Mike Connell: Freighter Frank Chronicles The 'Good Life'

Sunday, September 9, 2011

Mayoral candidate "Johnny Dog" Moldowan might have the most recognizable nickname in the Port Huron area, but "Freighter Frank" Frisk is right there, too.

Freighter Frank is the go-to guy for information about one of Port Huron's favorite pastimes -- ship-watching.

He fell into that role partly by serendipity -- being in the right place at the right time -- but also because he's not someone who cares for half measures. Where another person might have interests or hobbies, Frisk has passions.

As a young man in Clinton Township, for example, he was crazy about drag racing. He counts legendary racers Connie Kalitta and Shirley Muldowney among his friends.

"I built a few (dragsters) and raced a few," he said. "It's in my blood."

His enthusiasm for drag racing led him to photography. What began 40 years ago with a few snapshots at the strip became another abiding passion. Although largely self-taught, Frisk is a professional photographer whose work has been exhibited across the Great Lakes region.

More often than not, his photographs focus on yet another passion -- chronicling the ships of the Great Lakes and capturing the essence of life aboard the lakers.


IF FREIGHTER FRANK is a man of many passions, he's also a man of many friends, including more than 1,500 on Facebook.

He is an easy guy to like -- funny, cheerful and endlessly fascinating. He seems to have a tale for every occasion, many of them involving his buddies.

One such friend was the late Father Bill Cunningham, who worked with Eleanor Josaitis to launch a human rights group -- Focus: HOPE -- amid the ashes of Detroit's 1967 riots.

A few years before Detroit burned, Frisk studied at Sacred Heart Seminary, where Cunningham was on the faculty. The priest and the teen had something in common.

"I loved automobiles, and so did Father Cunningham, and we became good friends," Frisk said. "I wish you could have seen his 1963 Ford Falcon. Now that was a sweet car."


FEW PEOPLE PLAYED a larger role in Frisk's life than Vic Wertz, one of the most popular ballplayers to wear a Detroit Tigers uniform.

Wertz, a four-time all-star, sandwiched a magnificent career between a delayed start (military service in World War II) and a late-career scare (he missed part of the 1955 season with polio).

He also is the answer to a trivia question. In the 1954 World Series, Wertz hit the 450-foot moon shot that Willie Mays snagged over his shoulder in dead center at the Polo Grounds. The feat is remembered to this day as The Catch.

As one sportswriter wrote, "It would have been a home run in any other ballpark, including Yellowstone."

Frisk can recall every detail of his first meeting with Wertz. He was 7 years old and had gone with his father to get haircuts at Clyde's Barber Shop at the corner of Crocker Boulevard and Harper Avenue.

Wertz walked in the front door and greeted Frisk's dad. As it turned out, the two men were pals.


AS WITH SO MANY others of his generation, Frisk turned to the Big Three for employment. He graduated from St. Louis High in Clinton Township and took a job with Ford.

"As you know, the 1970s were tough ones. The industry was up and down," he said. "Once I got called back from a layoff, went to work for six hours and was laid off again."

Wertz came to the rescue. The old ballplayer owned a beer distributorship, peddling Miller and Heineken, and he hired Frisk as his logistics manager.

The job came with its perks, such as an assignment to pick up Roger Maris at Metro airport and drive him to Hillcrest Country Club in Macomb County, the site of a charity golf tournament for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Detroit.

Maris, the North Dakotan who hit 61 home runs in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth's record of 60, was a Budweiser wholesaler at the time.

"He was wearing a big belt buckle with the Anheuser-Busch logo on it," Frisk recalled. "I asked if he'd like a cold one, and he said, ?Sure.' We stopped in Grosse Pointe for a beer, and he ordered a Miller High Life. When I asked him about that, he said, ?'I'm in Vic's country, and I'm going to drink what he sells.'"


FRISK SPENT A DECADE working with Wertz, who died during heart surgery in the summer of 1983.

A few years later, Frisk found himself in Marysville, divorced, alone and searching for something new.

He found it on the banks of the St. Clair River, where he became smitten with the great ships of the Great Lakes. He took photos, of course, shooting roll after roll, and became an earnest student of the shipping industry.

It led to another career change in 1995.

His son, Victor, had enrolled at Michigan State, and Frisk figured he needed a job to help pay the bills. He signed on with the Interlake Steamship Co. as a porter.

"I thought I would work three or four years," he said. "I loved it, though, and I stayed on even after Victor graduated."

He boarded an 806-foot ore carrier, the Charles M. Beeghley (recently renamed the James L. Oberstar), in the dead of winter in Marquette. During the next decade, he would work on eight or nine vessels, mostly as a second cook and relief chief steward.


TO SAY HE LOVED the life seems an understatement. He turned down a chance to work in Alaska on what at first glance seemed a better-paying job.

"You don't spend money (on a ship)," he explained. "I was on the K.E. Barker for nine months and spent $137 out of pocket."

He did splurge on used cars, buying three and parking them at strategic locations between Detroit and Duluth. "I was changing boats so often, I never knew where I'd need wheels," he said.

Being the man he is, he also discovered a new passion -- the Internet.

He took thousands of photographs, chronicling shipboard life as well as the continuing drama of Great Lakes weather. He also created a website as a way to share his work with a wider audience.

In this endeavor, he received the help of Charlie Glaze, a Marysville native and a successful web designer in Arizona. He helped Frisk build the website and taught him how to manage it.

Another boost came from Mike Wendland, a technology columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He featured Frisk's website -- www.greatlakesphotos.com -- in a 2001 article.

"The view that I get on board is so awesome from what you'd see on the shore," Frisk told Wendland. "You have to be there to see it, and the site lets me share my perspective."

The website's popularity surged with the article's publication.


FREIGHTER FRANK might be on a ship today if not for health issues including a couple of heart attacks.

"I got along with everybody. I loved it out there, but age was creeping up on me," he said.

A landlubber once again, he maintains his website and is a leading contributor to BoatNerd.com, a collaboration of 45 or so freighter enthusiasts.

BoatNerd is the creation of Neil Schultheiss, who founded the site as a classroom project at Oakland University. It found a patron in Jim Acheson, who welcomed the BoatNerd family to Vantage Point in Port Huron a few years ago.

Frisk and other volunteers keep track of ship passages on the St. Clair River. He also fields questions and greets visitors from an office inside the restored train depot at the foot of Court Street.

Across the parking lot, the coffee shop at Acheson's Maritime Center features Freighter Frank's recipe for an apple fritter covered with dark chocolate. He perfected it while cooking for shipmates.

"People have no idea how much work goes on on those ships ... constant maintenance, rough seas, dangerous machinery," he said. "But we do eat well out there.

"It's a good life."

Mike Connell is a freelance writer. Contact him at fortgratiot@gmail.com or visit his website at www.abbeyrow.com.