for an area slaughterhouse during his teen years.
With five children and no husband, his mother needed him to work to support the family.
He dropped out of school in fourth grade to do just that.
Franklin said he later completed his schooling and received a diploma in 1964 through one of Lincoln County’s former educational programs called “Operation Second Chance.”
Hard work is in his blood, along with patriotism, since his father and a number of other close family members spent time in the military.
As a result, servicemen are often the recipients of his creations.
He said he makes veterans a special cross with a large Eagle head, inspired by a Bible verse in Isaiah, and sends smaller versions of the handmade gift to soldiers still fighting overseas.
If anyone would dare question his decision to keep using his hands to craft — hands that often seem weak and shaky — Franklin would probably rattle off how much the pastime brings him and others joy.
“This is my little hobby,” he said, “and I enjoy it.”
Nearly two years ago, he transitioned from eight years of making wooden toys as a volunteer for Catawba County-based Parson of the Hill Foundation, Inc., to shaping crosses inside his home and workshop. Franklin decided it was time for a change that would include reaching more groups of people.
“I needed to go into something a little bit better and easier,” he said.
The crafter spends about two hours a week inside his shop, located in a shed behind his next-door neighbor’s residence on Sherrill Farm Road.
The small facility houses a number of wooden cutouts, patterns and tools used for creating his unique pieces — typically comprised of cedar, poplar or pinewood.
Each project takes three to four hours to complete, he said, unless it needs a shiny coat, which takes three days.
In addition to crosses, he manufactures wooden animals, angels, toy bulldozers, tractors and helicopters.
He even made a rocking horse for his granddaughter, he said.
Most memorable to his collection is a tiny, thin cross he calls his “Charlie Brown” cross, which mirrors the look of the “puny” Christmas tree, he said laughingly, shown in the classic cartoon’s holiday episode.
Another special piece is the first wooden item Franklin made for his wife Rita.
He said she “wouldn’t take a million dollars” for the teddy bear piece.
Franklin also created a similar bear dressed in military wear for a local soldier.
He said he met the man’s wife, Anne Buff, when she served as Rita’s nurse at Carolinas Medical Center-Lincoln.
At the time, Rita was being treated for pulmonary disease.
As Franklin’s wife, she maintains much influence over his pieces.
“Every time I do a piece…I show her and get her approval,” he said. “If she doesn’t like it, I start over.”
With their residence practically on top of the graveyard belonging to Asbury United Methodist Church, where Franklin’s been a member the last five years, he often walks to the site while simultaneously surveying the headstones, or lack thereof, on his way in.
For unmarked graves he spies, Franklin places a cross. He also puts them on roadsides around town where he knows fatal wrecks have occurred.
He remembers the one he fashioned for Tim Brooks, a former Lincoln Times-News paper carrier who always delivered papers to the elderly man’s home.
He noted Brooks died two years ago after suffering a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and children.
“He was a good ‘ole guy,” Franklin said.
He’s additionally handed out crosses and mini-carved angels to various area businesses, organizations and churches, including Boger City Wesleyan, where he recently donated one of his larger crosses as a thank-you to the church body.
The congregation was the first to offer prayers for Franklin’s wife, he said, when she was sick.
Christian Ministry’s Emergency Services Coordinator Carla Goodson has two different crosses displayed around her office, along with an award Franklin received, that he wanted her to have.
“He’s a very giving person,” she said.
Franklin noted how he doesn’t handout gifts in return for money; all he wants is a smile.
“That’s the best smile I could ever have in my life,” he said.
He remembered a distraught-looking girl in a wheelchair that he encountered at a local doctor’s office. He said her frown concerned him.
“I asked her why she didn’t smile,” Franklin said, “and she said she had nothing to smile about so I pulled a cross out of my pocket and told her to smile.”
Over the last couple of years, he’s received $23 for his work.
Because he has no funding for his hobby, he said he has yet to purchase a new saw tool he needs.
While some may think Franklin was just born with carpentry talent, he partly developed his skills while working as a sander for a local Cochrane Furniture plant. He filled the full-time position for more than four decades and also served as a part-time security guard for the facility.
In two years, Franklin estimated his hands have fabricated more than 1,000 crosses and angels.
“I have made enough…to make a circle around Lincoln County,” he said.
Franklin’s hobby may not be simple, but his lifestyle, words and mission prove honest and transparent, thinking always of others.
“All I’m doing is leaving a legacy,” he said. “I don’t intend to make history or anything.”