For younger readers, this may not seem like a very big deal — just another anachronistic constitutional monarchy changing names at the top, perhaps only interesting to tabloid readers. For those with longer memories or a greater sense of history, though, the abdication of King Juan Carlos in favor of his son marks the end of an era in European politics. Juan Carlos emerged from the shadow of fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco to become a stalwart hero of constitutional democracy, and led his nation not just to their first free elections in almost 40 years but then stared down another coup attempt shortly afterward:

Born in Rome in 1938, Juan Carlos didn’t set foot in Spain until he was 10. In Franco’s Spain, he carried out military training and became the first Spanish officer to hold the rank of lieutenant in all three branches of the military.

In 1969, he was invested as Crown Prince and the designated successor to Franco.

On November 22, 1975 — two days after Franco’s death — Juan Carlos was crowned King of Spain, restoring the monarchy after a 44-year interregnum.

In 1977, he enacted political reforms that led to Spain’s first democratic election since 1936. …

Many consider the King’s finest hour to be his decisive stand to halt a right-wing military coup in 1981, when he went on television to say that the monarchy would not tolerate attempts to interrupt democracy by force.

Heroes who live long enough eventually see themselves being made into the goat, and Juan Carlos was no exception. He secretly went off on an expensive safari trip while Spain was mired in an economic crisis in 2012, and the vacation only came to light when Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to return for medical treatment. His younger daughter has also been caught up in scandal, facing charges of fraud and money laundering. The oldest son, Felipe, has a sterling reputation among Spaniards, and is widely expected to be a popular monarch.

Overall, though, Spain has much for which to be grateful. When Franco died, most observers thought little of his hand-picked royal successor. In its first season, Saturday Night Live had a running gag for its “Weekend Update” segment where Chevy Chase would breathlessly announce that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still valiantly holding on in his effort to remain dead!” Here’s another version of the gag:

Whatever his other flaws may be, Juan Carlos did a great service to Spain and western Europe by holding free elections and then stopping the return of dictatorship at the height of the Cold War. The constitutional monarchy may be an anachronism now, but during Juan Carlos’ reign, it turned out to be relevant and necessary at least one last time.

CNN discusses the transition in the clip below: