CLARK, NJ – When Carl Frank was growing up during the Great Depression, neighbors would knock on the door of his childhood home asking if his mother, Barbara, could spare some coffee. Barbara would respond warmly, letting them in for coffee and conversation.
This kind, giving spirit, instilled in Carl at a young age, would guide him throughout all of his 97 years. Described by his daughter Diane as “a good father, a good man, [and] a good husband,” Carl was known as kind, loving, selfless, and devoted. Throughout his life, he put the needs of others ahead of his own, making an incredible impact on both his family and community.
Born on January 11, 1921, Carl Stephen Frank grew up in Linden and moved in 1951 to Clark, a town his family referred to as “the sticks.” Since then, Clark has changed tremendously, and Carl got to see these changes from a very unique point of view.
Beginning in 1954, Carl photographed The Township of Clark from above, hanging out the side of an airplane piloted by his friend Andy Gresco. Subsequent flights took place in 1966, 1975, 1982, and 2000, according to Clark Councilman Brian Toal. On these flights, Carl combined his two great passions, photography and aviation, while producing a unique historical record in the process.
Carl’s penchant for photography started at a young age. He began taking pictures, at first using a box camera, in the 1930s when he was a teenager. During his early years, Carl also discovered the world of aviation. He joined Linden High School’s Model Airplane Club, where he met his best friend, Silveo Colletti. Both men served in the navy, Colletti as a pilot and Frank as an instructor; the two would remain close friends for decades.
Even though he was serving his country, Carl felt guilty that he couldn’t do more. According to his children, Carl had hoped to be a member of active service, but he was unable to do so because he did not meet all of the physical requirements. He felt sorry that he could not contribute to the war effort in a more active way instead of only being an instructor.
Carl married his wife, Mildred Wagner, in 1948, shortly after his time in the service. The two lived in Linden for three years before moving to Clark, into a house built by Carl himself for just $13,000. The couple lived in that same house for 67 years, celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary just two days before Carl’s death.
Carl’s family estimates that he has taken over 10,000 photos throughout his career in photography, which spanned longer than a half-century. Besides taking aerial photos of Clark, Carl worked as a wedding photographer and took portraits of children. Over the years, he also photographed the Clark Town Council, Clark Rescue Squad, and Arthur L. Johnson High School Football Team. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Carl took pictures of a World War II recruitment office, capturing a line of prospective enlistees that wrapped around the block.
Throughout his life, Carl always put his family first. Carl and Mildred raised four children: sons Kim and Russell, and daughters Diane and Susan. In the following decades, the family expanded to include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Carl tried his hardest to instill good character in his children. “He was good at teaching his kids how to be good, kind, and helpful to people,” his daughter Susan told TAPinto Clark. As part of this teaching, Carl led by example. His children describe him as very personable and say he had a unique ability to make people feel at ease, which allowed him to excel in both his professional and personal lives while making lasting connections with the people he met along the way.
Carl’s helpful spirit continued to guide him after his retirement. In his later years, Carl would often assist Russell with his electrical business, accompanying him on jobs and entertaining the children at the homes Russell was working on. He also frequently babysat his grandchildren and fixed up his children’s houses. To return the favor, his children outfitted his house with railings and other modifications so he could get around easier as he aged.
Carl died on June 1, 2018, but his legacy lives on. Carl’s two daughters, Susan and Diane, currently run their own commercial advertising and product photography business, following in their father’s footsteps. As for his work, some of his aerial photos are housed in the Clark Bar, attached to the Whole Foods in Clark Commons. Others are featured in the entrance hallway of the Clark Municipal Building. And when Carl took pictures of his son Kim’s high school football team, the school displayed them in the gymnasium using custom-made, four-foot frames.
But Carl’s daugther Susan told TAPinto Clark that her father’s work deserves even greater recognition. “When I retire, I’m going to make it my life’s mission to get my father’s images into a museum,” Susan said. “I’m going to call some museums, and I’m going to say, ‘how do I get an exhibition of this man’s photography?’ Because I think it’s that good.”
As his children remember fondly, Carl’s wisdom and character were steadfast, even after his health declined. Carl had a unique collection of catchphrases that he would often share with his children and others. These included “Pay it forward,” a mantra that Carl strived to embody throughout his life; “You’ve got to know how to fall,” something he often said after his own accidents; “Don’t take life too serious,” a reminder to find the humor in life’s curveballs; and “Love your enemies; it will drive them crazy.” And despite facing health problems later in life, whenever his children would ask how he is doing, he would simply smile and say, “Couldn’t be better.”
It seems impossible to capture the essence of Carl Frank’s life and legacy in just one sentence. Perhaps this one, written by Russell Frank as part of a tribute to his father, comes close: “Now he lives in the hearts of those who met him, and he will always be my hero.”
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Editor's Note: This story first published on TAPinto Clark in July of 2018, it was republished later in the year for inclusion in this newly created section of Hometown Heroes.