Remembering Frank Karel (1935-2009)

Frank Karel1

By Larry Meyer, Communications Network Board Chair and President, Meyer Communications LLC

We’re saddened to hear of Frank Karel’s passing Saturday after a long battle with cancer.

For years, Frank has been the singular leader, visionary and ceaseless advocate for communicating the value of philanthropy.

Many Communications Network members, past and present,
owe Frank Karel a debt of gratitude for the way he eased the path for us.

My story is typical.

As a brand-new communications director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation back in 1995, I recall how bewildering … how Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass … this new work of mine was after a career at The Miami Herald and elsewhere in print journalism. 

All this jargon … “corpus” and “grantees” and “anticipated outcomes” and “say what?” For several months I searched for a like-minded practitioner, someone who could school
me on how to understand and explain grant making, but it was lonely down here in Miami at the tip of the Sunshine State.

I attended my first Council on Foundations annual meeting the next spring in Honolulu, and scanned the schedule seeking reasons to justify the long trip. Walking down the hotel hall
to my first meeting of the Communications Network in Philanthropy, I was met by a big grinning bear of a guy named Frank Karel. He immediately established an alumni connection to The Herald with me (he was The Herald’s first science writer). He swept me into the room, found me a beer and introduced me to my new peer group. The stress level dropped and my
pre-Facebook friend list grew, starting with Frank. I was impressed that a vice president  with the gee-whiz Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who’d worked at the National Cancer Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, was so gregarious, self-effacing and fun – unlike the
self-important crowd so prevalent in this field.  Take a hint, people.

In conversation with Frank, you could count on him to challenge a bald assumption with a trademark: “You lie!” (And in the pre-Joe Wilson era, he meant it nicely). He was proud of his work, he loved his spouses and always told you so, and geez, did he love his Gators.

Frank took it on himself to be the center of our labors, and never turned down a request to reconnect, answer a silly question or refer me to good people and good info. More important, he used his platform and reputation to advocate tirelessly for improved and clear communication by foundations for their work and causes. He was a central actor in the creation of the current-day Communications Network, and setting our path. He set a standard for us, and gave our
part of the sector the rationale to ratchet up the investments in staff and resources to do our communications jobs back home better than before.

He was never prouder than when his spouse Betsy endowed a new teaching chair in his honor at the University of Florida, emphasizing public interest in communications. And he was frustrated when the current financial crisis hamstrung the state of Florida in matching the generosity of the $2 million commitment. Our work goes on now without Frank to coax, cheer and lead. But I know he’s got our backs.

Well, that’s my story.  What’s yours?  Please leave a comment.

Photo credit Frank Karel: Randall Hagadorn

1 Comment

  1. Rich NeimandRich Neimand09-21-2009

    The greatest tribute to Frank is that there are thousands of stories like yours and mine. He delivered wise counsel with a warm touch, acknowledging the complexity of moving people to serve the public good while urging foundations to do more and do better. I only briefly worked with him, but he tremendously impacted our approach to communicating the value of what foundations and grantees can and should do together.

  2. I’m afraid we’re all going to be repeating ourselves today…but why not. It shows that Frank was consistent.
    In my case, I’d just started as the first communications director for the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds in 1992 after many years in newspapers and corporate pr. I’d wondered what I’d waded into. One day a friend advising me suggested I have lunch with her and Frank Karel. One of Frank’s first pieces of advice: “Go to the upcoming Network meeting.” I looked at him blankly and said “Network?” The rest is history.
    We miss you Frank.

  3. Bill SilbergBill Silberg09-21-2009

    Although I didn’t know Frank except in passing (and, of course) by reputation, I do know that he invented modern foundation/non-profit communications. And he leaves us not only a long, rich history of creative best practices, but an army of professionals who learned from him and continue to pass on his wisdom to this day.

