Op-Ed: Take Time to Remember Frankie Today

It took a Novato family's tragedy and lobbying from dedicated servants and journalists to make Highway 37 safer for all.

On Jan. 11, 1993, at 4:30 a.m., our 18-year-old son woke us to say goodbye. He was on his way to Lake Tahoe to ski while on a break from college. 

He said, “Love you guys ... outta here.” 

Jim and I said, “Love you, too,” and went back to sleep. 

A few hours later we learned that he had died in a crossover collision on Highway 37.

In those first few days, shock numbs. The house is full of people who are there to support and console. You are busy as there are many decisions to make in preparation for the final farewell … numb and busy.

Eventually, you begin to thaw, and the depth of the suffering only increases as grief has its way with you.

After Frankie died, a friend of mine, Jerry Beemiller, called me every day for 30 days. Jerry had lost his 4-year-old daughter in a freak accident 15 years earlier. He and I were members of a club no one wants to be in.

He said, “Kelly, the first year after my daughter's death, I thought about her 24/7.  I built a deck with my own hands — that we did not need — to give me an outlet for the anger and sadness.  I know you won’t believe me, but time does help.”

I would not say time helps. I would say, what you do with the time, and whom you surround yourself with, helps.

Frankie’s father, Jim Poulos, led us out of the darkness and fought successfully to convince the California Department of Transportation to install a concrete barrier on Highway 37 — the one you see between the eastbound and westbound lanes today. Jim worked in partnership with Jeff Prugh, then Marin Independent Journal's editorial page editor and his then-assistant Brad Breithaupt, then-State Sen. Mike Thompson and then-Assemblymember Kerry Mazzoni.

As a result of their leadership and persistence, Caltrans agreed to install median barriers. 

On June 16, 1995, Caltrans announced that Highway 37 would get a concrete barrier. From 1991 to 1995, 28 fatal accidents occurred on that deadly stretch.

Since the barrier has been installed, crossover fatal collisions have ceased. This effort is a testament to what can happen when competent, caring and committed people work together.

Frankie’s alma mater, Sinaloa Middle School, once again this year ran a teddy bear drive. Hundreds of bears were donated in Frankie’s’ honor for the Novato Human Needs Center’s kids' shopping day. We send special thanks to teacher and our friend, Janet Lucas. This brings our total to just short of 10,000 teddy bears!

When we started the Frankie Poulos Foundation in 1994, Jim was adamant that all the money remains in Novato. As of this writing, more than $165,000 has been raised for nonprofit youth organizations Novato.

We chose Novato organizations that Frankie had a personal connection to and an ongoing commitment to the youth of Novato. We lived in Novato for 30-plus years. Jimmy, our older son, and Frankie went to Sinaloa and graduated from San Marin High School. This was our opportunity to give back in Frankie’s’ honor. Our donations come in from 11 states and seven countries to support Novato youth. The donations are used for the following programs:

San Marin Music Department: We believe music is not an elective but a critical component to the development of young people. Frankie's godmother, Emily Gates, over the last 30-plus years has grown a world-class music program. Our family spent many wonderful evenings in Emily’s home surrounded with music. Frankie loved going to San Marin musical events. Allison McIvor now continues that legacy of excellence. Our older son, Jimmy, participated in San Marin Music and was inspired by Mrs. Gates to make it his work. He is a New York-based actor who made his Broadway debut in the musical Rent.

Marin Summer Theater: This evening theater program for students of performing arts between the ages of 13 and 23 includes actors, singers, dancers, musicians, directors, designers, technicians and crew. It is an amazing opportunity for young people to work with theater professionals in high-quality productions. The founders, Pat Nims and Emily Gates, have an uncommon commitment to youth in arts. This is an insanely great program.

Novato Youth Center: Frankie and Jimmy spent many wonderful days at the Novato Youth Center. What a blessing to this working mom. Their mission is to inspire and prepare youth to succeed. They accomplish this by supporting their development in academics and learning; health and well-being; personal enrichment through arts and athletics; and social interaction and community engagement. This is also the permanent home of "Frankie's Tree."

Gary Gates Girls Softball Field: Gary Gates was an iconic girls' softball coach in Novato. He was also Frankie's attentive and loving godfather. Gary often lamented that the boys baseball diamond looked great but the girl’s field was a pasture. He dreamed of a field worthy of their dedication and passion. Upon his death in 1990 his wife, Emily, family and friends formed a foundation in his honor. The goal was to have a tournament ready, lighted girls softball field. The field looks beautiful and the lights are on!

On behalf of Austin Wondolowski, the foundation’s vice president, Jim Poulos (treasurer), Jimmy Poulos (brother), Melissa Anderson (sister-in-law), the Emily Gates (godmother) family, and myself, please accept our heartfelt thanks and gratitude.

I end this year as I do every year by asking that you take a moment today and "Remember Frankie." This year, please also take a moment to remember the Newtown victims and the Torchon family of Novato, who lost their beloved AJ — Alec Jacob Torchon — on Dec. 1.

Kelly Poulos of Tiburon is president of the Frankie Poulos Foundation

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Austin Wondolowski January 11, 2013 at 07:44 PM
Amazing as always, Kel. xo AW
Pam January 11, 2013 at 08:22 PM
My son(31), daughter(28) (both of whom went to Sinaloa and San Marin) and husband all drive 37 to work every day. I am always conscious of the security that divider provides them and I now know who I have to thank for that. I get the peace of mind knowing they drive a safer stretch of highway due to your persistence to make a positive from such a negative. I am deeply sorry for your loss and so thankful to you.
Jeannette Marie Helley Torchon January 11, 2013 at 10:01 PM
A dear friend of mine forwarded this article to me. I am AJ Torchon's mom, Jeannette. We lost AJ on December 1st. Just a little over a month ago. It gives us hope that we can make a difference, like you did, with our foundation. You have saved countless lives through your dedication and hard work. Your commitment to create real change in your son's memory. The circumstances of our son's death are different, the pain is not. I only hope we can use the funds from the Alec Torchon Memorial Foundation to save half as many lives as you have saved through your amazing efforts. Although I never got to meet Frankie, because of you, I too will remember him. Thank you!
Kelly Poulos January 11, 2013 at 11:49 PM
Jeannette I am delighted to connect. Your husband called me today as well. You are right "the pain is the same". I won't patronize you by saying it heals. It does not. But, I promise you that acting in your son's honor does console. You are still in the early days now. Maybe not even thawed. I will tell you what a psychologist told us three days after Frankie's' death. He said, "The worst thing that can happen has happened to you. There is no greater trauma. Do not listen to anyone, even me, about how to deal with this. You will be useless professionally until you're not." Jim said, "umm I need to work." He said "Oh forget that get a paper route or something that does not require thinking." As we walked out my dry husband said " Ok l do believe we just paid a guy $200 bucks to tell us we are useless and to get a paper route. Wow he's a genius." LOL! So, don't listen to me either! BUT, as a member of the club no one wants to be in I can assure you that the love you have for your beloved AJ will lead you. You and your husband inspire Jim & I....today we will stop as we do every day and remember Frankie and we will also stop and remember AJ Torchon, gone too soon. Hope to connect in person with you this year.
Beth Huizenga January 12, 2013 at 02:50 AM
Feeling the beauty of Frankie and his memory as a blessing. Love and hugs to Kelly & Jim - and AJ's parents, too, and all the families who go "through the worst thing that can happen."


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