In Memoriam Frank Schier (FREE)

This is a slightly revised version of my brief tribute delivered on Sunday, April 2, 2017 at a memorial gathering in Rockford the Mendelsohn Club.  Frank Schier was for many years the editor and publisher of the local weekly The Rock River Times.  

My name is Tom Fleming, and I was for many years Frank Schier’s friend, sparring partner, and occasionally punching bag.  We once hosted a television show that must hold the record for the smallest audience, and for a brief period, I wrote restaurant reviews for his newspaper.  Perhaps that fact will be recorded on my own tombstone.

This is supposed to be a gathering of Frank’s friends, but to be sure, I want to see a show of hands:  Are there any knuckleheads in the audience?  How many times have you been called Bucky?  Or had your arm punched or back slapped so hard you could feel it two days later?  When Frank Schier walked into a room, with his hardy-har-har laugh, and breezy familiarity, I always wondered if he had been a pirate in a previous existence.

When Frank made a friend, he always had to rename him.  It was like a cat marking the property. I had only met him once or twice, when he fell into calling me Tommy, a name I had not heard outside my family since I was twelve years old.  If anyone else had taken this liberty, I would have resented it.  With Frank, I just responded by calling him Frankie or Francis for the rest of his much-too-brief life.  He particularly disliked being called Francis, because as a “recovering Catholic” (as he often described himself), Frank did not like to be reminded that he had been named after a saint.

Frank was a larger than life-character, with an enormous appetite for living.  I am not referring specifically to his eating habits though in his glory days, his eating was—the only word I can think of—prodigious.  Eating with Frank was always an adventure.  Like the true gourmet that he was, he had his own rating system.  While some food critics use stars or forks to indicate their appreciation of a meal’s quality, Frank would rate dinner in Oinks.  “That was five oinks,” he would declare, after eating one of my wife’s wonderful dinners.

Some years ago we were driving back from Springfield, where he had gone to check out contributions to Rockford politicians—nobody has to squirm, I’m not going to reveal anything.  Frank had eaten an enormous lunch that included Springfield’s disgusting signature dish, the horseshoe sandwich (a thick slab of Texas toast, a half pound hamburger patty, a dumpster load of French fries, and a ladleful of their "secret" cheese sauce that could only be melted Cheese Whizz.  By the time we hit the Lasalle Peru area about 3:30, Frank had to stop for a light snack—a double cheeseburger, large order of fries and milk shake to tide him over until supper.

I once went camping out on Lake Koshkonong with Frank and my son Garret, the future chef.  We stopped to buy groceries in Ft Atkinson.  Since early boyhood, I have always been camp cook.  I took over the shopping and, knowing Frank and Garret, I bought perhaps 50% more food than I thought it was humanly possible for three people to eat.  Frank looked at the basket in disgust and ran around the store picking up string cheese, baloney, another dozen eggs, another pound of bacon,  giant bags of potato chips and marshmallows.  The next morning I made an enormous breakfast for the three of us:   8 eggs, 10-12 strips of bacon, toast.  When we had finished,  Frank and Garret proceeded to scramble a dozen eggs and fry a pound of bacon…

I could spend this entire afternoon telling of Frank’s feats of strength at the table—the two cheeseburger and double orders of waffle fries lunches at Swilligans or the pasta plus fish extravaganzas at Canova’s, where they even had a pizza named for him.  As I recall, it had pineapple and pork on it.  Definitely four oinks.  I wanted them to change the name to Schier Madness, but Frank must have put the kibosh on the name change.

The first time I met Frank, it was after some political event, and a group of us decided to go out to eat.  All the suggestions were for one or another chain restaurant out on the East Side Cancer that was spreading toward Chicago—what one of the comics on the Daily Show referred to as “the forbidden zone.”  Frank refused and insisted on going downtown to the Irish Rose or some other local joint.  He was nothing if not loyal to Downtown.

When I said that Frank had an enormous appetitive for living, I was not thinking of food but primarily of the gusto he displayed in everything he took an interest in, from putting out his weekly paper to canoeing the Rock River, to learning to play the guitar, to writing poetry, to promoting interest in local music scene, to taking part in every conspiracy against the powers-that-be in Rockford.  Was he always successful?  Always prudent?  Always even careful to look out for his personal interest?  No, but he never got less than E for effort, even for his poetry.

