Rider by Heart: Community Bids Farewell to Dedicated Leader of Patriot Guard Riders



Tammie Hetzer-Womack

The Ashland Beacon


   Charles Marlin (“Frenchy”) French, 71, was on a long journey, a ride through life most of us never know, the joy of an open road – good or bad – but each filled with blessings. This lifestyle of motorcycle riding delivered him to a community of devoted brothers and sisters, and it was made well-known last Monday, June 13 as bikers and law enforcement joined on the roadways to wish Frenchy a smooth trail onto Heaven’s Gate. 

   If there’s a Harley Davidson shop somewhere around the pearly gates, Mr. French is following his dreams - a perfect day with a new bike, a slower ride on the streets paved of gold, gearing up for the good buddies who awaited his arrival.

   Hundreds of friends and family were in queue, kickstands up, at the local McDonald’s, shedding tears, sharing fond memories, a safe lane of stories on this pavement called PGR. 

   “The mission of Patriot Guard Riders is often very somber. We stake flags when there is a death of a veteran or first responder,” John McGlone, Kentucky Assistant State Captain, explained the duties of this dutiful team of individuals.

   “We show up and form a Flagline for mourners to pass through, demonstrating our respect, not only for the fallen, but for their sacrifice to our country,” he went on. “We salute the fallen, usually just before the funeral starts. We present the next of kin with a Patriot Guard Riders coin, to honor the service of their loved one. We escort them on their final ride where their remains will be eternally.”

   Sometimes the undertaking and calling is difficult, especially when it’s one of your own. For PGR, the loss of Mr. French was a curve they attempted to ride into.

   “It’s very somber. But it’s an honor to do each of these things,” McGlone added. “And the older veterans, who are heroes themselves, are there paying their respects to their comrades, and also showing the rest of us the way.”

   A bit about Mr. French - he served his country honorably in the U.S. Air Force from 1969 – 1975. He worked as a retired electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 683 for over 40 years and was owner/operator of Cherokee Gap Construction. He was a proud Patriot Guard Rider, having rode over 3,000 missions escorting veterans in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.

   French was one of the 10 original members of Rolling Thunder Riders of Kentucky and a member of Willard AML Post 342. He had a deep love for his family and fellow veterans.

   For motorcycle riders, bravery is normal, and adventure is day-to-day. Mr. French’s death surprised his whole PGR chapter, but members were thankful for the years of tutelage, and lessons learned.

   “Frenchy, like a lot of the other veterans, took me under his wing to demonstrate what Patriot Guard is about - respect. But his dedications to veterans is what sticks in my mind.  He and his friend Ronnie Hicks were there, in foul weather, usually on their bikes, standing in the rain, the cold, the sleet, etcetera… They led by example,” McGlone noted.

   McGlone’s favorite memories of Frenchy revolved around hanging out and sharing camaraderie.

   A proud Vietnam veteran, he wore his Veteran ballcap and leather vest and was willing to use that as a conversation starter, inviting everyone he met to join PGR.  He planned regular lunches.

   “It was important to him to have fellowship outside of our missions where we could eat and talk for awhile. It was subtle leadership - leadership by example, rather than by rank… Each mission is serious. And we often meet the families on their worst days, and it can be depressing at times, but he would often just grin, or make fun of one of us, or say something funny to pick us up,” McGlone finished.

   Whitey Marshall, Ride Captain for the Grayson area, is enduring difficult times laying his brother to rest for his last committal at Kentucky Veterans Cemetery Northeast. In motorcycling, one waits for the storm to pass, but, in this case, it might take awhile. Mr. Marshall would prefer to think of his brother soaring with eagles, earning the valor he deserves. Riding in the rain is not enjoyable, but this storm shall pass. 

