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Jeff Jardine: Dreamer's death is talk of tiny town

An old man's wish, a minister and a museum -- these are the elements of a controversy in this tiny farming community east of Modesto.

This is the village where a sometimes cantankerous octogenarian named Frank E. Craig lived most of his life.

It's where the 85-year-old Mississippi native dreamed of creating a museum for the community, and partnered with the minister of the town's centerpiece church seven years ago to get the still-unfinished project going.

And, just a couple miles west of town, it's where Craig died April 22 when his pickup plunged into an irrigation canal. Driving the truck was the same minister and the recipient of Craig's fortune; it was their second serious accident together in two years.

The tragic turn of events has folks talking these days, including those who are asking Doug Porter, pastor at Hickman Community Church, why Craig's dream has never been fulfilled.

"Where's the museum?" asks Marilyn Allen, a Hickman resident who also sent a letter to the editor of The Bee publicly calling Porter out to answer her questions.

"(Porter) has all of (Craig's) money," she said later. "Why is he out looking for volunteers and donations? Just build it."

The museum is coming, Porter and his wife, Vicki, promise. The two of them -- she is the museum's project manager -- met earlier this month with a small group of residents to assure them it will happen.

The Porters said they will soon move the old Rowe Schoolhouse from a nearby dairy to property Porter bought -- using $469,000 of Craig's money -- next to the church. The Foster family of Foster Farms poultry and dairy fame will donate the building that will house the museum.

The Porters obtained a use permit for the museum and a church expansion in 2000. But insufficient water pressure throughout Hickman created a concern among fire officials and a roadblock for the museum.

The Porters appear to be addressing the water issue and the project should be able to move forward, Stanislaus County Planning Director Ron Freitas said.

And yes, the Porters hope people will volunteer to help with the project, which they claim will cost more than the $1.2 million Craig earmarked for it.

Vicki Porter doesn't like the community gossip going around; she says it is insulting and painful to a family that has done so much for the Hickman community.

Her 53-year-old husband built the historic Hickman Community Church into a thriving congregation of more than 400 members. He coached youth wrestling and counseled troubled teens in the community.

She says friends and supporters have repeated things said by others about her husband. Their friends, she said, were shocked.

"They said, 'What? How could you even think that?'" Vicki said. "It hurts."

That's often the way it is in small towns -- lots of folks speculating, offering opinions but few facts, and not wanting to be quoted.

"I don't give it a lot of thought," Doug Porter said. "I changed more diapers ... fed Frank more meals ... than anyone. He was like an older relative. I started taking care of him because I thought it was the right thing to do. Where were they?"

Long ago, Craig decided he wanted to build an agriculture museum in Hickman. When Stanislaus County announced similar plans for the County Ag Center in south Modesto, he settled on creating a museum to highlight the history of Hickman. There, he could feature some of the farm equipment he'd brought to his 17-acre farm west of town.

Craig's brother James "Roy" Craig, died in San Mateo County in 1998. The two men were the co-trustees on each other's trusts. Frank Craig inherited a sizeable amount in stocks and real estate -- possibly as much as $4 million, said N.J. Craig, Frank's other brother.

As Craig pursued the museum project, friends, including Hickman area resident Harold Johnson, said they urged Craig to form a nonprofit corporation and establish a board of directors to oversee the museum funding.

But Craig ignored their advice, Johnson said. Porter already had agreed to shepherd the museum project. So Craig put his complete trust in Porter by making him co-trustee. Porter, in effect, became Craig's sole heir and had equal control of the trust.

"He basically left everything in the trust to me, Doug Porter," Porter said.

Over the next few years, Porter and Craig traveled together to museums across the country, and even to Europe, where Craig was an airplane technician during World War II.

Their travels together locally ultimately generated more interest among Craig's other friends and the townfolk.

Many of those folks are concerned about the two accidents involving Porter and Craig.

The first occurred in March 2002, as the two men were heading east on Lake Road toward La Grange, where Porter now lives.

Driving his own pickup, Porter said he came around a curve and found another vehicle in his lane. He said his pickup left the pavement, and the wheels caught a sandy berm left by a road grader, channeling the truck into a tree.

Sitting in the passenger seat, Craig took the brunt of it. He suffered two broken legs, injuries to his sternum, pelvis and lungs, and suffered cuts and bruises. The 83-year-old survived, but never again walked without using a walker.

According to the California Highway Patrol, Porter was wearing a seatbelt, and his driver-side air bag deployed. Craig, on the other hand, wasn't wearing a seatbelt, and the passenger-side air bag had been turned off. Many pickups have a feature that allows the passenger side air bag to be deactivated, generally for when children are in the vehicle.

Then came the second crash -- the one that claimed Craig's life -- two months ago, on April 22.

Porter said he was taking Craig to see how other farmers along the canal were irrigating.

Just before 3 p.m., they left Craig's house on Riverview Road and drove about 1½ miles to the Turlock Irrigation District's Ceres Main Canal. They turned west on the sandy canal bank, which had been graded two weeks before, according to TID.

As he rode in the passenger's seat, Craig opened a letter and found what he thought was a property tax rebate check for $6 from the county, Porter said. Craig began ranting about how writing check for a mere $6 was just a waste of taxpayer money, Porter said.

Porter said he took the document from Craig, turned it over and found it was a refund from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"We came around a bend and there were some large rocks (on the canal road) on the driver's side," Porter said. "I hit one of those, and we were only about a yard away from the canal. We went in (to the water) sideways. We didn't impact hard."

Porter said he pulled Craig out of the truck. But the strength of the current and Craig's body weight made carrying him difficult. Craig was about 5½ feet tall and probably weighed about

120 pounds at the time of his death, friends said.

Porter said he struggled to get Craig over to the side of the canal. Porter said he saw a vehicle in an orchard nearby, so he propped Craig up on a ledge and went to get help.

Porter said he administered CPR, but the 85-year-old Craig had already swallowed too much water and had died.

The highway patrol, which handled the crash-scene investigation, won't comment on the case except to say it is still under investigation.

Stanislaus County sheriff's Det. Mark Copeland said he is actively investigating the case, and several area residents say they have given statements to investigators, including Copeland, since the second crash.

They also said deputies treated Craig's property as a crime scene that night, and that officers impounded the rocks found on the levee road.

In the meantime, authorities have released control of Craig's property to Porter.

Locals are upset, claiming Porter wasted little time in taking items off Craig's property, implying that he wasn't acting like someone who should be mourning a friend who died while in his care.

They pointed to the short, simple eulogy Porter gave at Craig's funeral 11 days after the crash.

"He told me what he wanted said," Porter said. "I knew all that. Nobody else did."

Porter can't understand why anyone would question his motives and actions, including the circumstances surrounding the two accidents.

"I've been in four wrecks with my wife," he said.

Meanwhile, Porter said he will probably sell Craig's land and use the money for the museum. He said only he and Craig -- not the others in and around Hickman -- understood their relationship.

Craig's death, he said, has affected him deeply.

"The biggest flashbacks I've have had are when I'll think 'I need to go by and check on Frank today,'" Porter said. "Then it hits me. He's not there."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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