  4. Denise GravelineDenise Graveline09-21-2009

    Back in the 80s and before I was hired at RWJF, I freelanced for them. My first assignment was a necessary but booooring report documenting the Foundation’s gifts for a tax report. Frank took the time to wander over and note, “This is going to feel like you’re writing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ 400,000 times. But it needs to get done and if you do it, I promise we’ll give you better things to write.” How do you not love that? Many years later, I’d still jump over a wall for him.

  5. David MorseDavid Morse09-21-2009

    As with Bud, my first encounter with Frank was my most memorable. In April 1997, I was in my first day as the newly-minted head of public affairs at Pew when I got a phone call from Frank, whom I’d never met, telling me he’d come down to Philadelphia the next day to buy me a cup of coffee. We sat in the courtyard for several hours and he regaled me with stories about the weird world of strategic communications in philanthropy, about which I knew next to nothing (and certainly didn’t know Frank was the guru, indeed the inventor, of the field). To take a wet-behind-the-ears kid who knew next to nothing and show him the ropes, without being pious or preachy, was so gracious, so like Frank. I told myself then that I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I know Frank wasn’t Jewish, but he sure was a mensch.

  6. MitchMitch09-21-2009

    It was the early ’90s and I was working for the Donors Forum in Chicago. I invited Frank to come and give a talk about communications to the Forum’s members. Frank didn’t know me from Adam [indeed, he had no reason to], but he agreed and gave a persuasive presentation about the value of foundation communications. After I walked Frank to the L train so he could catch his flight at O’Hare, I went back to my desk and called Frank’s secretary to ask her what would be a suitable token of appreciation that we could give to Frank. She told me he collected ceramic pigs. I went to Marshall Fields and bought the coolest ceramic pig I could find and sent it to Frank. A few days later, Frank called and thanked me profusely for the gesture. Frank was an amazing man who has left an incalculable imprint on philanthropy.

  7. Ellen DadismanEllen Dadisman09-21-2009

    Bud, thanks for starting this on-line remembrance. I will most remember Frank’s zeal for life and work in a field where caution and diplomacy are the norm. He was a magic combination of spunk, joy, wisdom and humility. I am one of many many lucky people who benefitted from his example of what to do — but also how to be.

  8. I first met Frank in the late 1970s when I was new to the field of philanthropy and when Frank was starting to construct the foundation for the work so many of us continue to do. He was wise, visionary, kind, funny, and always had time for a call, question or meeting, not just once or twice but many times over many decades. We are all, in some way, beneficiaries of his grace and wisdom.

  9. Minna JungMinna Jung09-21-2009

    My Frank story: The dining room at RWJF is a big part of our organizational culture, but it can be daunting to go there alone as a newbie here. My first day, I was feeling uncertain about what to do about lunch (junior high all over again!) and just as I was about to get a tray and take it back to my office, Frank appeared at my office door and said, “Eating alone can sometimes be as bad as drinking alone. Let’s go to lunch!” I will always remember Frank for this gesture of kindness, and for being a true pioneer in his field.

  10. Chris DeCardyChris DeCardy09-21-2009

    My experience with Frank sounds almost exactly like Bud and David’s. First COF meeting (2002 Chicago for me I believe) and not much sense for how you did strategic communictions inside a foundation. Frank introduces himself with a big smile, big gestures and no pretense. And then just started telling stories. What great stories. It gave me a jolt today to hear of his passing. Such a decent man.

  11. John BrodeurJohn Brodeur09-21-2009

    I first met Frank in 1973 when I was the first Public Affairs guy for the new medical school in Reno, Nevada. I spent a day “shadowing” him at the Nat’l Cancer Institute. Watching Frank in action changed my life and led to a 40 year friendship. He followed and supported every major professional and personal move I made. He never let me off the hook when I was taking the easy road or wimping out on a big decision. Two months ago, on our last lunch, he was literally jabbing me with his cane, poking fun and telling me to get off my butt. I miss and love my friend and mentor, his kindness, generosity and energy.