   “Charlie didn’t believe in a handshake for people he respected and loved. If he liked you, you got a warm hug. He said a handshake was for business deals… Charlie and I go way back before the PGR. We were ‘Nam brothers way before we were PGR brothers. He is the man that created the PGR in this area. I rode by his side when PGR was only him, Ronnie Hicks, and myself… Now both are gone and I’ll do my very best to keep it strong in our area.” Marshall noted.

   Marshall said Mr. French was a mentor for all newcomers, sharing insight on how to demonstrate respect for a fallen brother or sister. “He always said if you were in it for self-popularity, you were in it for the wrong reason,” Marshall continued. “You ask my thoughts, and I, like Charlie, will never be in it for the glory. Just to respect our fallen heroes.”

   Losing Mr. French is incredibly trying for this tough-skinned motorcyclist.

   “He was my best friend and a true friend to the PGR. I rode in about half as many missions as he did, and, at my age, I don’t believe I will get close to his record, but I promise you I will be there as long as I can and will not let anyone tear down what he created. Everyone who shows up for missions are just as important as any one of us, but there is no doubt Charlie French was, and will always be, ‘Mr. PGR’ of Northeast Kentucky.” Marshall concluded.

   Mr. French’s daughter, Crescent French Holbrook, was one of the people who introduced her father to PGR. Her husband, Scott Holbrook, was a member of STAR Riders, and PGR welcomed Mr. French right into the group.

   “It really was important to my dad, who served, to make sure every veteran was treated with respect, something they didn’t get after Vietnam. He once said, ‘it’s the last chance you get to honor those who served,’ and though that there were ‘people’ out there who intentionally disrupt and cause distress to veterans’ families at such a time as a funeral. That really upset him.”

   Ms. Holbrook said her father did not talk much about Vietnam to his family until he started visiting the Vietnam War Memorial Wall with Rolling Thunder. The first visit, he rode with nine Kentucky men. Then, for the next decade, they visited as a family on that mission.

   “It was a healing ride for a lot of them, and a mission, looking for answers on our people still left behind as POW/MIA.”

   Ms. Holbrook said patriotism was “everything” for her father.

   “Love of our flag, country, and freedom was ingrained in everyone. I knew that about him. He knew what went into keeping us free and never took that for granted.”

   A lot was echoed through his PGR family, she said. “They are the best kind of people, the chosen kind. Those guys have checked out of hospitals and came on missions. They went and fixed porches of vets who needed a hand; they’ve cried together, rode in heat and snow…

   “They tell stories of their families, their service, things they might not share with anyone else. They stand guard and watch families at their most heartbroken - because it needs done.” Holbrook continued.

   A lot of PGR members speak of ‘Frenchy hugs.’ His daughter tells the same story. “He would reach in for a handshake and pull you in with the other arm, hugging you and patting you on the back. You knew he cared about you with those hugs and that big laugh. You always knew he was around. I could find my dad in any crowd just by listening for that laugh.”

   There is quite a love story attached to Patricia and Charles French, who were married 50 years. They eloped to Kentucky and were married at Cherokee Freewill Baptist Church, where Patricia still attends. After their wedding, they returned to Columbus, where she completed high school and her husband left for Vietnam. Their lives entwined with two children, six grandchildren, careers, opening their own construction company, retiring as a Union electrician, and enjoying the roads which united them.

   “They both loved and fussed at each other ‘til his last day, and she was right there with him.”

   Crescent describes herself as a Daddy’s girl. Mr. French taught her growing up, she could do anything, and family is the most important thing. “I learned to honor our flag, our veterans, and the men and women who keep us free and safe… That hard work is as important as talent, and to enjoy life, cut up, be silly.”

   Mr. French adored being a Poppy. “He told me that if he knew how much fun grandkids were, he would have skipped my brother and me. His grandkids were his pride and joy. If you ever talked to him, you would hear him bragging on them and whatever they were doing at the time.”

   Mr. French is remembered. There’s a fitting scripture – Psalm 45:4 (ESV), “In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!”

   Ride free, Mr. French.