CSPRA Honorary California State Park Ranger - 1990
Phil Frank, whose cartoons graced the pages of The Chronicle and other newspapers for more than 30 years, died Wednesday night only a few days after he announced his retirement because of illness.
Frank, a longtime resident of Sausalito, was 64 and had suffered from a brain tumor for months.
His alter ego was a newspaper reporter and sometime park ranger named Farley, the central character in his Farley comic strip, which he once described as "really a horizontal column, documenting the life and times of the characters in the Bay Area." It was the only local comic strip in the country.
Frank also combined with writer Joe Troise to produce Elderberries, a syndicated daily strip about life in a retirement home.
When Frank announced his retirement Sunday, cards, letters and e-mails poured in, wishing him well, complimenting him on his work and offering prayers for his recovery. A typical comment came from Frances Elliot, an old friend and admirer of his work. "I do want Phil to know I am grateful for bringing joy to all of us. ... We need kind, sensitive people like him in our lives," she wrote in an e-mail.
Frank was gravely ill when his retirement was announced.
The end came about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. "He was surrounded by his family," said his wife, Susan. Though it was clear that he could not last the night, his family kept trying to lift his spirits. "We were joking with him," said his wife.
Though his death was not unexpected, his passing sent a wave of shock and sadness among his friends, colleagues and admirers.
"Phil Frank was one of those rare artists whose work really defined and articulated the spirit of San Francisco," said Phil Bronstein, editor of The Chronicle. "Like his main character, Farley, Phil was a consummate and devoted journalist and proved that great reporting on this unique place can take many forms. We'll sorely miss Phil, the characters he made us feel so connected to and the way in which he saw the world."
"Phil Frank was an amazing cartoonist who managed to endear himself even to the targets of his wit," said Mayor Gavin Newsom. "His humorous and thoughtful insights on San Francisco's civic life will be sorely missed."
Frank developed a total of six comic strips and published several books over his long career, but he is best known for Farley, which appeared daily in The Chronicle for 32 years.
It began as a syndicated cartoon called Travels With Farley - a play on John Steinbeck's best-seller "Travels With Charley"- and introduced a lanky, bushy-haired character with a flowing mustache. Farley closely resembled his creator.
In 1985, Travels With Farley became simply Farley. Frank gave Farley a home in San Francisco, a job as a reporter on a newspaper called The Daily Requirement, a girlfriend named Irene and a cast of characters that included politicians, bears, a raven named Bruce, feral cats and assorted humans like Velma Melmac, a female camper who spent her time trying to make nature just like her suburban home. There were also the animals and visitors to Asphalt State Park, where Stern Grove, a martinet in a Smokey Bear hat, ruled with an iron fist.
His collection of bears ran a restaurant called the Fog City Dumpster in San Francisco and were rabid San Francisco Giant fans.
Frank's favorite subjects, however, were politicians, particularly the mayors of San Francisco, from Dianne Feinstein to Newsom.
Mayors were seen gauging public reaction to current events by consulting talking mirrors, hiring and firing city officials as if they were royal retainers, and otherwise being made to appear foolish.
Frank usually drew former Mayor Willie Brown as a tyrant in regal robes and a crown. Brown liked both Farley's creator and his work. "Farley will be missed," Brown said Thursday, "He will be really missed.
"He was to cartoons what Herb Caen was to words," Brown added. "I consider Phil Frank a great friend - and, believe it or not - a great promoter of Willie Brown."
The nature of Frank's work - tossing off drawings seemingly effortlessly - concealed a fine mind with broad interests. He could have been a political figure himself.
"He had a charismatic personality that made everybody like him," said D.J. Puffert, president of the Sausalito Historical Society. "Most of all, he had an internal honesty. He really cared about people and what they were doing."
Frank dabbled in Sausalito's local politics, led campaigns to preserve the town's colorful past and every year rode in the Fourth of July parade, a low-key event that the touristy town never advertised to anyone but locals.
Puffert thinks Phil Frank was the town's leading citizen. "Mr. Sausalito, definitely."
Frank was the president of the Sausalito Historical Society for many years, and in July a historical research center in the Sausalito City Hall was named for him.
"He viewed history as part of the human experience," said Kenneth Roberts, a businessman who knew Frank for more than 40 years. "
Frank was also interested in the history of western Marin County, particularly Bolinas, where he was history curator for the Bolinas Museum.
Phil Frank was born in Pittsburgh in 1943, an only child in a family of steelworkers and artisans. At one time, he wanted to be a Jesuit priest and even spent some time in a seminary.
He changed his mind and went to Michigan State University, hoping to become a commercial artist. He saw an ad in the Michigan State News, the student paper, offering to pay $5 a drawing to someone who would produce a daily political cartoon.
Frank signed up. It was the early 1960s, a tumultuous time. The war in Vietnam was raging, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and students from colleges were heavily involved.
"Phil hasn't changed," said Roberts. "At Michigan State, he was just a younger version of the man we all knew."
He drew cartoons five days a week for four years, and his cartoons were such a hit they were syndicated to other college papers.
After Michigan State, he got a job as a writer and cartoonist for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. He left the Midwest and came to California in the 1970s.
By 1975 he was producing Travels With Farley, which introduced his Farley persona. Travels With Farley was converted after a 10-year run to the local Farley strip in 1985.
Besides Farley and Elderberries, Frank drew at various times a strip called Miles to Go, about a dog named Bob, another called Fritz Crackers in the Marin Scope newspaper and cartoons in two magazines. He also published four book-size collections of his works.
Frank was generous with his talent. He donated his cartoons to charitable groups all over the Bay Area and drew for organizations as diverse as the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County and the Yosemite Association, where his drawings promoted conservation causes and protection of Yosemite's wildlife.
Underneath it all, he was an old-fashioned romantic. He lived on a houseboat on the Sausalito waterfront for 13 years. When he wanted a suitable place to propose marriage, he picked the San Francisco-Sausalito ferry.
His wife, Susan, remembered it was a rainy day, and Phil got down on bended knee on the wet deck and proposed.
He and Susan raised two children. It was an artistic family: Susan Frank wrote a series of four guidebooks to national parks; their son, Phil, is a designer who lives in Portland, Ore.; and their daughter, Stacy Frank, is a printmaker in Santa Cruz.
In his last months, he was unable to draw, so The Chronicle ran Farley Classics and old Elderberries strips.
Once he was asked about his personal idea of luxury. "Being on the crest of the Bolinas Ridge," he said, "and falling asleep on the hillside."
Frank did not get his wish, but it was close. He died at an old friend's house in Bolinas his family had rented for his final days. It was within the sight of Bolinas Lagoon and his beloved Marin hills and just up the road from the cemetery where the pioneers of the town were buried.
"He is at peace," said Susan Frank.