On a tennis court a century ago, a Minnesota dentist and a French professor’s daughter forged a friendship between their families that’s going strong four generations later.
The sixth of nine siblings, Francis Patrick Meany was born in 1895 in Austin, Minn., where his Irish-born father served as an alderman. Francis earned his dentistry degree — and the lifelong nickname Doc — at Creighton University in Omaha. He opened a practice in Madison Lake, Minn. — 70 miles northwest of his family’s home in Austin.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Meany enlisted and became a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps. His troop ship left Boston Harbor and arrived in France on July 20, 1918. Then a three-day train ride brought Meany to a western French military camp near Bordeaux.
He would spend the last days of the war stitching up the wounded on stretchers, often in the rain, as an assistant battalion surgeon on the front lines near the Argonne Forest and Meuse River. More than 26,000 Americans joined a massive death toll in a 47-day span between Sept. 26 and the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918. Nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers were injured during the Argonne-Meuse offensive and Meany was often the first one at their side.
“I ‘went over the top’ into battle …” he wrote in a letter after the armistice. “I didn’t do surgery, just dressed the wounds and tried to keep the men from bleeding to death and dying … I’d give them first aid and get them back to a dressing station. I never even knew where a dressing station was. We were up front.”
But before that bloody chaos, there was time for a tennis match.
Billeted near Bordeaux, Meany’s unit trained for the battles to come in August — 100 summers ago. As an officer, Meany met prominent people, including the professor and mayor of the little hamlet Vendays, Marcel Lafranque, his wife, Henriette, and their daughter, France.
In an Aug. 19, 1918, letter home to his brother, Leo, Meany wrote about “an invitation to visit the village school professor and play tennis with his daughter, who speaks English …”
From a competitive standpoint, the match didn’t go well. With his fellow officers watching, the 20-year-old French woman thrashed him. The dentist wasn’t much of a sportsman — later telling relatives: “Every time the urge to exercise comes upon me, I lie down until it passes.”
However lopsided, the tennis match kicked off a century of letter writing, gift giving and visiting between the Meany clan and the Lafranques. In 1937, Doc Meany and his wife of 12 years, Ruth, headed to France, where American soldiers were feted on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the war.
By then, France Lafranque, the tennis whiz, had married Rene Broune. Their daughter, Marie-France, was born that autumn and the family had moved to Paris. The French family entertained the Minnesotans on the first of many visits over the generations with the woman they now called Madame Broune.
“I was conceived during my parents’ 1937 trip to Paris,” said Ruth Meany Murphy, 80, who lives in St. Paul and was the fourth of Doc and Ruth Meany’s five children. “My father had the presence of mind to keep the relationship going after the war. He knew somehow that this was going to be important.”
During World War II, Madame Broune and her daughter fled when the Nazis seized Paris, hiding out for the duration of the war in southern France. German soldiers, meanwhile, installed a machine gun on the balcony of their Parisian apartment.
The Meanys sent care packages after the war. Doc parlayed his Austin connection with the Hormel meatpacking family, who spearheaded a massive food relief program after the Nazi surrender.
The families nearly lost touch after 2000, but frantic phone book searches and other detective work led to several meetings in France with Meany’s daughter, Ruth, and the daughter of the tennis playing Madame Broune.
“We’ve been there many times but they’ve never come to Minnesota,” Murphy said.
Before her father’s death at age 94 in 1990, Murphy and Doc Meany located the site of the little village where the tennis match went down in 1918. “But it had changed into a suburb of Bordeaux, not the village it once was,” she said.
This fall, a contingent of 21 Meany descendants — including Murphy and the dentist’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren — will make the trek back to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.
Murphy has hired a historical consultant who will bring the Minnesotans to the exact spot where Meany’s Army unit — the 353rd Infantry of the 89th Division — hunkered down in the war’s final days near the Argonne Forest. They will visit a cemetery for many of those who died 100 years ago and renew a friendship with a French family that’s endured through four generations.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts atonminnesotahistory.com.