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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 3, 2005

Grief turned to action

Edward R. Frank is a man with a mission.

He has a 28-foot long trailer on the back of his pickup truck. On one side of the back door, it says in red letters "How many tears will it take." On the other side, it says, "How many hearts will it break."

"I know what alcohol can do," says Frank. He lives in Altamont and worked for 25 years with the Colonie Police Department, retiring as deputy chief of police in 1989.

He’s seen drunk-driving crashes up close.

"There are no scare tactics here, no actors involved," he says of the program he presents at area schools. "These are real things that happened on the highway."

On the inside of the trailer are time lines of two actual events. One side details with words and graphic photographs a 2004 incident where a group of people under the legal drinking age bought alcohol at a convenience store and ended up driving at 100 miles an hour, ending in a crash.

The other side of the trailer tells the story of Kathleen Campion, who was a 19-year-old student at the University of Albany in 1989 when she was hit by a drunk driver and died. The display shows photographs of a beautiful young woman; of her weekly planner with "spring break" written in cursive hand the week she died; of her best friend, Sharon McLetchie, her face badly battered and bruised.

McLetchie was driving the pair in her 1987 Nissan Sentra when it was hit by a man leaving a St. Patrick’s Day party in the early hours of March 18. He had no headlights on; he failed to stop at a stop sign when he crashed into the Sentra.

McLetchie survived the crash. "She wanted her picture in here, like that, to drive home a point to young people," said Frank.

At the back end of the trailer is a model of a jail cell. "If they think it’s a joke," Frank says of the young people who file through the trailer, "I tell them, ‘Get in there and close your eyes.’"

He slams the door shut; it makes a metallic sound. "I know that sound," says the retired cop. "That sound is real. It has an impact. You can’t get out. I ask them, ‘Is that the price of a night of partying"’"

At the other end of the trailer is a coffin. Above it are pictures of victims of DWI crashes. Inside is a mirror.

"They view the time-line on each side and then they see themselves in the mirror," said Frank. "Sometimes they shriek. There’s not a preaching tool in the trailer. It’s all real. Lots of them tell me it’s powerful."

While we admire people who work to make a difference in the world, we particularly admire Frank because of the way he has turned his own grief into action.

This is not a project Frank started alone; he and his son were partners. Investigator Edward A. Frank followed in his father’s footsteps, working for the Colonie Police Department, too.

After 19 years with the Colonie Police, his son died of cancer in August. "It hit him fast," said his father. "He was our only child."

His son’s passion was stock-car racing. Friday nights, the younger Frank was at the Albany-Saratoga track, driving #301 while his father worked as part of the pit crew.

"Ed was a firm believer in giving back to the community," said Frank, and he used his race car as a way to teach kids about safety and the importance of wearing seat belts.

The younger Frank came across a 1973 photo of his father teaching about safety and the dangers of drunk driving. "He said, ‘Dad, I’m going to use this in my presentation,’" recalled Frank, with pride in his voice. "It evolved from there."

The father-and-son team made plans for a three-part program and got backing from the Albany County Stop-DWI Program. The pair paid for the trailer themselves. The other two main features of the traveling program include the younger Frank’s stock car — equipped with a five-point restraint system — to stress the importance of using seat belts, and a burned-out vehicle, the result of two cars drag racing on Route 7 in Colonie.

"One vehicle split in half; the motor came flying out," said Frank. "The other burst into flames. Everything is extreme today. Kids soup up their cars and fool with the aerodynamics, so the car will go airborne too fast."

When Frank’s son died, he carried on their work with vigor. He’s 68 and it would have been easy for him to withdraw from the world and wallow in grief and self-pity, but that’s not Frank’s style. He keeps going and he credits others.

"This is not Ed Frank; this story should not be about me," Frank told us this week. "This is a team effort. We — I’m using my son in the present tense — partnered with the county’s Stop-DWI last year."

Frank credits the program’s administrator Denis Foley and Deputy Coordinator Leonard Crouch. He urges groups to call Crouch at 233-7527 to schedule a visit with the traveling exhibits. And he credits the retired policemen who volunteer their time to drive the three exhibits to schools.

The elder Frank and his son, posthumously, were just given the Raymond Thorpe Award by the New York State Association of Traffic Safety Boards; the award recognizes individuals who create innovative community-based traffic safety programs.

As he stands in the trailer, Frank’s voice cracks with emotion: "My son never got to see this finished," he says. We believe his son would have been proud.

"We’re celebrating life," said Frank. "We’re teaching kids to not abuse the highways to treat a vehicle as it should be treated. Once you get behind that wheel, important choices are made. One split second can result in a fatality."

Referring to a panel that those convicted of drunk driving are required to attend, Frank said, "Two-hundred -and forty people were at the impact panel at Guilderland Town Hall last week." There, they heard victims tell how drunk-driving crashes had forever changed their lives.

Frank tries to reach drivers before they get there. He took his mobile display to Guilderland High School recently, and estimates 3,500 students have seen it so far.

After a fatality, he said, "You see crosses on the side of the road. People leave flowers and friends write poems. They all say the same thing — a good kid made a bad decision. This is about teaching kids to make the right choices."

Asked if he finds it discouraging to see the same tragedies occurring despite efforts he’s made for decades, Frank tells us, "Life can be discouraging. You’ve written the stories. You know what it’s like to see these crashes. We can never give up. We need to keep trying to reach the young people. Never, never give up...."

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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