Frank Nelson
(1937? — 2005)

As remembered by Sheila Michaels

Despite distance & his dislike of chatting on the telephone, Frank was one of my closest friends. One of the pillars of my life.

Frank went on the Freedom Rides from New Orleans to Jackson. After Parchman he returned to New Orleans, & went on the much more dangerous New Orleans CORE chapter rides to test compliance in southern Mississippi, Texas & Alabama. He was almost lynched in Poplarville, Mississippi in 1961. They were not supposed to test that facility, which was basically just a grocery store, but the bus lingered there an unconscienceable time, & Pat Smith [Nelson] & Alice Thompson got down. The original story was that they were surrounded by a group of men so Frank got off the bus & asked, "Pardon me Miss, but are these men annoying you?"

That was so typical, that I quoted the story for years. Later, I was told, that actually, when the sheriff shoved Pat & pushed her down, (Pat was celebrating her 18th birthday by going on the ride), Frank pulled his arm away, saying, "Don't do that!" Apparently, those words had enough authority & quiet threat, that the sheriff took them as a direct challenge. The bus then drove off leaving them, & Betty Daniels [Rosemond] who had gone to a telephone booth, to try to alert people in New Orleans. Betty managed to hide by lying at the bottom of the booth while people searched for her. A Black farmer, who worked at the gas station, spotted her & hid her in the back of a borrowed truck. No one in town would take her, & he risked his life & drove through the night without headlights & got her back to New Orleans. He didn't want her to know his name: he had his own family. He would have released her on the road, but could not think of his daughter hitching to New Orleans on an unlit highway.

People in New Orleans spent the night raising money to free them.

Frank was put in the cell from which Mac Charles Parker had been dragged to his lynching, two years before. Frank, Pat Smith & Alice Thompson were bailed out before their "trial", in the morning by Lolis Eli, who bluffed his way through, claiming to be accredited in Mississippi. The "judge" (storekeeper) & crowd wanted blood, not money. Lolis managed to outrun the lynch mob, which did not stop until they crossed the Louisiana border.

In New Orleans Frank was once arrested in a minister's house, at dinner, & had his head split open by police. He was placed in a cell with prisoners who were given to know they would not be charged for maiming him. He said that when they had discussed it for more than 10 minutes, he knew they were not going through with it, & went to sleep. There were a couple of other, similar arrests (they run together in my mind). But he was cool.

Because they were not allowed to marry in the South, he & Pat Smith came to New York. They were married in my apartment, with a group of witnesses who were on their way to a CORE NAC meeting upstate. It was some wedding!, which was noted in three oral histories I have taken, from people who did not remember that I was there.

Through his life, Frank was the center of a tight group of friends, many of whom had been in the Southern Civil Rights Movement. He helped many people through that petrifying time after their years in The Movement. Everyone is referring to him as the glue which held them together.

Frank was the son of a former Mafioso, who changed his name, & of a Jewish & German gangster's moll, whose first husband --a Russian-Jewish mobster-- was deported & her children removed by the court. Those boys came to no good. Frank & his full brother were both scholarship students & engineers. Frank appeared to be a mild-mannered Germanic scholar. I was told that when Pat first saw Frank get off the bus, in New Orleans, she said to Jean Thompson [Eng, Denton], "That one's going to marry me". To which Jean replied, sensibly, "You crazy!"

Later, when Pat went off to Europe to pursue a career in European cinema, Frank was one of the founders of a farm collective of (mostly) Civil Rights people, in Oregon. The group also rented a house in San Francisco. Being one of the least likely joiners on earth, Frank worked on the farm but found a nearby gold miner's claim to maintain, in exchange for quarters in the miner's cabin.

He later moved to San Francisco & alternated between engineering & construction work. He saved his money so that he could quit working, when needed, & work full time for organizations such as the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. One of his hobbies was military history. He was a pacifist & certainly one of the smartest people I've ever known.

Although he seemed to be in perfect health, it would appear that he died in his sleep of what the coroner initially says was an infarction. Frank was a rock climber & ran every day, he was a vegetarian who would not eat fish. His vegetarianism began when the farm slaughtered a pig they had exchanged with another farm, to avoid killing a sentient being to which they were emotionally tied. He said he thought that this pig had done nothing to them, they didn't even know him! His cholesterol was under control with drugs. There was no indication of any ill health. Frank had taken EKG certification at one time, had worked in hospitals for a while & was the one who always accompanied friends to see that medical procedures were done correctly. He had nursed both his second wife's kvetch-ful best friend, & then the friend's exasperating lover through their final years with AIDS, having moved them to the apartment below his. He absolutely knew the Medical System. He would certainly have been aware of any medical problems of his own, if they were detectable.

He was a gallant & gentlemanly man, & was capable of friendships with women which were as strong as his friendships with men. He did not suffer fools gladly, but never insulted people outright, if he did not respect their intelligence. Or, at least I'd like to think so.

Patricia Yorck (Hattiesburg, '64), his closest friend, had called Thursday night, when they were to have dinner, & Friday morning when they were to go on their weekly COSTCO run. She drove by & saw his car outside, so she let herself into the house. He was in bed, with his clothes folded on a chair & the blankets undisturbed, looking calm. So it appears he died in normal sleep, Wednesday night. His brother will arrive tomorrow. We shall know more, later. There will be a memorial in San Francisco the week after Thanksgiving, December 3rd & 4th. It will be at Frank's apartment. The landlord is too torn up by Frank's death to take the apartment back, until after the memorial.

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