From under a perfectly coifed handlebar mustache, Frank Tigner’s mouth twists and contorts, allowing a syrupy-thick Cajun accent to escape. “Who’s gonna fill this pot with water so I can cook up some gumbo,” he drawls, giving life to Monsieur Gator and peering around the room, all eyes glued on the man from whom the perfectly parsed pitch emanates. “I may have read this book a few times before,” he admits, after reading the last page upside down, a skill he perfected through the years.
It’s hard to believe that “Butch,” a moniker Tigner has worn since birth, doesn’t like to bring attention to himself. “I’m actually a relatively shy person,” he says as he places “Gator Gumbo” atop a mound of books nearby and settles back into the rocking chair. He’s clearly gifted at commanding attention.
“You can teach a crow to talk.”
Tigner spent his childhood splashing in creeks and running rutted dirt roads in Greenville, Georgia, a tiny speck of a town where gentlemen spent their lunch hours playing marbles in the town square and the phone operator knew everyone’s whereabouts.
“We’d ride to town in a goat-pulled wagon,” Tigner begins, the first of many stories to bubble up that afternoon. “The goat’s name was ‘Doat.’ We would pick up Co’Cola bottles on the way and trade them in when we got to Papa Todd’s general store. Then we’d sit on the porch, eatin’ soda crackers and hoop cheese and drinkin’ our cold Co’Colas.”
Many of Tigner’s boyhood stories center around a diminutive woman named Cha Cha (pronounced “Chay Chay”) who drove a huge black, two-door Chevy with 2-by-4s taped to the clutch and the brake. “She lived to be 99,” he says of his 4-foot-7-inch great-aunt who had a menagerie of playmates for Tigner and his brother, including Doat the goat. “She also had a pony named Eggnog and a talking crow — I promise it was a crow!” he laughs, sensing disbelief.
Stories of Cha Cha trickled out in no particular order, like the time she taught a young Tigner to make elderberry wine and the time she showed him how to make fruitcake, the kind that made people ask for seconds. She showed him the best picnicking rock, where they’d spend hours at a time splashing in the cool water, and she always made sure Santa’s footprints were visible come Christmas morn. Having no kids of her own, she made sure her nieces and nephews felt special. He did. And it’s a trait that must’ve rubbed off on him.
“I’m as photogenic as a pregnant walrus.”
He’s got a sense of humor, that’s for sure. That, paired with his engaging demeanor, is a match made in limelight heaven. Tigner made his stage debut in first grade. “I played the rain,” he laughs of the probably-not-meant-to-be-comedic role. “I was in a yellow raincoat with tinsel hanging from it.” A theatrical time line dotted with school plays and collegiate choir shows leads to Mobile where he settled in at Chickasaw Civic Theatre. “I don’t dance well,” he muses. “I’m usually the comic relief in musicals.”
That’s another thing about this man with the jolly laugh — he’s self-aware, at least nowadays.
“I wanted to be a pharmacist when I grew up,” Tigner says, noting he was next in line to become a fourth-generation druggist at the pharmacy his great-grandfather established. “I grew up working in our drug store. We had a soda fount, and I dipped ice cream and made shakes until I was about 15. Then I started helping my dad count pills in the prescription department. But then I got to college and hit physics. Science wasn’t my forte.”
Tigner stepped away from school to regroup, and it was during his time working as a college recruiter that his calling became evident: teaching. When his mother — who was also his first grade teacher — heard the new plan, she told her eldest, “I always knew you were going to be a teacher. Teachers are born, they aren’t created.”
The man full of stories and faces and voices soon found his rhythm as a high school history teacher. What likely caught kids’ attention more than his booming voice — or arched eyebrow — was Tigner’s genuine desire to make a connection with his students. “I would read to them,” he says. “I would even read ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go’ to my 9th and 10th graders. You never get tired of getting read to.”
After 15 years in the classroom and 12 years as an elementary media specialist, Tigner retired and moved further south. But his showmanship and teaching were far from over.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Inside the meeting room of the Monte L. Moorer Branch of the Mobile Public Library, a cabinet is covered with colorful book-themed arts and crafts, and a lone multicooker pot sits on a table. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” Tigner smiles, now donning a chef’s hat embroidered with the name “Francois.”
“It’s French for Frank, you know.”
But around these parts, he is known as “Mr. Butch.” And he’s pretty famous among one particular group, with fans rushing to greet him in places like the grocery store. “They’ll come running up the aisle, ‘Mr. Butch, Mr. Butch!’” Tigner says of the children who recognize him from story time at the library. “I’d get down on one knee and hug them.”
Though no children of his own, much like his great-aunt Cha Cha, Tigner’s heart is far from empty. “I just love being with kids,” he says. And he hasn’t let social distancing restrictions keep him out of sight. Each week, Tigner uploads a video of story time, which opens the same way as always, with a rousing round of “Story Time is Here,” sung to the tune of “The Addams Family” theme song. “I’ve also started doing cooking videos,” he says, nodding to the appliance.
As he approaches his sixth decade, it may be safe to say Tigner is, indeed, at his appointed place. An amalgamation of teacher, entertainer and storyteller, the self-described tender-hearted man could be summed up with one word: “friend.” Especially to the littlest among us. “I just enjoy being with kids, just seeing their faces when I’m reading to them or singing along with them. I can’t think of another way to say it. They give me unconditional love; they love me, and I love them. And I think they know it.”