  12. Joanne EdgarJoanne Edgar09-21-2009

    I am one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of foundation communicators whose career was supported and encouraged by Frank.
    When I first joined the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in 1989 as communications director, Frank was the first person I met who had a “big” vision for our field. I was a novice in the foundation world, but I knew I wanted to do more than write annual reports and press releases. Frank invited me to breakfast at the Rockefeller Foundation and taught me the A, B, C’s of truly strategic communications.
    Frank was among the first in our field to recognize that communication was imperative to successful grant making. And not only that, his own personal skill as a communicator helped him convince program officers and executive staff to fund communications wisely and adequately.
    I will remember his ever-present smile, which even came through on the telephone. At foundation meetings, he would gather colleagues and friends after the last session and sit in the bar for long conversations. He was always available to brainstorm or answer questions about the field. He was always ready to teach those of us who grew to become his peers and colleagues.
    He wrote me once: “If we don’t give our shoulders as footholds for our successors, we truly fail the chain of people who made it possible for us to stand where we are.” Frank gave freely of his very large shoulders and taught us to do the same. For this, I will be forever grateful.
    Joanne Edgar

  13. Larry BlumenthalLarry Blumenthal09-21-2009

    My Frank story. I had been at RWJF just a few months, and was preparing to interview a candidate to be the first new member of our budding Web team. She was fresh out of Frank’s alma mater – the University of Florida – and I asked Frank to interview her as well. The interview was on a Friday, which – at the time – was the one day of the week foundation employees didn’t dress like we worked in a law firm. But when I sat down at the table in his office after the interview to see what he thought of this young woman, Frank was wearing a suit and tie. He explained that he hadn’t wanted the interview candidate – who we knew would be dressed up – to feel uncomfortable or out of place.
    This is the man who transformed the way communications is done in philanthropy. Yet he took the trouble to wear a suit so this newly minted college graduate wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. That was Frank Karel – one of the most fundamentally decent men I have ever met. He will be missed.

  14. Ann ChristianoAnn Christiano09-21-2009

    I had the amazing fortune to work with Frank for several years before he left RWJF. What a privilege to learn the craft from someone so unfailingly generous, who loved the field and the foundation with all his heart. He also loved new technologies, and was an early adopter before that term existed. When I started at RWJF in 1995, he was enamored of the web, and spent a lot of time checking out new sites that he thought ours should emulate. One day he was trying to get on a site, and it wouldn’t load. In frustration, he banged his mouse against the mouse pad. Seconds later the RWJF network crashed. He immediately and frantically called the help desk to apologize, fearful that he was responsible for breaking the network! Later, we laughed and laughed, but the thing that made Frank so special is that he laughed right along with us.
    Frank taught me so much and gave so much to the field, but that big laugh of his was never far away.
    Miss you, Frank.

  15. Rollie WussowRollie Wussow09-21-2009

    In early 1973, I was taking media calls in my palatial office in the then brand-new communications section at Mayo Clinic in Rochester (everyone at Mayo had a ‘palatial’ office back then), when I fielded a call from Frank, who then headed the Office of Cancer Communications at NCI.
    His FTE staff allotments had topped out and he’d creatively found a way to add staff through a complicated ‘loan law’ with major medical centers. He asked if I’d join him if he could get Mayo to agree.
    He succeeded; I joined him roughly three months later, trading in my palatial office for a shared, partitioned one with three other great folks. A week after my arrival, Frank announced his resignation, and I thought ‘Whoops. There goes my champion.’
    But I was wrong. Frank remained a friend all these many years since; fielding my calls and me his. Connecting friends and young people needing counsel and direction were his specialty, as we all know.
    I’m indebted to Frank on many counts. He was a rare individual who will be remembered and loved.
    Rollie Wussow

