From the Eulogy given in the USA and Thailand by Vickie Franciscus, Stephanie’s daughter.
My mom was born Stephanie Magdalene Sobota. She always hated her middle name and might not behappy that I am sharing it with you, but I think under the circumstances she won’t mind. She was the only child of Slovak Immigrants living in a small coal mining town near Latrobe Pennsylvania. It was the end of the Depression and thenation was on the verge of World War II. Her world was small-town, a Catholiccommunity that, while appearing picturesque on the outside, had demons hiding just below the surface. Alcoholism, Gambling addictions and child abuse should never be considered “normal” but to mom, they were.
Mom was an exceptionally bright student graduating from high school a year early, but her father did not approve of women going to college and so she went to work at the local drugstore.
She escaped that life in 1959 by marrying my very charming father after only knowing him 6 months. She found herself in the 1960’s watching the world dramatically change around her while she was surrounded by five small children. We lived on a farm,which was a part of my father’s dream to be a cowboy. But my mom was restless; she loved classical music and the ballet, good books and politics and found life with Johnny Cash difficult.
She watched the world evolving on television and though she longed to be a part of it, and even once tried to convince her family to let her go and march in Atlanta with Martin Luther King Jr., they would not hear of it.
It was during this time that her natural gift of teaching was first evident. I do not think she ever saw it as such but as the oldest of five children I can remember her lessons quite well. While watching advertising on TV she would make us think about what they were saying and taught us to think critically and not believe everything you see and hear.For every major event of the sixties and seventies she would drag us into the living room and sit us down to watch. From JFK’s funeral to men walking on the moon, from political conventions to the Vietnam War, we saw it all. Then she would talk to us about it. She did not want us wasting our time with mindless games and instead we played imaginative and educational games such as listening toclassical music and drawing the pictures we saw in our minds. She was a gifted teacher before she ever had her education degree.
After her turbulent and affair ridden marriage ended, mom found herself living in a trailer court, with her two girls, in poverty. My father kept my brothers so that they could help on the farm. This was to be a temporary situation until mom got on her feet. My dad never did relinquish custody and our family was divided. No child support came and mom was forced to work as a short order cook in a truck stop.
10 months after their separation my brother, Timmy, aged nine was killed in a fall on my dad’s farm. My mother was devastated. After losing her husband, her home, and the custody of her sons, now Timmy was gone forever.
At this time my mom was not attending church at all. She was questioning all aspects of her faith and in her search for truth had purchased a Catholic edition Living Bible.But she had never even opened it until the night she contemplated taking her own life. The pain she told me was unbearable. She did open the Bible that night and began in the middle — in the book of Job.
His story of loss and grief seemed to echo the anguish ofher own heart and she cried out to God that if he were real would he please show her. She told me that she was not sure if she was awake or asleep for what followed but she said it was as real as we are.
She saw my brother Timmy sitting happily on the lap of Jesus. He was smiling and not wearing his glasses and spoke to her. “Don’t worry about me, Mom, I’m allright”, he said. And my mom was never the same again.
I watched her transformation with incredulity. But it was real and eventually her faith spilled over into my sister’s life and my own. And our family was never the same again.
Her quick mind soaked up everything she learned about the Lord like a sponge. And whatever she learned she endeavored to live and to teach us to live. She had a long road of healing to walk and it was often a difficult road but she never gave up.
She would walk to work in the snow in shoes with holes worn through the soles. She scrimped and saved just to buy us mittens for Christmas and would not hear of me quitting school even when I begged her so we could have more income. She had always wanted to go to college and she would make sure we had that opportunity. In September 1980 I received my RN. I owe that to my mom. My sister who has just finished her Masters and is working on her Specialist degree owes it to mom who always believed in us and taught us to be all that we could be. Mom finally received her own Bachelor’s degree at the age of fifty. She never gave up on her dream and God faithfully rewarded her.
In 1996 when I was asked by my mission to go to a remote location in Thailand where I would have to home school my mom never blinked an eye. “You can do this”, she said, I will teach you. And she did. A year later when God led me to start aschool in Thailand I called my mom for help. She came intending to stay 6 months. Five years later my mom had left a legacy of changed lives and a school behind her that continues to grow even today.
Her travels took her all over the world and wherever she went she touched lives. She was always ready to listen and pray for whoever came to her. She was a little girl from a small town who changed the world and made it a better place than what she found it. My sister and I are receiving messages from Arizona, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, from South Africa, Switzerland, New Zealand and Thailand just to name a few.
“I have changed the most this past year—- facing death, even in God’s hands is still revolutionary to one’s soul. I will never be some of the things I wanted to be—a good writer—writing with such greats as Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison, but I was the best mother I could be under the circumstances, and my family is glorious and brave and funny and hard-working and a delight, and now I will welcome a great grandchild.”
She never wrote a book , but she did leave a great legacy. Every life she touched was changed for the better. She was a brilliant, determined and courageous woman.She was an inspiration. She was my mother. And I will never forget her. I was amazed on Monday to find the sun still rose and the birds continue to sing. My heart feels as if everyone should know of the sad event of the passing of this great woman and stop to remember her. But of course the world goes on for most people.
But there is a vast group of people who lives were irrevocably changed and if you are in that group, pause and remember this great woman who overcame incredible obstacles to make the world a better place.
1 thought on “Stephanie Free”
On April 20, 2008, Stephanie S. Free went to be with the Lord after a two year battle with ovarian cancer. Her two daughters, Vickie and Sondra and their husbands at were at her side when she died.
She is survived by Vickie and Sondra, and two sons, Joseph and John. Her Timothy was killed when he was 9. Steph also has 9 grandchildren.
Stephanie left behind an amazing legacy. As a school teacher, she helped Vickie lay the foundations for the Family Learning Center, spending 5 years in Thailand as the schools principal.
Her life was also celebrated in a memorial service held in Thailand on 29 May 2008. Over 100 in attendence gave trubute to how this woman of God affected their lives.
Per Steph’s request, she was cremated in the United States. Vickie brought a portion of those ashes with her to Thailand. After the memorial service, our housekeeper, Aw and the head of school facilities at the school, Moo, asked Vickie if they could bury those ashes in their churches cemetary. Vickie agreed.
It is amazing to me that this woman from a small mining town in western Pennsylvania has found a final resting place in a small graveyard in Northern Thailand.
So goodbye Stephanie, you changed our lives forever.