OAKDALE, Minn. It could so easily have gone the other way. The kid who doesn’t fit the mold. The bullying that always seem to follow.
But that’s not what happened at Tartan High School in the 1970s. Not for Franz Kruschel.
Instead, on his 60th birthday, Franz was surrounded by dozens of adoring Tartan school mates, all there to support him, as they have done for the past four decades.
“People go their own separate way after they graduate from school, but we've all just taken care of Franz as if he's one of our own,” says Tom Korba, who graduated with Franz in 1976. “And we really love him a lot.”
Franz is first to admit that school wasn't always easy, academically. “I wasn't mentally tough, tough enough,” he says.
But ask Franz about the social part of Tartan High and, instantly, his mood changes. “Oh, the friend part was fun,” Franz says.
Four decades after graduation, Franz’ high school friends still have their arms wrapped firmly around him.
In fact, he lives with one of them.
“I met Franz in a home ec class, “says Wendy Vejtruba, Tartan class of ’75. “We had to form groups and I could see somebody - it was Franz - across the room looking like he wanted to be picked. And I said, ‘I’ll take him.”’
A few years later, Wendy and her husband John did essentially the same thing when they invited Franz into their home.
“I was struggling a little bit and they go, ‘You can come live with me, live with us.’ Been a family ever since,” Franz says.
When Wendy and John welcomed a baby son, Franz stayed.
When the couple built a new home, they included in their plans a room from Franz, and then brought him along.
All combined, Franz has lived with John and Wendy for 32 years.
“He’s our friend, he’s our friend and family,” Wendy says.
But that’s just the start.
Each fall, Franz’ Tartan friends host a bike rally in his honor. The “Tour de Franz” runs from Mahtomedi to Stillwater, with stops at watering holes along the way for socializing.
“We've been riding with Franz for years, a bunch of us, so once a year we have the Tour de Franz bike ride which we let everybody join in,” race organizer and Tartan grad Frank Andreotti says. “Other than that, he's ours.”
Franz’ Tartan friends have taken him on vacation. They’ve taken him to sporting events and deer hunting.
First order of business for Franz after arriving home from his job at a convenience store is connecting by phone with Tartan friends.
“He calls me every day,” Tom Korba says.
If Tartan High School had bullies, they knew to steer clear.
“It wouldn’t have been good,” Frank Andreotti says, shaking his head.
Franz’ friends have always had his back.
“We’ve had him over for Christmas Eves for a few years,” says Chris Preiner, another of Franz’ Tartan friends. “And we offered him a meal, it was lasagna, and he said, 'Oh I can’t, I’ve got to go see the so-and-so family.' I said, ‘What are you going to do there?’”
To which Franz responded, “‘Well, they’re having steak.’”
But the love between Franz and his Tartan schoolmates goes both ways.
“We’re there for him, but he’s always there, always there,” Tom Korba says emphatically.
When a school friend is in the hospital, it’s Franz who lets everyone know. As his schoolmates’ parents pass away, Franz never misses a funeral.
He also never misses an opportunity to brag up his friends’ high school accomplishments, however modest they may be.
“Hockey games from 40 years ago, he’ll remember stuff,” says John Vejtruba.
When Franz’ friends stopped playing competitive sports, he started rooting for their children.
“My kids did get involved in sports and he was at those games,” Tartan grad Kim Warner says. “And he said, ‘I saw your son score that hockey goal,’ and I didn’t even know he was there. He came to all the games. He was there to make my day.”
Wendy and John’s son Jared grew up with Franz, both in his home and in his corner.
“At every high school game away or home, he was there,” says Jared, a former Tartan High School hockey player.
Franz makes no secret of his love for Jared. “I told Jared when he graduated, I never had a brother, but Jared’s my brother,” he says.
As they planned his 60th birthday party, Franz’ friends concocted a special surprise. Since high school, Franz has been an intense fan of professional wrestling.
Midway through his party, a stunned Franz was treated to a visit by Baron Von Raschke, one of his favorite wrestlers. The Baron strode toward the guest of honor with curled fingers on his raised right hand in his signature “iron claw,” as Franz howled with laughter.
Franz’ sister, Cindy Carlson, lives in Wyoming, Minnesota. She helped plan her brother’s birthday party, but gives all the credit to his friends. “I’m just related to him,” she says. “These people are his family.”
Surrounded by Tartan grads, Franz is asked to sum up this moment and these friends who’ve been by his side since high school. “Without ‘em, what am I?” he asks. “They’re the world.”