That our mailman didn’t hoard some of the crazy packages we got from Phil Frank always surprised us. Luckily, he was a man with morals, because each envelope was quite a beaut.
The mailman stuffing packages into a cactus or that gruesome cowboy scaring our secretary were just a few of the inventive ways Phil addressed his parcels to us, containing his latest batches of “Frank History” cartoons.
“I loved the way he would have fun by decorating the envelopes in which he mailed his cartoons with some personal comments about me and True West. They were always something to look forward to in the mail,” says Gus Walker, our former Cartoon Editor.
We could envision Phil, laughing out loud at how he was going to pull another one over on us and our mailman. We could see him, a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth, cramped over his desk, inside the artist studio he kept in the pilot house of an 1880’s ferryboat he had restored, which was docked on the Sausalito waterfront in California.
Those envelopes are among the greatest treasures in our archives, and we are proud to share a few of them with you.
When his wife Susan called to tell us that Phil was retiring due to his condition worsening from his brain tumor, we knew immediately we had to pay homage to Phil. As we huddled together over his cartoons, “Here comes one tough dude” got a huge chuckle out of all of us.
None of us had realized then that it was the first cartoon he had pitched to us. We published it in our November/December 2003 issue, the same issue in which Billy Bob Thornton “defended” his Alamo, an upcoming movie he starred in that would end up bombing at the box office. But we clearly saw why that cartoon had once again drawn us in so easily; it truly epitomizes Phil’s gentle, never snarky, humor that he so wittingly conveyed in each of the cartoons we’ve been proud to feature on our Last Stand page.
Although we laughed and laughed as each of us editors politely, but earnestly, cajoled to get our favorite “Frank History” cartoon in the tribute, the meeting did end with a tinge of sadness. Only “Frank History” held the honor of a permanent home on our ever-changing Last Stand. We couldn’t imagine the page without him. As we shifted through our usual duties that week, we eventually all realized Last Stand was too much a floating amalgamation without that anchor. If you turn to the last page of this issue, you’ll see that we have retired the column.
Two weeks before this issue went to press, and a few days after he announced his retirement, we learned that Phil, 64, had died on a Wednesday evening, September 12, at a friend’s house in Bolinas, California. His family and friends surrounded Phil, joking with him during those final moments, Susan says.
Everyone he had touched seemed to come out of the woodwork almost immediately. Our own writers mailed us notes and newspaper clippings of the obituary from The San Francisco Chronicle and their own local newspapers (not even e-mailed, in this day and age, but spent the time and energy to put stamp and ink to an envelope and mail it!).
Posting memories of Phil on personal blogs, memory sites, like one set up by Marie LeToile on Respectance.com, and on the Chronicle’s online Legacy book, people like Bob Berry of Orlando, Florida, remembered Phil and how he had touched them. Recalling Phil’s first comic, “Frankly Speaking,” published in Michigan State University’s State News during the late 1960s-70s, Bob wrote how “His work … was ‘required’ reading every morning; and it is only a mild exaggeration to say there was at least one Phil Frank cartoon posted in every dorm room or student apartment on campus.” That comic, for which Phil earned $5 apiece, ended up getting syndicated in 350 campus newspapers.
After graduating college, Phil worked a few years for Hallmark. Then his comic strip, “Travels with Farley,” launched on June 16, 1975, in 50 newspapers. Wishing to have a daily deadline that would allow him to communicate on the local scene, he later convinced the editors at The San Francisco Chronicle to let him run a newly titled comic, “Farley,” that would focus on the local Bay area scene and politics.
Our favorite of his “Farley” characters is Velma Melmac, a ranger who vacuums her way through Yosemite National Park in her earnest effort to keep the campsites clean (only Phil could create a clever commentary out of the fact that next door to Yosemite is the Hoover Wilderness). When Phil released the collection in a book, he cleverly spoofed Hunter S. Thompson’s book by calling it Fur and Loafing in Yosemite.
Many of Phil’s readers loved Velma too, writing on the Legacy postings, “Mrs. Melmac is crying while vacuuming” and wondering “Who will … keep Yosemite free of pine needles?”
Phil was no stranger to California’s state parks; the park service named him an honorary park ranger in 1989. He worked with the park service to preserve the 19th-century Fort Baker that protected the entrance to San Francisco Bay (the project will unveil in the summer of 2008 as a retreat center). Fort Baker borders the city of Sausalito, where Phil resided with his wife, a city that gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and honored him with a “Phil Frank Day.”
In Sausalito, kids and adults knew him as “Mr. History.” “His enthusiasm for the history of Sausalito was infectious and the kids had a blast being driven around town in his old car, going shopping at the local thrift stores for props for the [performance piece for the Sausalito Historical Society] and learning firsthand about that history at the same time. He was one of a kind and will be missed,” wrote Donnee Komisar of Cotati, California, on the Legacy site. (Phil had a penchant for antique British automobiles.)
As history curator for the Bolinas Museum in the 1990s, Phil was the bridge that brought together the descendants of the earliest settlers and old ranching families at a time when it seemed like much of their heritage was being destroyed. “Anybody can glean history from books or documents, but Phil has skill and patience, and his interest is genuine. That makes people trust him, so they share their firsthand memories and family stories with him,” wrote Ralph Camiccia, the past president of the Board of Directors for the Bolinas Museum, in a nomination letter to recognize Phil for his work in the Marin County communities of Sausalito and Bolinas.
Phil’s love of his own local community, and the historic West overall, was a true and honest love that colored all of his comic commentaries.
As Phil worked daily to capture the spirit of the Bay area, we remain thankful he still had wit enough to create his humorous takes on the Old West for us. We leave you with our favorite “Frank History” cartoons, including the last one he inked for us (ironically, involving a vacuum).
Frankly, we’ll miss you, Phil.