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Marin Independent Journal
Sunday, December 8, 2002
Section C, page 1

Hitching Post owner dies at 81
Memorial service planned for Tuesday
By Jennifer Upshaw

A memorial service will be held Tuesday for equestrian enthusiast William Harold French, a longtime San Geronimo Valley resident whose San Rafael-based western apparel shop outfitted Marin residents for decades.

Mr. French, who died Dec. 1 at 81, started French’s Hitching Post, a San Rafael institution for more than 30 years serving ranchers and horse enthusiasts with English and Western riding apparel.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. French first moved with his family to San Francisco by way of Dallas, Texas, in 1927. Ten years later, at 16, he got permission from his mother to join the army and was sent to Fort Monterey, home of the 11th Calvary. His original intention was to go to the Philippines, but he found out he could get an extra $5 a month by avoiding the infantry and joining the calvary, family members said.

Just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, propelling the nation into World War II, the battalion became mechanized and Mr. French went from riding horses to commanding tanks. The unit became the 11th Tank Battalion of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

Mr. French was sent home after he was injured while on patrol in the Ardennes Valley in France. Family members said he was peering out top of the tank when a German sniper shot him. The bullet hit the lid of the tank and sheared in half, sending part of the bullet careering through his head between his nose and his eye before exiting through his temple. Remarkably, while some muscle was destroyed, his vision remained intact and he recovered completely. He was awarded four purple hearts, three bronze stars and a silver star with clusters – commendations the family only learned about recently, said his son-in-law, Terra Linda resident John O’Neill.

“This we never knew,” he said. “Years ago … I went up to his office in Sebastopol in his house – I was looking for paper clips or something and I opened up a drawer, and there were these boxes like jewelry cases and it was his medals.”

After recuperating at the Presidio’s Letterman Hospital, Mr. French joined the San Francisco Fire Department, where he served for more than 25 years.

“He was a man’s man,” O’Neil said. “One of his favorite quotes was ‘duty, honor, country,’ and he pretty much lived up to that. He always carried that team spirit with him, that intangible thing about wanting to serve.”

In 1961, Mr. French, his wife, Renie, and his two daughters moved to the San Geronimo Valley, where he founded the San Geronimo Valley Stables while still serving the fire department.

An avid fisherman, hunter and war history buff, Mr. French shared his love of horses with others who enjoyed the hobby when he established French’s Hitching Post at 1323 Second St. in San Rafael. The store was started several years earlier as the San Geronimo Valley Saddle Shop after the death of the French’s young daughter, Vickie. With just one bridle worth #1.87, the shop flourished at the family’s boarding and riding facility, and was moved eventually to San Rafael’s Second Street, where it has remained for over 30 years, family members said.

His daughter, Jeanie, said her father’s death marks the end of an era.

“What (sic) you lose parent, if you are an only child, you lose your family history,” Jeanie said. “You lose the opportunity to talk about the generations that proceeded (sic) you. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”

He is survived by his sister, Joy French-Black of Hawaii, his daughter, Jeanie M. O’Neill, son-in-law John Stephen O’Neill, his granddaughter Victoria Alexzandra O’
Neill, all of Terra Linda, and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at Chapel of the Hills at 330 Red H ill Avenue in San Anselmo. Memorial contributions, which should be marked “for research only,” may be sent to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, 1390 Market St., Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94102-5306.

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