RUMFORD — Here we are, almost a month past Christmas Day, and Marc Kohler can’t bear the thought of taking down his artificial tree.
“We put it up, and it has white lights, but Fran wouldn’t let me put any decorations on it,” he laughed, referring to his partner, Frances Slade. “She loved the lights all by themselves. I remember one night I went to turn them off when we went to bed, and she told me, ‘Don’t turn them off. They’re beautiful!’
“They’ve been on ever since – day and night.”
Those lights provide Kohler just a bit of solace these days, as Slade – the love of his life and partner for 16 years – died naturally at the Home, Hospice & Palliative Care of Rhode Island on Tuesday, Jan. 12.
She was 95, but as Kohler pointed out, few could ever tell by her vivacious nature and love for life.
Slade exhibited that energy and spirit in virtually every aspect of her life – from her 30-plus years as the switchboard operator at City Hall to playing Mrs. Claus at Pawtucket’s renowned Winter Wonderland to caring for children to partnering with Kohler in kids’ entertainment platforms.
Older Pawtucketers will remember Slade’s perky, upbeat greeting after calling City Hall. She greeted all with, “Hello, beautiful city of Pawtucket! May I help you?” That’s why mayors and other government workers nicknamed her, “The Hello Girl.”
She and Kohler have spent the better part of two decades as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at a host of area malls, including Emerald Square, Lincoln, Warwick, Providence Place and Cape Cod, to name more than a few. They also greeted folks at Winter Wonderland at Slater Park for the last 16.
More recently, the couple decided they wanted to come up with a more practical, cheaper way for parents and grandparents to take photos of their kids with the Clauses. Together, they developed a new concept where parents would use their own cameras to snap such photos.
“With most Santa photos, a family has to pick one photo to take home, and it is often frowned upon for them to take their own,” said Kohler, co-founder of Marc Kohler & Fran Slade Arts Programs Services of Pawtucket, which offers face paiting, art workshops, storytelling and puppet shows.
They actually set up a decorated studio at 168 Armistice Blvd – call it the Clauses’ home and workshop.
Kohler claimed he’ll never forget the day he met Slade, as it was the first Saturday in December 2001.
“Fran was Mrs. Claus at Winter Wonderland, and I was doing puppet shows,” he said. “(The Parks & Recreation Department) would plan to have Santa visit the first Saturday Winter Wonderland opened, but it didn’t start until 4 (p.m.). I decided to come in with a fake beard between 1-3:30 (p.m.) … Anyway, Fran had a very good friend, and she said she wanted a picture of Fran with Santa Claus.
“I was in the carousel, and Fran and her friend came walking in,” he continued. “I stood up, and she put her hand on my back. She was wearing these beautiful Granny boots, and that was it. I was in love. It was right away; I knew it.”
It nevertheless was a “far-range” crush, as over the next few years he’d see her only at the Slater Park holiday event.
“Finally, one day in 2004, I looked at her and said, ‘I’m smitten with you!’ and she just said, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and laughed,” he noted. “Then I asked her out for coffee, but something went wrong, and Winter Wonderland was closed. I wanted to see her, so I looked her up in the phonebook, and there she was – ‘Fran Slade, Carter Avenue, Pawtucket.’
“I called her home and asked if she wanted to go out on a date, and she said, ‘Well, what are you doing for Christmas?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t really have any family here, and I’m divorced,’ so she invited me to spend Christmas with her daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Bobby Afflick. We had a wonderful dinner, and she was spectacular.”
The rest is history. The two, though, never married.
“She was very independent, though I would have married her,” he said. “She would refer to our relationship as common-law married. We went to California twice; we used to go to Maine. We had a great relationship. When I stopped doing puppet shows and started with face painting, she was 79. I would go face painting for the Providence Recreation Department; I’d do 10 visits a summer because there were 10 different playgrounds.
“But, you know, there was Fran Slade, who would jump into her car and drive to a playground in South Providence just to sit with me. All of the children loved her. When she spoke to children, or even parents, she was this gifted person. She had this whole sense of hopefulness and positivity. She used to carry glitter so she could throw it over people.
“You know who were the people she was most interested in? Teen-aged girls, and sometimes teen-aged boys. Many of them were in foster care, and Fran would just encourage them. Those are the people she touched the most.
“What I’ll remember most is when she was playing Mrs. Claus, because that’s just who she was. She gave of herself constantly.”
Former veteran City Councilor and old friend John J. Barry III knows that all too well.
“Fran Slade was the most gracious, welcoming person you’d ever want to meet,” he said. “She’d do anything to help the public, just anything. She couldn’t do enough to help anyone she came across entering City Hall. She was a wonderful, wonderful person, and she’ll be sorely missed.
“She was so outgoing, so vivacious. She proved that when she played Mrs. Claus at Winter Wonderland.”
Kohler admitted his beloved began to slip a few days before she died, as she had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He nevertheless spent 24 hours a day with her until her nurses decided she’d be more comfortable in hospice care.
“I don’t know if she was gone or not; it was interesting for me because it just goes to show you just how dominant this physical system that we have is,” he offered. “It wouldn’t quit. She may have been breathing. I don’t think she knew I was there, but maybe she did. I got her a cold compress for her forehead, and I asked the nurses if I could hold her, but they said, ‘No.’
“They didn’t let me hold her, I think, because she was so sick and near death,” he added. “I guess it was a theatrical thing to consider because when she was feeling OK, she would sleep; she would put her head on my chest or stomach, and there were times she’d actually push me out of bed.
“What’s so funny about that is that I really can’t tolerate people touching me, but – with her – I didn’t mind. I owed her everything. When I met her 16 years ago, I was in a deep depression, and she pulled me out of it. I was abused as a child, and those memories didn’t come back until 1993-94. I just sort of lost everything.
“Then I met her, and she saved me. She’s the finest person I ever knew, and I’m lucky to have these memories.”