His life in Mansfield spanned across five different decades, and if you were here then there is no way you could not have known of him. Each of those decades had a unique timbre of its own and a style and a norm, and he defied them all. It was only in the late 1960s, when a counter-culture arose in society into which he would have blended in, that he left this world. Every day until then he stood out.
First of all he stood two inches over 6 feet so he was well above to begin with in an era when the average height for a man in America was 5’8. He had a broad swath of thick red hair that swelled the top end of him far wider than all the close-cropped and carefully coifed men of his time, and he wore a bushy red beard engulfing fully half of his chest in times when facial hair never expanded fashionably past a pencil thin decoration. The kids in town called him Santa Claus because they had no other frame of reference for anyone so bearded.
Walking around the Square there wasn’t much chance you could miss him.
To those who knew him, his name was Hugh Fokner. Others, mostly kids, called him Tarzan—always from across the street. One time when he shooed some St. Pete’s schoolkids off a Park Avenue church lawn he was tending, one of the girls told her teacher she was chased by Moses.
He did have that look of an Old Testament prophet, and every year just before New Years the paper would portray him as Father Time.
He was exactly the sort of anomaly in our community around whom rumors circled and legends grew. It was commonly spoken that his unconventional appearance and his eccentric lifestyle were the direct result of a sadly misbegotten romance. Among folks in the flats it was rumored he lived in a tree. People had to look for reasons as to why he was so different, because he really did not fit into any context they had reference to.
Hugh earned his keep in many ways with odd jobs, and he hardly ever lived at any address long enough to establish rapport with a mailman. He lived on peoples’ couches, in their basements, above their stores. He lived a season in Mr. Bahl’s children’s playhouse. He slept in barns, lived in a tent for 8 years.
One time when he was filling out paperwork at a stockbroker’s office downtown, the secretary asked where he lived and Hugh responded that he lived in a piano crate out Marion Avenue.
What a different world this was then, because Hugh’s homelessness, while a subject of some wonder and mirth to folks around here, was never anything that made them respect him any less. He was simply a member of the family—an odd one, for sure—who was itinerant and unbound by convention.
He was an intelligent man and a hard worker, and folks were pleased to offer him work. Hugh was known as a gardener, and he often served around town felling and removing dead trees. In this regard he wrote on forms that his occupation was ‘tree surgeon.’
In 1930 he set up a tent in some woods outside Lexington, and for years made a living selling firewood. These were years that are today known as the Great Depression, and afterward Hugh said he never had really known the country was going through hard times because he was so happily preoccupied with his own freedom and carefree life.
Hugh arrived in Mansfield in 1921 and lived first at Oak Hill. As gardener, handyman and caretaker on the grounds, he worked for Leille Jones, who was the last family member to live in the famous house. In later years he told how he had fallen in love with Leille and proposed to her a number of times but, though she appreciated his friendship, there was a class difference between them amounting to a social chasm that could not be bridged.
He had no problem passing among circles of both rich and poor in Mansfield, because he existed in a class all his own. He spoke of how he loved to watch the faces of the bums he hung out with on the Square when a limousine would pull up to the curb and pick him up, sent to fetch him by a doctor’s wife.
Hugh owned a number of cars in his life but he preferred to walk. He walked to Camp Perry near Port Clinton every year to take part in a shooting competition, and he astonished the reporters so much in 1939 his photo was sent to newspapers across the country on the Associated press.
In 1947 he again made national press when he took first place in a Driving Safety contest against 400 other drivers in Ohio, though he himself did not even own an automobile.
In the 1960s, when his boundless energy was waning and his bushy hair was turning gray, he got himself a discreet little red Volkswagen beetle that made him look even larger than life.
There are a thousand stories to be told of Hugh Fokner because folks saw him all around the county and it was not something they ever forgot. He was legendary long before he died.
In the end Hugh spent his last days at the County Home, and even there he stood out as the one who wouldn’t wear shoes. He suffered from high blood pressure and said often enough that he would die from ‘too much blood.’
Hugh was a quiet and humorous fellow who had a self-effacing manner that totally belied the fact that he was impossible to miss. A number of years after he was gone his ashes were still unclaimed at the funeral home, so he was quietly taken into the woods at South Park and scattered in a tranquil grove.
It is fitting for a man who lived his life as free as a spirit that he finally found some anonymity. Though he has no memorial, he has never been forgotten.