by Bruce Fougner 

After nine and a half days of biking, my butt is sore, I am 15 pounds lighter, and I am a better man because I spent those days with Dr. Francis Jean, President of IRIS the Visual Group. Unfortunately, our cycling journey ended abruptly on Thursday July 17 when Francis passed away. Francis was an inspiration to me and countless others, and he leaves behind an incredible legacy. 

A legacy, as defined by my friend Robb Lucy, is something you create that connects you to people, enhances their lives now, and will continue to affect lives after you are gone. Over the past few days, I have been thinking about Francis’ legacies, his strong connection to his family, the IRIS team, the community, and his commitment to enhancing the lives of others through providing exceptional eye care at IRIS and through charitable initiatives, such as the “IRIS Challenge” to raise money for cancer research. Reflecting on our cycling journey and the amazing time we spent together, I will always be reminded of Francis’ legacies and the ones I want to create.

The IRIS Challenge

Francis was not a cyclist; cycling was something he chose to do in order to spend time with his brother Remi after Remi was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. Remi enjoys two things in life: golf and cycling, and if Francis was to spend some quality time with him he had to pick one. Francis was not a golfer (something I witnessed in the Bahamas several years ago) so, determined to spend time with his brother, he began riding his family’s bikes that were stored in his garage in Langley. Over a short period, Francis became a proficient rider and suggested to his brother that they should ride across the country. Francis purchased a mobile home, and he, his very good friend Gerald Carrier and Remi each put $10,000 into the expense hat and started the “IRIS Challenge” to raise money for cancer research. On that first ride, Francis, Remi and Gerald spent a glorious summer together riding over 6,000 kilometers to Baie-Comeau, and raised $137,000.

This year was Francis’ fourth time riding the same route through BC and he would often compare our day’s ride with the other trips. We created several videos along the way, in French, in English and sometimes both languages. Most often these were sent straight off to Remi with subject lines usually asking him if he remembered a particular hill or beautiful viewpoint. We sat at the side of the road often and shared our food, water, and ideas.

An Incredible Journey: Riding with Dr. Jean

Our cycling journey started from Francis’ house in Langley. We crossed the Golden Ears Bridge and both commented that the weather was much more favourable than the last time we crossed the bridge during a rainstorm on one of our training sessions. With an amazing wind at our backs, our first day’s ride along Highway 7 through Mission and Agassiz ended quite effortlessly in an RV campground in Hope.

I had told Francis that I was most anxious about the Hope to Princeton portion of the ride. After conquering the ride to the top of the slide and Sunshine Valley, I could tell that Francis was glad to have been a part of my success to reach the top. For most of the first few days we were blessed with amazing tail winds; Francis laughed at my literal translation of tail winds (in French the term is ‘back winds’). On our third day I recommended a stop at Bromley Rock, a wonderful swimming hole on the Similkameen River. It was a very hot day and Francis absolutely loved it!

I was glad that I got to experience his first swim at that spot. We recorded several videos before heading out to Keremeos. Our support team, which included Francis’ wife Denise, was enthralled with the French version of the second season of Game of Thrones, and I used this time to share my day with my wife on the phone while Francis attended to his emails.

On the departure out of Keremeos, our support group joined us and we rode together to the top of Yellow Lake hill. I was able congratulate our support team on their climb of what is the Penticton Ironman’s third toughest climb of the bike course. Francis and I continued towards Penticton and I was fortunate enough to bring Francis down the hill in Kaleden for a visit with my brother-in-law, Bill Weymark, and friends at their lake-side summer house. It is a beautiful spot and I was glad to be able to surround Francis with four other Ironmen to listen to his story about his brother Remi.

That evening in Kelowna we had a reservation at the local Keg restaurant with the IRIS team from Vernon and Kelowna. Prior to this, Francis had insisted that I invite my son and his girlfriend to join us.  I was very proud when Erik held up the Fougner tradition and raised his glass to propose a toast to all the beautiful women at the table! Francis roared his approval.