  16. Dot RidingsDot Ridings09-21-2009

    When I became president and CEO of the Council on Foundations in 1996, one of my first calls was to Frank. And one of my first trips outside Washington was to visit him at RWJ, to learn about communicating in this curious new world (for me) of philanthropy.
    I had just come off a 10-year stint as a newspaper publisher in Florida. That was preceded by years of experience as a reporter and editor at other Knight-Ridder newspapers, so Frank and I spoke the same language. But I was unsure how to translate all that to philanthropy.
    Frank encouraged me to launch a special project focused on the nexus between philanthropy and the political world, particularly the legislative part of that world. This led to further efforts to encourage foundations to tell their stories more compellingly, and to a wider audience, in order to build public support for their efforts. (We were already seeing warning flags about legislators’ incomplete and sometimes inaccurate understanding of the importance of philanthropy to strong and positive social policy.) Frank was a consistently powerful leader and supporter in all those efforts.
    Frank, we’ll never say “30” to all that. (Apologies for using an old-reporter’s reference to “the end.” Frank would understand it.)

  17. Ellen DadismanEllen Dadisman09-21-2009

    My clearest impression of Frank’s essence is not one of my first, but one of my last. When I left the Council on Foundations, my COF colleagues could not correspond with me, and most others did not for various reasons.
    Frank diligently called, emailed, and came by the house to charm me and my dirty hair out for lunch where he shamelessly told me lies about how great I was (Can’t you hear him: “How DARE you accuse me of LYING?” and chuckling the whole time?) which gave me cherished respite from the “woulda coulda shoulda” chant echoing in my head at the time.
    He even bribed one of his protegees (I learned later) to interview me for a position for which I did not nearly qualify.
    Frank could see each person in a lonely place — emotional, financial, social or professional — and fill the space with his rich voice, physical largesse, generous spirit and unrelenting effervesence.

  18. Joe MarxJoe Marx09-21-2009

    A wonderful thread of stories celebrating Frank’s humor, wisdom and canyon-sized generosity. Almost 15 years ago now, Frank called me out of the blue in my office in Washington, D.C. He’d barely introduced himself, then cut to the chase: “I want to come down to Washington buy you dinner and convince you to come work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.” I said I’d be glad to have the dinner. It didn’t take long before I was smitten by this bear of a man with big ideas, a laugh that made me want to laugh along with him and genuiness that at once communicated opportunity and trust. Not long after, I followed him back north to Princeton.
    Frank would often end a meeting or a conversation over strategy with staff with one of his signature phrases: “Be careful out there.” It was less stern warning, more seasoned prescience. And it was also reassurance; we left those conversations knowing he had our backs. You’re right Larry, he still does.

  19. Carol StablerCarol Stabler09-22-2009

    It was 1996. I had just entered the field as The Meadows Foundation’s first-ever communications officer. I knew advertising. I knew branding. I knew PR. Heck, I’d even done a three-year stint as a legislative lobbyist. But I didn’t know didly about organized philanthropy.
    I wandered the halls of the Council on Foundations annual meeting looking for someone to enlighten me about this secretive world. Enter Frank. He became a mentor, a wise counsel and ultimately, a friend in whom I could confide.
    What I learned from him would fill a book. What he did for the field of communications in philanthropy would fill volumes. His passing leaves a hurt in my heart and kind thoughts for his family. We are all better people for having had him in our lives.
    God bless and keep you, Frank. We will carry on the legacy of generosity and intelligence that you so masterfully brought to our field.

