Remembering Fr. Richard Frank and a timeless lesson he taught me

When I was a boy, Weniger's Variety Store occupied one of the most important places in my little world.

Weniger's was the very first place outside Parkway Drive to which I was allowed to ride my bike alone. And, I can't count the number of times I made that trek!

Over the years, I spent the vast majority of my meager allowance there.

From brown bags filled with penny candy, to Matchbox Cars, comic books and Wiffle Balls, Weniger's was a Honesdale kid's “one-stop-shop” for all the essentials.

That being said, my most vivid memories of Weniger's centered on Sunday mornings … when it seemed like the entire town processed through that door either on the way to or coming home from church.

Sunday Tradition

Everyone stopped at Weniger's on Sunday, creating a scene of happy chaos as people jostled one another good-naturedly in pursuit of their favorite newspapers.

They'd call out to each other over the swirling din … a sea of smalltown folks clad in their church clothes: the men in suits and freshly-buffed shoes, women in dresses and hats; boys tugging at their clip-on ties, girls modeling frilly dressed dutifully picked out by their grandmas.

While the children pressed their noses to the glass-fronted candy display case, the adults gossiped and queued up to get their Sunday papers.

There were local publications like The Wayne Independent, The Scranton Times and Scrantonian. But, there were also “big city” papers like The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and New York Post.

Don Sr. would work the register, selling everything from lottery tickets to cigarettes. Meanwhile, Donny would man a cashbox set up in the main aisle, handing over change and papers at a frantic pace.

It was here that my fascination with journalism began. I sampled all of the aforementioned papers and many more, but always circled back to my favorite: The New York Daily News.

My love of the printed word started with sports writers like Dick Young and Phil Pepe and Mike Lupica. Not surprising, I suppose, considering where my life path has led.

But, I digress...

Hard News

Once upon a time, The Daily News was one of the best papers in the country.

It featured a stable of award winning writers and columnists that churned out fascinating hard news, sports and commentary every day.

My personal favorite was Mike McAlary, an old-school newspaperman who won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns dealing with police brutality.

He looked a bit like a bulldog and pursued stories with similar tenacity. His trademark was seeking out the blue collar working man and getting his perspective on breaking news.

McAlaray died far too young, of colon cancer, at the age of 41. And, sadly, I think he'd be mortified to see what his beloved Daily News has become.

Sad, But True

Every year, I take 10 days off in March to visit my family in Florida.

My main goal is to re-charge the batteries after a long winter. I take my dad to Grapefruit League baseball games, soak up the sun and prepare for spring sports back up north.

I also use the time to catch up on my reading, both books and papers.

This year, I made a concerted effort to peruse The Daily News and what a sad state of affairs I encountered.

One example in particular really fired me up, a story written by Ariel Scotti and published on March 15. Its main focus was to rant against people who say “God Bless You” when others sneeze.

Umm, what?

According to Scotti, there is no longer any reason to say “God Bless You” when someone sneezes. Her logic seems to be one of religious political correctness, writing that:

“Someone of another faith may not appreciate your blessings if they perceive you to be of another (potentially opposing) set of beliefs.”

Are you kidding me?

I don't even know where to begin in refuting this ridiculous excuse for a story. Needless to say, I crumpled The Daily News up into a ball and tossed it in the recycling pile.

While I vowed never to read such junk again, I am grateful for a memory that Scotti's crappy story fished up from the sea of my subconscious mind.

A Holy Man

I was raised Catholic, attending church at St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary Magdalen for the first two decades of my life.

Father Richard “Dick” Frank was the pastor, a man who, I can say without fear of contradiction, has become a local legend.

Father Frank was a big, round-faced guy with a hearty laugh and even heartier appetite. He was also a wonderful and compassionate priest who helped countless people in need. He did so quietly, behind the scenes.

You don't have to be any specific religion to recognize a holy man when you see him. And, Father Frank was a holy man.

I remember how the town came to an absolute standstill the day he died. I was working a summer job at Katz's when the church bell began tolling and the pall that engulfed the factory was all-consuming.

At the time, I was a seminarian trying hard to discern whether or not I would follow Father Frank into the priesthood. He treated me like a son, and for that I'm forever grateful.

Blessings

Several months before his death, I went to visit Father Frank in the hospital.

He'd been having heart trouble and was undergoing tests, the results of which would be an order from his doctor: “Lose weight, eat better and exercise!”

Anyway, on that particular day, there were many people in his room, an intimidating scene for a lowly first-year seminarian.

Eventually, I made it to his bedside. We'd just started chatting when a nurse came in to chase us all away. Father needed to rest.

I reached out to shake his hand and he peered at me from behind his big, thick glasses.

“Give me your blessing before you go,” he said.

Needless to say, I was stunned. Why would such a holy man need or want a blessing from the likes of me … an uncertain, confused seminarian.

I remember the room becoming silent as, tentatively, uncertainly, I raised a trembling hand and whispered my blessing.

“Thank you,” Father Frank said, squeezing my other hand with his big paw. “Every blessing is a gift,” he said. “Never turn down a blessing from anyone.”

As long as I live, I'll never forget that moment. Each of us, no matter how high or lowly our station in life, is blessed and has blessings to bestow.

So, with apologies to Ariel Scotti and those obsessed with religious political correctness, I'll continue to say “God Bless You” every time someone sneezes.

I also sincerely hope that folks will offer me their blessing whenever I sneeze. After all, what our world needs now more than ever is positive thoughts, prayers and genuine kindness.