The next day we rode up to Sicamous. Not only was the ride long, but as the temperature hovered between 37 and 40 degrees, it was also stinking hot. We had lunch at an A&W in Armstrong as this is where Francis had stopped on each of his three previous trips. Tradition is tradition.

We stopped at Mara Lake and had another swim. By this time Francis was now carrying a bathing suit with him as I must admit riding in wet biking shorts isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world! We had a beautiful campfire that night and we relaxed a bit as our next day’s ride to Revelstoke would be very short and easy. We enjoyed dinner at a great restaurant and Francis toasted the athletes of the day, which were our support team. Daniel Bilodeau, our driver, had completed a very hot 114km ride that day.

We headed out “earlyish” the next morning to conquer Roger’s Pass and with a tail wind, again, we made relatively good time. When we reached the summit we sat below the sign and Francis commented that this was the best weather that he had ever experienced at the summit. We made a few very funny videos and we laughed hard and often.

On the descent we had several snow sheds to navigate and the first one was completely black. We couldn’t see the road (and therefore any holes or cracks) and Francis yelled to follow the white line (which thankfully we could see). The next few snow sheds were well lit and the pavement was fresh and smooth. We raced down the long hill, Francis bent over his handle bars with me following.  On a couple of occasions we would pass each other and hoot and holler. It was an amazing descent.

We arrived in Kinbasket RV and Lodge where Rick Chartraw is the owner and operator. In his early youth, Francis was a great hockey player and actually received a Division 1 scholarship to play hockey in Georgia. Rick had won four Stanley Cups with the Canadians and one with the Oilers (their first one) and was keen to share his stories if anyone wanted to listen. Francis definitely did. The train tracks ran just behind the RV park and our support team told us the trains ran all night, but Francis and I didn’t hear a thing. Denise talked the next morning about finding a better RV park for next years ride, but Francis thought the location was perfect. Again, tradition is tradition.

Our next mission was Kicking Horse Pass and Francis and I lunched in Golden. We were the only two customers and the staff took our water bottles and added ice and placed them in the freezer while we ate. I am sure they broke some health regulation in doing so, but we were ever so grateful. Kicking Horse Pass is a monster of a climb and we congratulated each other upon reaching the summit. Our next challenge was the climb out of Field before Lake Louise. We continued to be blessed with a tail wind and with fresh liquids we attacked the next hill. Well, attacked might not be the correct word, but we plodded along fairly quickly. Once we reached the top, we had an amazing long descent into Lake Louise. Again, with a tail wind and fresh asphalt and very little traffic the biking gods were with us, and we raced into Lake Louise.

Waiting for us at the campground was our support team along with Gerald Carrier who had flown out from Baie-Comeau to join us for the rest of the trip. In the original cross-Canada ride, Francis and Gerald had not ridden the Columbia Icefields and Francis had wanted Gerald to experience the ride. It was clear from the start that these two were very close friends. Our support team had completed a strength ride that day and even Renee Nolin was able to climb the long steep hill from the village to the Chateau Lake Louise.

The next morning Francis wanted us to know that the Icefields, while beautiful, did not have the best roads and that there is a lot of wildlife, so that we should be careful when descending hills. We headed out into the wind this time, but with fresh legs in Gerald, we made pretty good time. We had about 135kms to do that day and at about the 110km mark we stopped at the bottom of an enormous hill. We took an extended break and again recorded more videos. Francis and I spent an hour climbing the hill, 50 minutes of which was in our lowest gear, stroke after stroke, expecting to see the top after every bend, but only seeing more hills. It was my toughest ever climb. We had a brief stop at the top but couldn’t rest for long as the mosquitos were very hungry. Our finish into the Icefields parking lot again was fast and fun, with each of us passing the other and carrying on like kids at Christmas. We congratulated ourselves with a fresh smoothie that Denise had prepared for us and devoured homemade hamburgers.

