A Love Story.The Love Story of Big Paul and Queen Joke
By Jeri Rowe
Photography by Nancy Sidelinger
Susan Fuller felt like she was flying that sunny May afternoon. She stuck her arms out straight, leaned her head back and watched the fat, lazy clouds float overhead as she vroomed down U.S. 64 on the back of her husband's Harley-Davidson Road King.
She felt so carefree. She didn't worry about her six children, her job as a nurse or what she called her husband's real wife -- WTQR (104.1 FM), the country music powerhouse where he worked as program director and anchored one of the nation's most popular country music morning shows.
No, she and the man she called "Big Boy" -- "Big Paul" Franklin, also known as Paul Franklin Fuller Jr. in his hometown of Gastonia -- were going to celebrate. They were heading east to Myrtle Beach for Bike Week 2002 to see some friends and celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary.
"I love you, Big Boy," she said, wrapping her arms around Franklin's thick waist.
With his right hand on the throttle, Franklin used sign language to say with his left hand "I love you." She wrapped her arms tighter around the man she considered her guardian angel and said, "It's getting hilly. We must be near Asheboro."
Her husband didn't respond. She only heard him cry out in what she now calls a prayerful, fearful voice: "Holy Jesus, help me!"
She tried to see what he was talking about. But before she could see the Plymouth Sundance blocking the road in front of her, she felt the crash and pain shooting through her left arm. She was thrown from the bike and ended up sprawled on the blacktop. The next thing she remembers is the voice of a paramedic.
"We need to either airlift her to Baptist or Chapel Hill."
"Don't take me anywhere but Baptist," she told the paramedic, her eyes still closed. "My family can't see me in Chapel Hill."
Next she heard the metallic click of a helicopter stretcher, the loud whoop of the helicopter blades and a paramedic telling her, "Stay with me."
Meanwhile, back on the pavement lay her husband, one of the most respected and popular personalities in Triad radio. He had bucked his wife off the motorcycle to save her life. But in doing so, his body took the brunt of the hit, and somehow he knew the conversation he had with the paramedic beside him would be his last.
"Do you know Jesus?" Franklin asked the paramedic. "I need to tell you about him because I'm getting ready to go see him."
Rewind to April 1986. Fuller was 29, a spit of a woman with sun-kissed skin and curly red hair who barely weighed 95 pounds. She taught childbirth classes at the Cherry Point Marine Corps air station in Havelock, commuted between various medical centers as a nurse, and cared for her three young children, including a baby girl who was barely nine weeks old. Her husband had just left her.
That's when she met Franklin.
Well, she heard him first. She tuned into Z103, a rock station in Beaufort, and discovered the "Waking Crew," the morning show with Franklin and his sidekick, Casey.
Franklin had just graduated from UNCG. He was 25, a veteran of college radio. Back in college, his friends called him "Butch." He was congenial and easygoing, a guy with a wide grin, a straw-broom moustache and a six-feet-four-inch frame as rangy as a rural fence post. And he always wore a tie to work. Ever since he was 10 years old, when he taped DJs off the radio to imitate and understand their delivery, he had been serious about embarking on a radio career. Now, as Z103's program director, he wanted to help it stand out and draw in listeners. He tried just that with his morning show's "Joke Off," a contest in which the listener with the best joke, as judged by the other listeners, would win a little cash every morning. And thanks to the help from a shy friend, Fuller began winning so regularly that Franklin named her "Queen Joke" and brought her on the show.
As soon as they met, she realized she had been introduced to someone special. Maybe it was the goofy, pursed-lip look he gave her when he first saw her. Or maybe it was when he walked her to the bathroom in a club crowded with Marines. Or maybe it was when he bought her a couch, a car and paid the first and last month's rent on an apartment when she was struggling to make ends meet as a single mother.
"How am I going to pay you back for all this?" she asked.
"Maybe, some day, you'll marry me and it will all be a wash," he responded.
Or maybe it was the time when he asked her out on their first date.
"I'm separated, and I've got three children," she said incredulously.
"Do we have to take them on the first date?" he asked. "Can't we wait to take them on the second?"
She had fallen hard for this former Eagle Scout. He adhered to the Boy Scout code of being kind, courteous, clean and reverent, and made her feel at ease during a tough time in her life when she felt vulnerable and alone. After two years of dating, the two were married May 14, 1988, in Franklin's hometown. Claire, her youngest, handed out rice bags; Hannah, her middle child, tossed flowers; and Jamie, her oldest, ushered guests into the church.
"The greatest thing he gave me was self-esteem," Fuller said, her voice choking, tears trickling down her face. "I was real clingy when we first got together because a man left me for no reason. But Paul always told me, 'You need to make friends. I didn't know your world, but make your own world, and I'll keep the kids."
"He was my guardian angel from the beginning."
Franklin loved the art of making good radio. He came to WTQR seven years ago and helped turn WTQR into one of the nation's top country stations as well as create a morning show that went on to earn the Academy Award in country music. Franklin and his popular Southern woman sidekick, Aunt Eloise, of the "Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning Show" were named by the Country Music Association as the large-market personalities of the year in 1997.
