I had only been in Salem a month or two when someone told me I needed to go with him south of town and meet Frankie Schwartz. I can’t remember who took me, because my first few months here are still a whirlwind, and that was awhile back, in 1996. I may not be able to remember who took me to Schwartz Auto Salvage on Highway 19 just south of Salem, but I sure remember meeting Frankie.
I remember all the history and interesting things on the office walls, many of them clippings from The Salem News, letters and photographs, but mostly anti-government political slogans. That first meeting turned into a decades-long relationship, with Frankie dropping by the newspaper office several times a year to, well, bend my ear and let me know he was still around. Frankie always had a story to tell and a cause to push. More times than not it was about the pesky government that he got into it with, and he was there to tell me how he beat them back or they ran scared before the fight even started.
Some of Frankie’s stories were no doubt exaggerated for impact, but every one of them as far as I know are the gospel truth. . . . Basically.
Frankie took on the Department of Natural Resources over the Clean Water Act and won, tied up with the attorney general’s office in a civil suit, successfully belly landed his yellow 310 Cessna airplane at the Salem airport (some say he never had a real pilot’s license), was arrested by the city for having a junkyard within the city limits, drove his homemade steam engine in Fourth of July and Christmas parades and persuaded the county commission to make one of his personal Bibles the official courthouse Bible.
Those are just some of the highlights of the Frankie Schwartz story. Someone should write a book.
In case you haven’t heard, Frankie Lee Schwartz died Oct. 25, just six days shy of Halloween and his 86th birthday. His funeral was Monday. In the history of Salem, there has never been a more colorful character, a more interesting subject or a shrewder businessman. In short, there will never be another Frankie Schwartz.
Frankie was the smartest sixth-grade dropout I ever knew. He was in my estimation a mechanical genius who had no yearning or need for book-learning. He already knew it all. Frankie re-built airplanes and old cars, tractors and machines of all types. He built a car crusher from scratch for his salvage yard, which he owned for over 60 years.
People called on Frankie when they had problems that required a mechanical genius. More than a dozen years ago we had a piece of machinery in The Salem News that we wanted to get out of The Salem News and couldn’t figure out how to move it. I tried lots of folks who I thought could get the job done, and they all told me to call Frankie. I finally did, and a few minutes after the phone call Frankie was at the back door.
He looked the equipment over. He looked at me.
“Yeah, I can do it,” he said. “What’s it worth to you?”
Puzzled, I asked him what he would charge. Wrong answer. Frankie proceeded to lecture me on the economics of the situation, and that his abilities and my needs would meet somewhere agreeable and we’d arrive at a price. A little frustrated, I told Frankie I simply wanted a price and then I’d decide if I could afford it. Frankie basically told me to figure it out myself and walked out the back door.
Well, we finally got the equipment moved and out the door, without Frankie, but I am sure we did it with more difficulty and with a lot more angst than if Frankie had stuck around and helped us.
I talked religion with Frankie more than once, a subject that was near and dear to him. Many years back he stopped by the office to talk about something – truth be known, he admitted to me once he loved the spotlight and reading stories in The Salem News about his quirky and anti-government ways– and the conversation came around to the fact he had been attending the Amish Mennonite church here in Dent County.
“How do you do that?” I asked him, half trying to get a rise out of him. “I didn’t realize the Amish and Mennonites were evangelistic. You mean, they just let you in?”
Frankie evaded the question, leaving me to believe it was more like he let himself in as opposed to them letting him in. Accepting Frankie and his colorful ways would no doubt require the patience of Job. Frankie did tell me that he loved going to church there and that no other religion in the world got it closer to what God intended it to be than “the wonderful people out there.”
His son Jamie told me Sunday night during Frankie’s visitation that his dad joined that fellowship 14 years ago. It was a big part of his life, and many is the Sunday I spotted Frankie, who says he was saved by Jesus in 1968, driving one of his old cars west on Highway 32 headed to church, his signature fedora on top of his head.
Salem native and former staff writer Tyler McConnell captured the essence of Frankie in a feature story published in a March 2015 issue of The Salem News. It can still be read on thesalemnewsonline.com. Just search for Frankie Schwartz. Quite a few stories will be listed because Frankie was in the news a lot, and McConnell’s is one of them.
Legend has it that Frankie once paid his federal income tax in pennies. He admitted to McConnell in an interview for that 2015 story that no, in 1979 he did pay $42,725 to the IRS at its St. Louis office, but using five- and 10-dollar bills. “That’s 7,000 bills,” he said.
You might get the idea that Frankie could be a bit of a jerk. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He was much more prankster than jerk. He was often generous with his time and money. He was quiet about that side of himself, preferring the legend of Frankie be one of a daredevil pilot or a thorn in the side of government.
He was a family man, too, working beside his wife Dorothy, who died June 25 of this year, for all of their 64 years of marriage. Jamie worked alongside his father, too, and said Sunday at the visitation it will be a huge change with Frankie not around Schwartz Auto Salvage.
True enough, and it will be a huge change for Salem, too, as it has lost a legend, and legends like Frankie Schwartz are impossible to replace.