Franklin, first Black ‘Peanuts’ character, gets his due just in time for MLK Day at Piner High School in Santa Rosa

After years of seeing a pedestal stand empty, teachers worked to bring unique Franklin statue to Piner High School campus.|

For almost two decades, a large, two-tiered pedestal has sat empty in the quad of Piner High School.

Longtime staffers heard stories of plans made, and plans discarded, for something that would sit atop the pedestal.

Something, or someone, that would represent Piner — its students, its staff, its spirit.

That someone is Franklin.

Two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Franklin Armstrong — the first Black character to appear in the “Peanuts” comic strip — made his debut, mid-stride and confident, on the Piner High campus.

That debut comes almost six decades after the comic strip Franklin made his other debut, becoming friends with Charlie Brown on a beach on July 31, 1968.

That simple moment was bigger than comics. It came less than four months after King — the face and voice of the civil rights movement — was gunned down in Memphis.

“Charles Schulz introducing Franklin in 1968 was a monumental feat,” said Robb Armstrong, creator of the comic strip “Jump Start.”

Armstrong, who was 6 when Franklin was introduced to the world, later became friends with Schulz. In fact, when Schulz was making “You’re in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown,” in 1993 and realized that Franklin had never had a last name, he called Armstrong with a request.

Do you mind if I call him Franklin Armstrong?

Robb Armstrong thinks a lot about what it took America’s preeminent cartoonist to introduce a Black character to a gaggle of white kids at that moment in our collective history.

Push back, protest and cancellation were not just possibilities, they were almost promised.

“Do you understand that Charles Schulz put his career on the line? He said ‘You run it like I send it or I quit,’” Armstrong said. “Nobody does that. Are you kidding me?”

That historical context makes Franklin’s addition to Piner’s campus all the more powerful.

And it’s been a long time coming.

In late December, after months of calls and negotiations, repairs and, finally, installation, Piner’s newest student arrived on campus and took position at the top of the pedestal.

For Piner folks, Franklin felt like a perfect fit for that long-empty pedestal.

The connections between the Piner community and Schulz are real — his studio, and now the Schulz museum, is a stone’s throw away from campus.

Kids from feeder elementary schools had field trips to the museum and skate nights at the ice rink.

But it’s more than that.

Franklin isn’t just any “Peanuts” character.

And that’s why teachers Jenna Jewell and Terence Bell focused on him.

“You land on Franklin. You can’t not,” Jewell said.

“We think that Franklin is our kids. He’s kind and inclusive and smart and caring,” she said.

And he’s a kid of color.

According to state data, Piner has the second highest percentage of students categorized as minorities among Santa Rosa City Schools’ five comprehensive high schools.

About 70% of students on campus are Latino, 16% are white and 2% are Black.

Bell, who today is a teacher on campus as well as the varsity football coach, remembers being a student at Piner in the early aughts and seeing the empty pedestal.

“They always said something was coming and it never did,” he said.

So he and Jewell, who co-teach English classes together, penned a letter to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, asking if there was a way to create a Franklin statue for their campus, for their kids.

You know, like the ones depicting Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Lucy that we see around town.

“Franklin just exemplifies our campus so well,” Bell said. “He’s a minority. He’s kind and strong. He’s intelligent. All of those things represent Piner to a ‘T’.”

The response was quick.

No, the museum could not make a Franklin statue.

They could do one better: They had one in storage.

And that, in itself, is something special.

Turns out that unlike the Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and even Woodstock, there were not multiple statues of Franklin made for the “Peanuts on Parade” program that ran in both Santa Rosa and Schulz’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.

In fact, it is unclear how many Franklins are out there in the world.

But what is clear: There aren’t many.

“We did do a Franklin for a different event, a touring exhibit,” said Hart Johnson, chief operating of TivoliToo, the Minnesota company that has made hundreds of “Peanuts” statues for “Peanuts on Parade.”

But it was just that one.

Johnson did some sleuthing. His research tells him Piner’s Franklin could be a one-off, too.

“There are not that many Franklins and that is probably the only one in that pose,” he said. “It’s very unique.”

What is known about this Franklin is that he came from the Cary, North Carolina, campus of MetLife.

When MetLife ended its licensing agreement with “Peanuts,” the museum agreed to pay to have approximately eight of their sculptures shipped to Santa Rosa, said Renee Donmon-Chaussee, membership and group tour director at the museum.

From there, museum staffers sold most of the eight sculptures to raise funds for museum programs including offering free events to the public, she said.

But Franklin had sustained damage. His right arm was broken and he hadn’t gotten any takers.

“People kept bypassing him,” Donmon-Chaussee said. “People wanted him but they didn’t know how to deal with his arm.”

The folks at Piner did. In fact, they couldn’t believe their luck.

“They didn’t shy away from him having his arm damaged. They took responsibility for fixing him,” Donmon-Chaussee said. “It was ‘Wow, this is almost serendipity, here Franklin needs a forever home and they were looking for Franklin.’”

Donmon-Chaussee dropped the sale price.

“I had a price for him already but because it was Piner High School, it was much less than we would have sold him for,” she said.

Still, there was a price and Piner had to come up with the money.

The site council pitched in $500 and up stepped Piner history teacher Zoe Miller with the other $500.

“I’m a huge fan of Piner,” Miller said.

The fact that the idea for Franklin came from colleagues didn’t surprise her.

“I think one of the most amazing things about Piner, and one of the reasons I love working here and continue working here, is the staff is committed to the kids,” she said. “The fact that it is teacher driven is part and parcel of the Piner attitude and the Piner spirit.”

But about that broken arm.

Jewell and Bell tapped their colleague John Williams, who among his long list of course offerings at Piner is this: Intro to engineering, construction and design.

Williams said fixing the broken arm wasn’t difficult but he worried it would just break again. It was too exposed from Franklin’s body.

So Williams crafted a 3D printed baseball to put in Franklin’s right hand. It proved a perfect connector — and stabilizing force — between the right arm and Franklin’s body.

Students in Williams’s class gave Franklin a number of coats of paint.

Mounting Franklin on the long barren perch required a little more work.

Steel plates were installed, concrete was leveled, steel was cut. Those long-unused bolts came in handy.

And on Jan. 4, after the winter break, students at Piner met their newest classmate for the first time.

There is some talk of putting together a formal ribbon cutting or some sort of unveiling ceremony, but on that rainy Wednesday, Franklin made a fairly low key debut.

But he was noticed.

“Me being Black, moving out to Santa Rosa, there’s not a lot of Black people, so to be one and to see another one, it makes me feel at home,” said senior Tayshuan Thomas.

That’s real, said Piner Principal Andrea Correia.

“He looks like our kids,” she said. “When you read a story as a child or you are learning about something at school and it represents you, it makes you feel more connected and seen.”

Junior Kevin Latorre is all for it.

“If definitely represents a culture that doesn’t get represented,” he said. “You see a big Latin community but you don’t really see the other side of it … I feel like it kinds of shines on the Black community and what it is. It shows significance, definitely.”

There is talk of having students paint him. Or having (giant) custom Piner spirit wear made for him — garb that could be changed with the seasons.

Or leaving him as is.

“He’s in flux,” Jewell said.

But he’s here now and he’s walking among the Piner community, and that is what is important.

“I think it’s special. I’m super excited he’s at Piner. It’s joyful, you think of happiness,” Correia said. “And it has been such a long time coming.”

It’s also historic.

Franklin’s debut in the “Peanuts” strip in 1968 signaled diversity and inclusion.

His presence on Piner’s campus does the same today.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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