As a word, genius is notoriously hard to define. People commonly think of high-flying luminaries like Einstein, or the epic polymath Da Vinci, proffering the random 180 IQ cut-off as the true measure of acuity. But across the ages, there has been no agreement on what true genius means, and where it lies.
Approaching midnight, on November 19, 2012, Tusker founder Eddie Frank’s father, Mike, passed away peacefully at Eddie’s home, with Eddie and his wife Amy by his side – as they tell it, with a grin on his face. In that passing, the world lost a genius.
Liked by all, resented by none, Mike Frank was born in 1919 on the now-infamous day of 9/11 in Hammond, Indiana. A self-deprecating man of matinee idol looks and exceedingly humble origins – his father, a dirt poor immigrant, was a rag-picker – Mike lived an extraordinarily charmed life that spanned almost the entire 20th century, taking in the rise of the automobile and aviation; at least five big wars, the industrial, atomic, nuclear, electronic and digital ages, and more than one man’s share of recessions and depressions. Enduring and inimitable, his life was a work of art whose height of adventure was matched only by its character.
Accomplished athlete (tennis into his 90s), musician (300 songs on the harmonica), a prolific author (six books, 200 short stories), raconteur and adventurer, Mike Frank owned that rare quality of humility in the absence of guile that many could mistake for innocence. But an innocent he was not. Babies who do not know the evil in our human hearts are innocent. Men who survive poverty, death and abandonment are wise if they are not decimated; they are never innocent.
As a seven year-old, when his mother died, Mike was sent by his father to Bellefaire, a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland, a foreboding brick edifice straight out of Dickens. Neither embittered nor scarred by these harsh origins, Mike instead used them to help forge the generous, people-centric approach to life that became his hallmark. That which did not break him made him sweeter.
Soon after the start of World War II, Mike got drafted as infantry – in his words, “cannon fodder”, which is precisely when the “g” word (genius) started to stick.
Owning extraordinary stenographer skills (fast and accurate typing), and testing well over 180 on the IQ exam (a “fluke”), Mike was resultantly spared the Unknown Soldier’s fate by getting assigned to the Army’s Historical Division, which had been tasked by the Joint Chiefs to keep a top-secret record of the war – its triumphs, follies and stratagems.
Traveling as a mere enlisted man with the “geniuses” who were to write this history – the professors and authors commissioned as officers – Mike enjoyed a rare and charmed life in the war, with his own Jeep, his own driver and larger-than-life misadventures, helping these men of letters tell the story. Because of his unique status in Uncle Sam’s Army – an enlisted man with officer privileges – Mike was even taken by generals to be a secret Army investigator, and thus, was treated with even greater respect. The experience would become a metaphor for his life: the pauper who would be prince.
Later chronicling this war experience in a charming and historically accurate novel, THE CHAIRBORNE INVASION, part two in a three-part autobiography, Mike never bought into the “genius” label, partly because he was so self-effacing, but mostly because he failed over the course of his long life to realize that his genius lay, not only in his uncanny insight into human nature (what he called “common sense”), but ironically, in staying alive. You don’t reach 93 with congenital heart disease that doctors warned would kill you by 40 by merely avoiding smoke and drink; you need to know, instinctively, how to live. And with a smile to match the size of that big heart, he did.
This truth – that he knew how to live – was born out in Mike’s final weeks, as he rejected his physician’s myopic “end of life” directives to a) go to hospital; b) lie compliantly in bed; and c) submit to a lethal battery of opiates to help him on his way. Mike turned the “days” he’d been given to live into weeks because he had the love and the genius for life, extracting every last heartbeat from his journey on this planet. And one day, it just stopped beating. And angels wept.
In ancient Rome, a person’s guiding spirit or tutelary deity was called their “genius”. It was Mike Frank’s lifelong joi d’vivre and call to adventure that, ultimately, “guided” Eddie Frank, “tutoring” him in his own life’s work with Tusker.
Hitchhiking in 1935 from Chicago to L.A. with a suitcase and $5; hopping a freighter to South Africa in 1947 when no one could even find it on the map; taking Eddie exploring, while cultivating curiosity and adventure and seeing all people as equal, were just a few of the great inspirations that led Eddie, at a very young age, to look beyond borders and boundaries seeking adventure, resulting in his groundbreaking, innovative adventure travel company, Tusker Trail. That, and Mike’s enduring taste in beautiful women, as evidenced by Evelyn, his beautiful wife of 62 years, “the most beautiful woman in Johannesburg”, who at 82, sustains Mike’s bountiful legacy.
Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the 20th century’s towering philosophical minds, defined genius succinctly: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one can see.” The target that Mike Frank hit, consistently, was the invisible human heart. And by ”hitting” it, one means grasping it, comprehending it, and to those who knew him, touching it. Charming beggars and barons alike, he lived for people, never able to do enough, and was adored for it.
To know Mike Frank was to love him; and those who loved him miss him dearly, taking comfort knowing that his spirit soars somewhere over the rainbow, one of his favorite songs.