October 11, 2009

Morris: Ex-Gamecock fits in at White House

Fran Person strikes an imposing figure no matter the setting. He stands 6-foot-6, so it is difficult for him to hide. Person peers over the gathering in the hallway as he and his three guests wait to be seated for lunch in the West Wing of the White House on a recent Friday.


Fran Person strikes an imposing figure no matter the setting. He stands 6-foot-6, so it is difficult for him to hide. Person peers over the gathering in the hallway as he and his three guests wait to be seated for lunch in the West Wing of the White House on a recent Friday.

Person begins pointing out the dignitaries. There is David Alexrod over there. He is the senior adviser to President Obama. That is Chrstine Romer. She is the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors to Obama.

One by one as staff personnel file in and out of the White House Mess, located below the Oval Office and adjacent to the Situation Room, they stop to greet the man known to all as "Frannie," Vice President Joe Biden's personal aide.

Person appears as comfortable at the White House as he once was working over an opposing lineman as a football player at South Carolina under coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier.

There is something about Person that wins people over, a personality that warms strangers as well as allies. You cannot find someone who has anything but kind words to say about him.

"I'm in this job because of people like him," says USC athletics director Eric Hyman. "He's just a terrific young man, real unassuming, just a very positive, upbeat person and a joy to be around.

"There are some people who get in the position he is in that might change their personality. But he's the person I remember as a student-athlete."

Don Fowler is in his 46th year of teaching political science at USC. He once was national chairman of the Democratic National Party and CEO of the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He boasts of a long line of former students operating in politics across the country.

"Fran is one of the best," Fowler says. "Fran was just a natural. He's tall and he's good-looking and he's smart and he's energetic and he's creative. He was just a natural."

Four years removed from graduating with a degree in political science, Person is a novice in the political world. He turns 27 on Tuesday, yet he has aged quickly in his four-year association with Biden, first as a clerk and now in his current position.

"From his time as a legislative aide in my Senate office, to crisscrossing the country campaigning with me, and now serving as my personal aide at the White House, I've seen Fran grow and mature well beyond his years," Biden said via e-mail. "The way he conducts himself day in and day out, you can just tell why he excelled in sports - he's got a tireless work ethic; he has an innate ability to motivate others around him; and he is the ultimate team player.

"All his colleagues respect him, and everyone in my family - my wife, Jill, my children, my grandchildren - love him like he is one of our own. I often joke that they love him more than me!"


Don Fowler knew he had someone special in his class the first time Fran Person walked through the door and awkwardly positioned his 285-pound frame into the tiny desk seat.

"You know, when somebody like that comes into your room, you know he's a football player," says Fowler, who can recall only a handful of football and men's basketball players who have taken his classes.

Person was was enthralled by Fowler and his teachings. The more Person learned, the more it confirmed for him that his future rests in politics, or at the very least in some sort of service to his community.

"Service" was a big word around the Person household, a constant topic of conversation around the dinner table at their home in Haverton, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Person's parents, Bill and Suzanne, said it was emphasized to their seven children the value of serving and taking care of others.

During their childrens' grade school years, the family occasionally visited a nearby homeless shelter to serve meals. With seven athletes in the family, it was a natural to play basketball with the mentally disabled children at a close-by school.

The Person household served as the focal point of all neighborhood athletic activities. While all the Persons excelled athletically, Fran seemed to be the best at connecting his religious beliefs to the kind of life he wanted to lead.

When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes lacked a speaker at Episcopal Academy, Fran volunteered his services. Numerous times over his final two years of high school there, Person wrote his speeches and boldly conveyed the message to his peers about service to the community, proper values and respect for others.

Person's four older brothers, Andy, Chris, Dan and Joe, all played football at the Naval Academy. So, when Fran received an appointment to Navy, it was assumed he would fall in line.

Fran had other plans, thanks in large part to his father. On two trips to South Bend, Ind., to watch his sons play for Navy against Notre Dame, Fran's father arrived on Friday before the game to attend Lou Holtz's "Lunch with Lou."

