Retirement hasn't slowed down AFN Elder of the Year

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Richard Frank keeps six phones in his ranch style Aurora home so he can be easily accessible to friends who need his help.

''Somebody might need us,'' he said, cradling a cell phone. It's why he and his wife, Anna, don't mind the constant phone calls.

After one or two rings he is on each call like a dispatcher, talking calmly and soothingly, answering questions, assessing the situation, dispensing advice.

It's no surprise the Alaska Federation of Natives has named him elder of the year.

Frank, 74, is no longer a working man. But retirement hasn't slowed him down much. He fills his days with community service through veterans' and Native organizations and often volunteers to help others understand Native culture and ways.

''It's been hard for me to get used to retirement life,'' he said.

Nelson Angapak, executive vice president of AFN, said Frank was selected elder of the year because of his contributions to Alaska Natives.

''He's willing to sacrifice his time to help other elders to understand business and land issues,'' Angapak said. ''He's one of those folks who has helped greatly the understanding of Native people by the non-Native community.''

Frank was born in Minto. Raised there and in Rampart, he hunted, fished, dog mushed and trapped with his parents, Justin and Lucy Frank, and his nine siblings. He attended school in Rampart but quit after fifth grade, a decision that has bothered him all his adulthood.

''Where I hurt the most is lack of education,'' he said. He eventually earned a high school equivalency diploma and said he is ''self-taught in English and our Native tongue.''

At 13, he walked from Minto to Nenana to take a job with the railroad. By 14, he was working on the stern-wheeler Nenana as a deckhand. When he was almost 18, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was sent to the South Pacific.

''It was altogether new,'' he said, recalling the devastation that war brought to the islands. ''I saw hunger. Here in America we take everything too much for granted. We don't appreciate everything that is available to us.''

Frank, who served from 1945 to 1949, was an aircraft mechanic in a fighter squadron when he left the military as a sergeant with a chest full of medals. He couldn't wait to show the folks back home how far he'd come.

''I was looking forward to talking to my dad and telling him where I'd been and the people I'd seen,'' Frank said. ''I was going to tell him about the medals I'd earned.'' But Justin Frank died three days before his son got home.

After leaving the military, Frank tried working for Boeing in Seattle but missed Alaska too much. ''The boat life lured me back,'' he said. Frank made a career of boats, working his way up from deckhand to pilot to captain. ''I just liked the lifestyle of the boats.''

In addition to his stern-wheeler jobs, Frank served as chief of Minto from 1960 to 1963 and was president of Minto Village Corp. He was instrumental in getting the village moved after heavy flood damage in the late 1960s.

In 1970, new Minto was settled 30 miles from the original site, and Frank helped high schoolers design the new town. He also was a heavy equipment operator and helped run electric lines to villages over much of Alaska. Other endeavors included operating a general store and a bus service in Minto.

Frank learned to fly in the 1960s but put away his pilot's license after he had heart surgery six years ago.

His last official job was as director of the Tanana Chiefs Conference's Alcohol and Drug Prevention program, which he ran for seven years until 1995.

In his spare time, Frank has been known to hang around a dog yard or two. He said he learned ''all the tricks of the trade'' from Charlie Titus Sr. and Gareth Wright. He frequented sprint races, winning the Tok Championship and taking fourth in the North American in the mid-1960s.

Frank and his wife, Anna, married in 1955. They have two sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren. Anna is archdeacon of the Interior for the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. The family has lived in Fairbanks since 1975.

Even with all his accomplishments, Frank says it is his family that brings him the greatest pride.

''Marrying and bringing up our children was the best thing I did. All my kids are working. They're all involved,'' he said. ''It's a great joy seeing my grandchildren.''

One other source of pride is his participation in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He stressed for years that retaining land was the most important thing for tribes. ''I'm not totally satisfied with it,'' he said. ''But we make do with what we've got. It's working out.''

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