FHN Alumni Brings Out His Dark Side for Charities
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John Francisco has a dark side. Standing at 6-foot-5, he cuts an imposing figure as he covers himself head-to-toe in pleather and spandex. He sweeps a dark cape over his shoulders and finishes with a black helmet. He is no longer an employee of the St. Charles County Police Department and a 1993 graduate of FHN. He is a Sith Lord, a “tortured soul who wants to find good again,” as he puts it. He is Darth Vader.
“When you’re out in public, people recognize the character and not you as a person,” Francisco said. “It’s kinda neat to play that character that you grew up with and just fell in love with.”
Francisco is in the Gateway Squad, the local division of an international Star Wars costuming organization called the 501st Legion. The 501st began in 1997 as an outlet for fans interested in crafting high-quality Star Wars costumes. Since then, they have become the franchise’s premium costuming group, and their costumes must meet strict requirements to get approval. The group’s main focus, however, is charity work. They attend local events to draw attention to those in need, all free of charge.
“To change somebody’s life, to put that smile on someone’s face, that obviously in that case extremely needs it, and to be able to try to change someone’s outlook, it’s pretty amazing,” Commanding Officer Richard Heffernan said. “It’s a very unique feeling that I don’t think a lot of people have ever truly felt.”
Four years ago, Francisco had never heard of the 501st. That all changed after he took a photo with a stormtrooper at a concert and showed it to one of his coworkers. To his surprise, his friend was actually one of the stormtroopers that night. A few months later, he called Francisco to say that their Vader backed out of a Rascal’s game. Francisco jumped at the chance to cross this off his bucket list and has been in the group ever since.
“The first time putting on the helmet I was claustrophobic, but after I wore it for about four hours, it just became natural,” Francisco said.
Francisco goes to about 60 events every year, from children’s hospitals to the Make a Wish Foundation. One of the group’s recent events was on Nov. 13 at an alternative school called Coeur Academy.
“The costumes were very realistic and it was a huge attraction for the kids,” Tenitra Harris, a teacher’s assistant at Coeur Academy, said. “They really liked how realistic they were.”
Even though he goes to dozens of events every year, Francisco says he tries to make each moment special for the people he meets. His favorite events to go to are at children’s hospitals because he gets the most one-on-one time with kids.
“I try to make the encounter as memorable as possible for the child so they don’t feel like they’re in an assembly line like they would at a stadium event,” Francisco said. “You only have so many wear times with the suit, otherwise you’re going to get some failures with the suit, but I always try to make it count as much as possible.”
It was at one of these hospitals that he first met Keira Stout, a 9-year-old girl diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer that affects muscles. Francisco has been involved in her fundraising ever since, all with his cape and lightsaber
“The girl’s been through so much,” Francisco said. “It’s just kinda hard to have her deal with such an adult disease to where she had to grow up so quickly to deal with it.”
Connecting with people in need like Keira is what makes donning the Vader costume worthwhile for Francisco. When he’s in character, he stops thinking about how hot and restricting the suit is. Instead, he focuses on transporting people to their own galaxies far, far away.
“Whenever I’m dressed as Vader and I’m around Keira, she doesn’t call me Darth Vader,” Francisco said. “She goes, ‘That’s my friend John.’”
Editor’s note: To view the gallery on a mobile device, click here.
Correction: An early version of this story referred to Francisco as a police officer in the headline. This was incorrect and has been changed to properly reflect his background.
In the print edition of the North Star, the story stated that Francisco worked for the St. Charles Police Department. The story was changed to reflect his employer as the St. Charles County Police Department.