Speaking of political conspiracies, I first got to know Frank during the patriotic uprising against a foreign ruler that had occupied Rockford-—Magistrate Michael Mahoney came from Freeport, after all—and had assumed dictatorial power over the Rockford School district.  It was during that fight against Rockford Register Star, and the entire local political machine, that a kind of robber band of rebels emerged.  Like one of those movies—The Magnificent Seven or better yet The Dirty Dozen, where the film begins by rounding up the eccentrics, misfits, and has-beens, who who will end up accomplishing a miracle.  In those days it was Chris Bowman, Stephanie Caltagerone and other school board members, and in the fight to prevent developers from arranging the county’s quick-take eminent domain seizure of part of the Ditzler farm and the Superfund Cleanup scam, we were joined by Luther Landon and County Board  members Mary Anne Aiello and Pete McKay.  So many fights, so few victories.  Without the backing of The Rock River Times and Chris Bowman at WNTA, we would have got no where.

Frank threw himself into every fight, often with more enthusiasm than reflection, and his occasional fit of recklessness caused breaches and quarrels with some of his oldest friends.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to serve as intermediary with the often sensitive Chris Bowman or try to patch things up between Frank and his buddy with Mike Leifheit at the Irish Rose.  Chris and Frank and Pete are gone, and all we have left to remind us of those days is the Irish Rose.

But while it was easy to quarrel with Frank, it was difficult to stay angry with him, and to those few who hated him and may still hate him, I can only say that if they want to know the source of their anger, they not point to Frank:  They should look in the mirror.  The hallmark of Frank was his loyalty to friends and their loyalty to him, especially his old mentor and   English professor, Peter Stanlis, whose Conservative politics and Catholic faith were 180 degrees away from Frank’s Bohemian leftism and gullibility for senseis, gurus, and shamans. To Frank, Peter the great Burke scholar and pillar of American conservatism was simply Doc Stanlish, the friend of Robert Frost.  Frank was equally loyal to Peter’s redoubtable wife Eleanor, the heart and soul of one of Rockford’s finest cultural endeavors, the Music Academy, which Frank tirelessly promoted in his newspaper.

Frank Schier was one of the last people on earth who really loved Rockford, both for what it is and for what it could be.  He went out to the West Coast, where he had, as he put it, “a blast”—I can only imagine—but he had to come back to Rockford, and despite a string of disappointments, he stayed here, a living embodiment of local memory.  Frank could tell endless stories of Black Hawk and even make sense out of an Indian mound.  What looked to me like one more eroded heap of mud, he would see as a turtle or a deer or even a crocodile.  When I drive by a golf course and see the greens rising up, I can imagine Frank identifying each one as a creature sacred to the Winnebagos.  His imagination could see things as they were supposed to be.  Since Frank loved modern poetry, I’ll venture a poetic allusion.  He was the poet Wallace Stevens’ “man with the blue guitar,” who replied to complaints that he did not play things the way they are, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.

Frank was forever nudging Rockford in the right direction, toward cleaning up the river, toward preserving the historic downtown, toward a enlivening and enriching local culture.   Sometimes his gentle nudges turned into hectoring and bullying, but everything he did was out of love for the city, the river, and the people.

Rockford will survive the loss of Frank Schier, but it will be different, colder and less interesting.  When I was a boy, I used to wonder what happened to the Greek gods, and I decided that so long as somebody worshipped them, they would still be alive somewhere.  So long as Frank’s friends preserve his memory and carry out his work, he will be with us.  But, without Frank Schier to love the place, will Rockford really be alive?  We shall all miss him, and all I have left to say is, “So long, Knucklehead, it’s been good to have known you.”

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Christopher Check says:

    I remember well when we gave The Good and Faithful Servant Award to Frank before a standing-room-only crowd at the Irish Rose. Owen Phelps delivered a hilarious (who knew?) roast, which (of course) I failed to capture on the tape recorder; Larry Morrissey made something like a campaign speech; and Peter spoke, too. We gave Frank a beat up copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, telling him that he could never truly leave the Vatican Conspiracy. I also vividly remember Frank giving a talk about Stephen Mack and then reading excerpts from his epic poem about the Rock River at one of our Summer Schools (the one on the Midwest, one of our best) at Norte in Rockton. He did all the voices of all the talking animals with the full appetite for life that you describe. I’m sure I have known just a very few people who loved their native town as much as Frank loved Rockford. May eternal light shine upon him.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You would have enjoyed the entire ceremony–kids from the Music Academy scraping away on their violins, two Norskis aping Roy Orbison and then Cajun music (a patent case of cultural appropriation! An affront to coon-asses everywhere!), a wonderful little group playing a gentler sort of Djano Reinhardt, led by a violin-player who studied with music along my children so long ago. The palefaced blue-eyed Indian in beads and moccasins stole the show as they launched the burning canoe into the Rock. Since the boat represented Frank, it would not float downstream as it was directed but upstream and back to the bank–stubborn till the end.

    Mike Leifheit gave a good supper at the Irish Rose, and he reminded me of the story he gave when we honored Frank. Every year, Frank gave him his poetry chapbook for Christmas. Finally, the sixth time, Mike informed him that five chapbooks were perfect for propping up a table, so he did not need a sixth.