Saturday, August 15, 2009

The death of a friend

It seems so long ago that when I recount my first memories of Frank it comes out of a fog or a mist. But it is true...I have a lifetime of letters and memories to remind me.

When I went to Campbell Soup Company in September 1967, I was relatively young, impressionable and inexperienced. I had spent almost five years in the Navy and three and a half at Penn State, but beyond how to run the engineering plant on a conventional powered aircraft carrier, I knew nothing for sure.

When I met Frank, he was the safety engineer at the Camden Plant. Part of the Human Resources Department (we called it Personnel then) he had achieved quite a bit in his career. He had a college degree (Howard University) and he too was a former military (Army) officer and he had spent several years at the "soup works," so you might think Frank had it made. But his career had been a struggle. Frank was African-American.

We sized each other up quickly (I was 26 and he about 38) and what we found was a camaraderie that is difficult to characterize. I was working out of the Corporate Office and he the big soup plant, but somehow we kept in touch. I was a trainee in the safety function and it was easy for me to go see Frank to get a first hand look at how the plants operated as regards to safety. I was also working on training projects that took me around the country to visit other locations and would always find time to check in with Frank to compare notes. I did not work for Frank, I worked for another great leader, but Frank was my contact to reality. He knew what would work in the field.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself working side by side with Frank when he was brought over to the corporate side to manage the safety function company-wide. I was promoted to be his counterpart in the training function. We shared office resources and interfaced every day for about two years.

If you were alive back in the late 1960s you know what turmoil our country was in: Vietnam, civil rights marches, race riots, assassinations. This was an ugly time in American history. Yes, there was the moon landing and Woodstock as we have been reminded this summer, but Woodstock was so counter culture that it too was frightening to middle America.

Frank became my coach and social mentor. He explained the Black experience to me in a way that I had never heard. We discussed Black Power (Stokley Carmichael and Rap Brown) and the Panthers. But above all I got a look at a seething ghetto when Camden erupted in riots when MLK was shot...this was just after Tet and the Miaguez incident and before Bobby was shot. 1968 was a nightmare and Frank was there to keep me grounded and keep it all in context.

Frank stayed with the soup works and I migrated to Michigan and then out of the company, but we were never far apart by mail. We continued our dialog through the years which shifted to email and even more correspondence. As recently as April I wrote to Frank to ask his opinion about election and the Obama impact on him and got a beautiful letter telling me that we were not in a post racial period that race was still keeping down people he knew and loved.

Two weeks ago I got an email from his account written by his son, Frank III. that his father had passed a few days before and that his mother, Pauline, wanted me to know since I had been "a valued friend." So it was not all one sided. Frank must have held me in some regard if not as high as I held him, but I felt honored to be part of his memories. I had a couple of emails from the family including one of his daughters. Last night I wrote a letter to Pauline trying to better express what Frank's life meant to me.

I will miss my Philly friend. He was my contact to Howard University and some of his classmates including Andy Young. He was may contact to CSC since he retired from there in the Public Relations department and had continued to be up until the end the highest level manager who was not white. He had made quite a career for himself. And he stayed true to Philadelphia. He schooled me well.

Rest in peace Frank. You served with distinction.

No comments: