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LAWTON, OKLA. — After coordinating America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, retired Gen. Tommy Franks wanted a change of pace for his retirement in southwest Oklahoma.
The former commander of the U.S. Central Command was born in Wynnewood and has always had strong ties to his home state, even after he left Oklahoma when he was 9 years old.
Franks moved to a small oil town in West Texas, but could never leave Oklahoma behind. He married Cathy Carley of Lawton, and they have remained together throughout his career in the military, which saw Franks rise through the Army’s ranks throughout the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and ultimately to the position of commander of U.S. Central Command — coordinating America’s military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before his retirement in 2003. Faced with a life after the military, Franks said he knew exactly where he and Cathy wanted to go.
“Her granddad was one of the first people I met, and he lived in Hobart as a rancher and farmer in this part of the country,” Franks said. “I fell in love with the guy. He treated me like a grandson. So over the course of years, we spent a lot of time in Kiowa County. When he passed away, he left the ranch to my wife. When we left the military, we just immediately wanted to come back to southwest Oklahoma, and that’s what we did.”
Franks has become the most famous citizen of Kiowa County since moving to here. He runs a commercial Angus ranch and raises wheat on the property. Not even a retired general is immune from the two years of drought that has hit the area hard. But Franks said he and his operation have continued to endure, just like everyone else in the area. That fortitude is one of the reasons he admires the people of southwest Oklahoma so much.
“There’s a character of Okies that’s like no other,” he told the Lawton Constitution. “I’m very comfortable being around people that say what they mean and mean what they say. They wave at you when they pass you. We’re all hanging in here together.”
When Franks settled in the Hobart area, he soon established the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute and Museum — a quality museum where visitors can read about his life and get a better understanding of the workings of the U.S. military. It’s a popular destination for anyone traveling in southwest Oklahoma, but it wasn’t always planned for Hobart.
“We have friends on both the East and West Coast and both of these fellows tried to talk us into putting the museum in either New York City or Los Angeles,” Franks said. “Cathy and I talked about that for a while. We thought about it. We said since we like southwest Oklahoma enough to put ourselves here, why wouldn’t we want to put the leadership institute in this neck of the woods as well?”
Hobart’s town leadership approached Franks about establishing it in Hobart, which intrigued the retired general.
“That appealed to me because it’s not something you would expect to see in a little town in southwest Oklahoma with a population of 4,000 people,” Franks said. “That’s interesting to me. So we decided to put it in Hobart and I’ve never regretted it. We get people in that museum from all over the world.”
Franks has adopted Hobart, and the town and people have adopted him as well.
“That’s where we go to buy our groceries,” he said. “Most of the people who have been in Hobart a long time have been sweet to us and nice to us. They include us in the community up there. We try to help this little community as we can. But we’re very careful not to try to run things.”
While the Franks have not asserted themselves in the community, their presence has had an impact on Hobart, creating a boon in the form of the Celebration of Freedom. The annual Memorial Day celebration brings in thousands of people from across the area for a day of celebration of troops and veterans, with much of the celebration centered on activities at the leadership institute. Franks is quick to say he didn’t have a hand in starting it, but has always done his best to help nurture it, including helping to bring in big-name talent like this past weekend’s Diamond Rio act.
“We have some friends that are celebrities and it made it nice and easy to bring in some big name entertainment like the Charlie Daniels Band and Diamond Rio,” he said. “We’ve had Neil McCoy out and Aaron Tippin. This made it reasonably convenient to do that for Hobart. We’ve just tried to enrich it and make it bigger and better. A lot goes into the Celebration of Freedom each year around Memorial Day, and I would describe it as a hoot — a real heck of a hoot.”
Even in retirement, Franks can’t stay still. He’s not the type of guy to sit on his front porch in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee watching the cattle graze. He and his wife travel almost constantly across not only the country, but the globe. He has business interests in Iowa and operates a consulting business with development projects in the Middle East. He also does a lot of volunteer work with various universities and is working intensively with the Flight 93 Memorial Project.
“We’ve been on that for six or seven years, working to put a national park in Pennsylvania, where the flight went down on 9-11,” he said. “The sum of all of that keeps us plenty busy. So we travel.”
As part of his various commitments and projects, Franks founded Four Star Leadership, a summer camp for the best and brightest students from across the country. He started the group because of his commitment to leadership in the country, something he says is sorely lacking on both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C.
“If you pick up The New York Times or turn on a news show, I guarantee you’ll see something about arguments, disagreements and disrespect between liberals and conservatives,” Franks said. “It’s the same thing with respect to Republicans and Democrats. I believe and have believed it’s OK to disagree. It’s just really, really important to try not to be disagreeable.”
Each summer, Franks recruits the high school seniors and brings them together to learn from each other and various leaders and dignitaries. The program is by scholarship and requires no money from the students or their families. Franks said the program receives thousands of applications each year and 50 students are chosen. The Oklahoma governor hosts them each year at the governor’s mansion and they get a chance to meet various celebrities. King Abdullah of Jordan hosted them in Jordan three years ago and Karl Rove, chief of staff for President George W. Bush, will be this year’s speaker.
“We have lots of people from every different angle and part of American society,” Franks said. “The kids learn from each of them and get some insight in not what to think — they’ll figure that out — but how to think. That’s what we try to help teach them. It’s a program I’m very proud of.”
The students who participate in Four Star Leadership will go on to be leaders that will help shape the future of America, Franks hopes.
The retired general said there are many challenges facing America. Sequestration and more cutbacks planned for the military will ultimately affect the country’s fighting force. But Franks supports whatever decision the nation’s leaders and the American people make.
“When you think about our military, in our country we get what we wish for. If we wish to be a superpower — if we wish to be competent and credible and believable around the world — we do that — among other ways by having the finest military the world has ever known. If that’s what we want,” he said. “I was blessed that during my time of service, we had that. If on the other hand, we choose to have a different military, we can do so for less money. That is what America has decided to have now. I’m not in the military now and I don’t really have a lot to say, but I will say it’s not resourced currently at a level that will be able to maintain a quality these young people have now. They are the best the world has ever known. If we ramp down how much we’re willing to focus on and spend it will lose its quality.”
Franks said he has spent time thinking about possibly entering full retirement and spending more time on his ranch, but it’s not something he’s entertaining at the moment.
“I’m reasonably sure we’ll get around to that one of these days,” he said. “It’s all right to retire: You just can’t quit. Maybe that’s the mode we’re in.”