  20. andrea covilleandrea coville09-23-2009

    It is wonderful to read and learn the threads that connect all of us who loved Frank. I got to know Frank and Betsy when Frank joined the Brodeur Advisory Board eight years ago. Frank and I had a lot of fun in particular picking on John Brodeur and we had many special visits with both of them in DC and at our summer home in Maine.
    My favorite Frank story happened about a year ago. It was a clear, crisp fall night maybe about 11. I was soundly asleep when my phone rang and the 609 prefix came up. I answered and Frank, booming voice full of excitement said “Andy! Frank Karel. Brodeur isn’t answering his phone but are you looking out the window?” I told him no, that I was doing something else like sleeping. He laughed and said ,” Sorry to wake you up but you’ve just got to look at the sky”. He went on and descibed the lunar show that would not be seen again for a hundred years.
    So there I was, with my four children on the porch, looking up at the sky, with Frank on speaker explaining it all.
    I guess Frank made a little magic happen for everybody.
    Andy

  21. Mary O'ConnellMary O'Connell09-24-2009

    Just found this, and have to add my two cents: Frank once took time, at a Network meeting, to sit down for an hour or more and help me think through a problem I was wrestling with at the time. I can’t remember exactly what the problem was, but I vividly remember his warmth and generosity to someone he barely knew, as well as his good ideas and common sense. Thanks, Frank, for all you shared, all these years.

  22. Mary O'ConnellMary O'Connell09-24-2009

    Just found this, and have to add my two cents: Frank once took time, at a Network meeting, to sit down for an hour or more and help me think through a problem I was wrestling with at the time. I can’t remember exactly what the problem was, but I vividly remember his warmth and generosity to someone he barely knew, as well as his good ideas and common sense. Thanks, Frank, for all you shared, all these years.

  23. Andy BurnessAndy Burness09-28-2009

    The following was my eulogy for Frank:
    I promise to tell the truth today, but you’ll pardon me if I borrow from Frank’s own words in his author’s note that begin his memoirs — “Tales of a Cracker Youth.”
    “The truth is a fine thing, and it’s mostly what you’ll find here. Certainly, though, there’s also just enough yeast of exaggeration to leaven the loaf. And, who could object to the occasional, flavorful sprinkling of the way things could have been or even should have been?
    “Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but all others, including the author, are identified and have to answer for their sins.”
    So, Brian, Sarah, Laura, Diana and Nicole: here’s the truth best as many of us here today would tell it:
    Your grandpa was an accomplished person like no one you’ll meet in your lifetime — he actually FOUNDED a profession — and then taught many of us how to do it.
    He saw that foundation dollars may appear large, but that Robert Wood Johnson, Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur and Pew — and even Gates – aren’t large enough to solve the big problems facing the nation and the world.
    For him, PR wasn’t about selling toothpaste or Windex or Toyotas or gasoline. It was about selling ideas – framing social problems in language people could understand.
    •smoking kills
    •homeless people need not be homeless
    •healthcare is a basic human right
    •agricultural research can solve hunger for millions around the world
    •people who pay taxes in the District of Columbia ought to be represented with a vote in Congress
    So, he created this profession and called it “strategic communications” or “public interest communications.” Today, the nation’s ONLY endowed professorship in Public Interest Communications is the Frank Karel Chair at the University of Florida — his almy mamy, in his words.
    Your grandpa was not just a big man; he was a really big-hearted man. . He was generous to a fault, if that’s possible. He worried about me when he heard about my plans for surgery in Seattle, and offered to fly out there. He meant it. So many of us have stories of how he cared. All have a common ending: he was there for us.
    If you see someone in this room whom you don’t know, you can assume that Frank was probably their mentor, their advisor, their model for how to behave in the professional world – and most important, their friend. If you look around this room, , you’ll see that we’re connected to each other, and that’s a legacy.
    As his and my friend Joe Marx said, he made a difference in the lives of those he met and mentored and the millions more whom he never met but whose lives were made better because of his convictions and actions. Yelena Khanga is one of these people.
    I mention her, as opposed to anyone else, because she represents the many, many kindnesses that Frank never boasted about, but changed lives nonetheless. Only because of Frank did she publish HER life story, her family’s story of growing up Black and Jewish in Russia, from the days of slavery in the cotton fields of Mississippi to the Moscow of Stalin and Brezhnev, from Jewish New York and Harlem in the twenties to modern-day Los Angeles, Long Island and Zanzibar. I always wondered how Frank had occasion to meet such fascinating people – and to imprint their lives as well.
    Your grandpa could tell a joke — and he was wicked funny. He was a comedian to the end. Lying on his back and looking through the bars of his hospital bed railing earlier this month, he greeted a new caretaker this way: I know why I’m incarcerated. What are you in for?
    And, his memoirs about a Huck Finn childhood, are replete with stories, because why not? Nobody was a better story teller. Here’s one, but there are hundreds of stories like this – in the mostly true story as told by Frank about his Uncle S.L.:
    On S.L.’s first day in Freshman English at the University of Florida, the professor called the roll. He’d stop on each name and associate it with something..
    “Well, S.L.’s, was the last name on the list, and when the professor got to S.L. , he said, ‘Yon, S.L. Yon. I’ll not forget your name, young man. It’s the first thing I do when I get up in the morning.’
    ‘Nor will I forget yours,” S.L. replied, “and for the same reason, Professor Leake.”
    Eight years later, when I enrolled at the University, I found that a Professor Leake had recently retired but still lived in Gainesville. I went to his home, rang the bell, and, when a very old man came to the door, inquired: “Does the name Sim Lafayette Yon mean anything to you?”
    He turned beet red with embarrassment and then began to laugh: “Come on in, son. I think we have a mutual friend!”
    I want to end by speaking of the end. Frank had been a passionate advocate for compassionate care at the end of life, well before he got sick. So, there was no surprise when the Community Hospice of Washington suggested him to the local TV station to speak out against the misinformation about supposed death panels in the health reform debate. That was only six weeks ago.
    So, you grandkids know that your grandpa, when he said “goodbye” would tell you to be safe and that he’d see you soon, “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” Well, the creek finally rose, but not before he showed us where the life rafts are stashed.
    We have lost a giant. We owe it to him to live as he taught us: Have fun. Be a little outrageous.
    Do something meaningful with your time on this earth.
    Learn – keep learning, and then teach what you’ve learned.
    Make time for people.