So impressed was Bill Person with Holtz's motivational talks, he had to remind himself he was there to support his sons against Notre Dame. He purchased a copy of Holtz's 1998 book "Winning Every Day: The Game Plan for Success." Upon returning home, Dad read passages from the book in the family living room, unaware of the impression it was making on one of his sons.

Based on those readings, Fran decided he wanted to play football for Holtz. So he wrote a letter to Holtz, who by then was coaching at USC. Holtz turned the letter over to his assistant coaches, who determined that Person was worth a look.

His father tagged along on his son's official visit to USC. Holtz was honest with Person, telling the prospect he was not adequately prepared for the SEC but through hard work and dedication he could some day be a valuable member of the team.

The Persons spoke with Holtz while seated on a couple of couches in the coach's office inside Williams-Brice Stadium. At one point, Holtz asked Fran to sit in a chair in front of the desk where Holtz worked.

"You need to give me your commitment that you're going to give me leadership on and off the field over the next four years," Bill Person recalls Holtz saying. "I want you to sit in that chair because I don't want to ever see you sitting in that chair again. If you sit in that chair again while you're here, I will have to call your father and tell him you reneged on your commitment."

The Persons had barely left the office when Fran told his father he was headed to South Carolina to play football and study political science. Recruited as a 220-pound tight end, Person proved versatile as a lineman on offense and defense after gaining nearly 80 pounds, most of which he has since shed. Four years later, he held the distinction of playing every position on both lines. He started two games at left guard as a senior in 2005 under Steve Spurrier.

"He wasn't a future NFL player and he knew it," Spurrier says. "But he was a wonderful team guy with a wonderful attitude. He was a good person, a smart young man and a good guy to have on the team."

Person's assessment of his career is that he got the most of his talents. More importantly, he says, he maximized his opportunities off the field. He was introduced to Richland Northeast High graduate Krystal Badendick, then a student at Wofford, during a Lou Holtz Ladies Clinic, and the two were married in 2007.

Person also was the first to volunteer for off-field activities, from reading at Columbia elementary schools to feeding the homeless. Without a car, Person walked the locker room every weekend in search of a ride to church. As a result, he sometimes attended a different church each week.

Person excelled in the classroom, and as a senior he was nominated for a Draddy Award, considered the academic Heisman Trophy. He also cashed in on his friendship with Fowler, his political science professor.

Nearing graduation, Person approached Fowler and asked if he had any connections in Washington. Fowler tapped into his friendship from the 1970s with Biden, and Person was hired in March 2006 as a clerk. In addition to answering the Delaware senator's telephone at the office, Person was required to pick up Biden each morning at Union Station and drive him to the Capitol.

A friendship was quickly established, and when Biden ran for president he brought Person along on the campaign trail. By early 2008, Biden's presidential aspirations were dead, and Person hooked on for most of that year's baseball season in the front office of the Boston Red Sox.

Then Biden was named Obama's vice-presidential candidate, and Person was back on Biden's team. A few months later, Person was standing backstage in Chicago as Obama won the presidency. Later, he joined Biden for the train ride from Delaware to Washington for the inauguration.

"Seeing the people that were lined on either side of the tracks, African-American, white," Person says. "They lined the tracks all the way to D.C. Everything was so surreal when we won."

Nearly a year later, Person has settled into his tiny office down the hall from the Oval Office. He meets Biden every morning at the Naval Observatory across the Potomac River in Virginia and rides in the motorcade to the White House. Person goes over the daily schedule with the Vice President and makes certain throughout the day that every detail is in place.

Along the way, Person has traveled with Biden to Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Chile and Serbia. There could not possibly be a better experience for someone who wants to establish his family in South Carolina and some day run for public office.

Person says he could not be learning from a better public servant than Biden. When Person speaks of Biden it is with great reverence, and his words also are quite telling about himself.

"Along with my brothers and my father, he is the most honorable person I've ever met," Person said over a recent dinner in Columbia.

A few minutes later, at a photo shoot on the USC campus, Person said he wanted to ammend something he said earlier about Biden.

"Can you reword that one quote to make sure I include my sister and my mother," Person said.

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