The tenth day started with some rain and a little thunder and lightning. We were going to wait before deciding on whether we should drive part way as the weather didn’t look promising. At noon we had all our biking gear on and were ready to ride. The weather was clearing up and the decision to ride was made and so off we went. It was much cooler and we all had rain jackets on as well as head covers under our helmets. With a head wind, we continued to ride in peloton until the final climb up to the Columbia Icefield Glacier Skywalk, before the long decent down the other side. 

At the top of the hill Gerald was waiting for us as usual. Francis arrived at the top and headed on straight away down the hill. It started to rain hard pretty much as soon as we started our descent. With sunglasses on, I rode my breaks down the hill for about a kilometer, and coming out of a curve I saw quite a lot of car congestion. My first impression was that there must be wild animals (we had passed very closely by two grizzlies the previous day) so I proceeded cautiously. Unfortunately, it was not wild animals but one of our riders. Francis had apparently fallen, was not responding and had no pulse. Within minutes we had two people with first aid and a nurse on the scene. Within 5 minutes we had a Canadian Armed Forces medic, an American surgeon and another American doctor, all on vacation. This skilled and compassionate team of strangers performed CPR and administered air flow for over 30 minutes, but were unable to revive him. It has since been confirmed by the medical examiners office in Alberta that Francis died of a heart attack.

Dr. Jean’s Legacy

Francis was a very busy and successful business man.  He had warned me before the trip that he required four hours a day for his emails and that he knew this would delay the start of some days. I asked him how many direct reports he had and he laughed and said over 1200, and that that was the way he preferred it. He told me that IRIS had just completed their best and most profitable year ever, and I truly believe he felt that direct access to him was an important reason for his company’s success. You could see in his many email updates to his team that he cared very much for them and that his team’s love of him was reciprocated.

The many doctors that worked for him told me that it was Francis’s true concern for their client’s vision that inspired them in their lives; second rate or good enough didn’t cut it. Francis built his company around good doctors, he also expected them to not just examine their patient’s eyes and give a prescription, but to do their best to guide them to use what was the best lens for their prescription and their lifestyle.  Francis truly believed that it was his doctors’ responsibility and duty as practitioners to do their utmost to ensure his patients received the best eye care in the country. The Ontario Association of Optometrists fought Francis for years, as they felt this was a conflict of interest for the optometrists. Francis led the way in changing how eye care in Ontario is now delivered. For those of you that don’t know IRIS The Visual Group, they provide a full range of eye care; their mission is to provide Canadians with better vision. It is a testament to his company that in the days of the growth of online discounters in the eye care industry, that IRIS posted their best year ever.

In my company’s role as provider for their corporate travel and his beloved annual educational sessions in the south, I had the privilege of dealing with some of his top suppliers and I can tell you that while their negotiations were tough, they all knew at the end of the day that their relationship with IRIS would be profitable because they believed in IRIS in general and Francis in particular.

Francis has left behind a legacy in Canadian eye care, three great adult children, a beautiful wife and a team of professional executives that I am sure will continue his passion for better eye care for Canadians. I learned from Francis that part of legacy is tradition; tradition is something that should all guide us in what we do. Most tradition is centred on family and friends, and we should not take them for granted.

On one of our mornings, Francis called me back into the RV to have one of his crepes, I had already eaten, but he insisted that I sit at the table while he cooked me a crepe. It was delicious and I didn’t see until later that morning what his secret was.

Today I started a family tradition that I plan on initiating this Christmas—I made crepes for my granddaughters this morning and they thought they were delicious. Francis’s Crepes will become a tradition in my family and I will be reminded of Francis’ legacies, and the ones I want to create, each Christmas with some flour, eggs, sugar, and a hot, flat frying pan.

I am a better man, father, grandfather and citizen for knowing Francis. I am deeply saddened by his death, but so appreciative for the amazing time and great memories that we shared together over the many years, and especially in the last 10 days.