  24. Jeff MartinJeff Martin10-01-2009

    It’s amazing how we all have the same stories and rememberances of Frank. That’s because Frank was the same person to anyone and everyone — knowledgeable, kind, affable, and generous (with both wit and wisdom) to a fault.
    I first met Frank at the 2000 COF Annual Conference when Ellen Dadisman called my room to say I just had to come down to meet the guru of communications. When I arrived, he stood up, grabbed my hand and, cutting off Ellen’s long list of his accomplishments, said, “I’ve heard so much about you. Tell me what it was like to serve in the Peace Corps.”
    That was Frank in a nutshell. It was never about him and always about you. While his communications accomplishments were huge, it was Frank, the person, who loomed ever larger and is thus remembered. We should all be so lucky.
    I recently emailed Frank letting him know I’m now living on a small island way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He sent a one-line response, “Send coordinates…will be there this weekend.”
    Fare thee well, Frank, fare thee well.

  25. Judy StaviskyJudy Stavisky10-20-2009

    What good fortune I had to be matched with Frank as my mentor when I arrived at RWJF a decade ago! Frank offered to review this nervous program officer’s first Board presentation. He carved out some time at the end of the day, closed the door, discussed each one of my slides and text. I practiced over and over…and he edited, suggested and improved. He ended our meeting, like all our visits, with a gale of laughter.
    Perhaps most touching and poignant, is when Frank learned my dad had written a book as a combat correspondent in WW II. Not only did Frank pour over that paperback with a keen eye, but he also wrote my dad a lovely note, a man he had never met. Many years later, I discovered that note tucked into my dad’s wallet, a keepsake from one communications guy to another. Thank you Frank for your wise and cheerful presence, and the countless of acts of kindness that you bestowed upon each of us.

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