Franklin was funny. But he also used radio as a platform to talk about his religious faith and a vehicle to help raise millions of dollars for various local charities. He went to remotes nearly every week to sign autographs, meet listeners and talk to them about their lives. In one instance, he even gave a listener the shirt off his back. She had stood in line for four hours to get a shirt -- as well as his autograph -- only to find out the station gave away its last shirt. She got Franklin's.
Franklin also loved family. He wallpapered his office at work with pictures, drawings and cards from his family. When their first child, Annie Camp, was born, he told his wife minutes after the delivery: "I don't love her one bit more than all the other ones. They are all my children."
And oh yeah, he loved his wife too. He called her "Sue Dolly," a pet name her mother and father had first given her. In the morning, when their alarm clock went off at 3:45, he often stroked her head and whispered, "Sue Dolly, I love what I do, but I hate leaving you." Then, when he'd come home, he sometimes bellowed, "Daddy's home. Does anybody care?" Then, he'd search out his wife, nuzzle her neck and say, "You've got the ugliest ears, but you're the prettiest woman I've ever seen."
He instilled in his family the Boy Scout code he first learned from his father. They attended church, talked out problems at family meetings in the living room and adopted a less fortunate family every Christmas. And when his wife bought him a Harley-Davidson Road King last year for his 40th birthday, he told her the bike would marry his two passions: his wife and the family's charity work.
"Sue Dolly," he told her, "this is something you and I can do together, and we can do good on this bike. We can raise money for people who need it."
On May 16, they took off together on their longest ride. They were driving through Asheboro toward Myrtle Beach with some friends when a Plymouth Sundance was rear-ended by a mini-van. The Sundance rolled into their path at the intersection of Stutts Road and U.S. 64 and later sent Fuller heavenward in a helicopter bound for N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.
That's when she saw the bright pink light.
She was floating in a dark tunnel, moving slowly toward a light that looked white the closer she got. She felt surrounded by a feeling of warmth, peace and love. Then, she heard her husband's voice.
"Sue Dolly, come on back. You've got to come back. Our babies need you. Come on back."
"Will you be there?" she asked.
"Sort of. I'll always be right there. But it's not your time."
"OK," she said. Then, she took a deep breath and felt herself getting sucked back down the tunnel like sliding down a steep water slide headfirst. Then, she felt pain. A lot of pain.
"Oh God, I'm hurt," she screamed as she lay in the helicopter stretcher. "Give me more of that medicine! Give me more of that medicine! I hurt."
"We haven't given you anything," the paramedic responded.
Fuller today can rattle off her injuries from the accident like she's reading a telephone book: four broken ribs, three cracked vertebrae, two broken bones in her left arm, two cracked teeth, a punctured lung and a bruised left hip. She suffers from dizziness, frequent headaches and short-term memory loss. After a week in the hospital and weeks of rehabilitation and physical therapy, she works on her left and right arm muscles every day at home. She lifts a 16-ounce can of asparagus, squeezes a small ball and picks small rocks out of red goo that looks like Play Doh.
She's getting better. She said she hopes to go back to work as a nurse by the end of the year. Until then, the letters she reads are a big help. She has received more than 7,000 letters of support from WTQR listeners, along with poems, paintings, porcelain angels, cross-stitched angels, and a Big Paul memory book from Curly's Harley-Davidson in Winston-Salem.
The gifts show the power of radio. But the gifts also show the power of one person. Franklin touched thousands of listeners with his faith and compassion, and his recipe for clean-cut, entertaining radio. Listeners are responding in kind by donating money to two funds WTQR has set up in Franklin's name at Wachovia and BBandT to help his family and his six children, ages 6 to 23. So far, WTQR listeners have contributed what general manager Morgan Bohannon calls a "substantial amount of money" to the Big Paul Franklin Memorial Fund.
Fuller finds some solace in that. Still, she misses her husband. And when she does, she sits on her back porch in Kernersville, by the fish pond he built for her. Then, she talks to God.
"Here I am yet another day without my husband," she'll say. "I hope you're enjoying his company because I surely miss him. God, I know he's gone, but I sure want to make him proud. And you know, I'm a doubting Thomas. Put my hands in the nail holes if he wants me to go on."
And the signs come. She's discovered a sheet of paper with "I love you" written in her husband's handwriting tumbling from the dryer. She's felt warmth run across her shoulders as she sat by herself in the family's air-conditioned church. And she's received a poem the day after one of her toughest days. The five-verse poem was called 'To Those I Love and Those Who Love Me."
The first verse went like this:
When I am gone, release me, let me go
I have so many things to see and do.
You mustn't tie yourself to me with tears,
Be happy that we had so many years.
This is where I hear things," said Fuller the other day, sitting by the fish pond and pausing between each word. "And oh, I listen. I tell him, 'I'm only 45, and I'll be around another 40 years without you,' and I hear, 'You're OK. You'll be OK."