Remembering Frank O’Hare
Two years have passed since cancer took the physical presence of Frank P. O’Hare away from his friends — the exact date was July 16, 1960.
Yet the most fortunate of O’Hareians still find him popping into their offices unannounced; spot him bustling along a crowded city street with two or three newspapers tucked under an arm; hear his now dulcet now explosive voice on the telephone; receive in the morning mail those cards and notes and letters and manuscripts and embellished booklets on almost every idea under the sun that could have come from him alone.
For Frank O’Hare was a fellow who goes right on doing what he always did and somehow sees to it that nothing, not even death, very much interferes.
Since there may be a few readers of FOCUS/Midwest who do not know as much as they should of the O’Hare story, the thing to do here is to touch some of the high spots, and hope that it soon will have the attention of the understanding biographer that Frank O’Hare deserves.
He was born April 23, 1877 — it always pleased him to celebrate his birthday and Shakespeare’s together — in North Hampton, Iowa. His restless energy came as a paternal inheritance. Peter Paul O’Hare, his father, an Irish emigrant, forsook importing lines from his homeland to seek adventure in the Colorado silver mines. When life in the Rocky Mountains became too quiet he packed a satchel and went off to fight on the side of the Boers in South Africa.
But Frank’s mother, the former Elizabeth Weyers, a native of the Netherlands, made up for the lack of a steady father as best she could and that was mighty well.
Setting a lot of store by education, she kept her children in school as long as possible and managed to have books in the home. Frank’s older brother, George, ran the New Hampton Courier and it was in its jumbled print shop that Frank, as a four-year-old, learned his ABCs by playing with the large wooden types used in handbills and posters.
When Frank was six, Mother O’Hare moved her brood to St. Louis and there Frank carried papers in the Irish neighborhood known as Kerry Patch. In his teens he began his career as a writer and editor by chasing news for the old St. Louis Chronicle, then directed by the great E.W. Scripps, founder of the first national newspaper chain. By the time he had reached his early twenties, Frank was immersed in the politico-economic problems of the Bryan-McKinley era and his hero was Gene Debs, former locomotive fireman and apostle of socialism.
Frank himself became a Socialist organizer and he and his first wife, Kate Richards, traveled through Arkansas and Oklahoma setting up annual encampments for farmers and laborers under Socialist auspices. The idea was to provide recreation for entertainment-starved families and along with it serious study classes in Socialist doctrine and practice. By 1908, these encampments were drawing thousands of southwest farmer folk.
But the movement needed “an unhampered editor” and that was just what Frank O’Hare became as chief of the National Rip-Saw in 1912. Through the next decade he issued its stridently socialistic copies from St. Louis. He took up all the new causes, woman suffrage, world peace, the political prisoners behind bars and, in 1922, on the heels of A. Mitchell Palmer’s “deportations delirium,” set out to free all those who were locked up in the war years because of their political views. His Children’s Crusade for Amnesty included chartered transportation to Washington and picketing at the White House.
After World War I he used his mathematical skill as an industrial engineer for a St. Louis hat company. More or less until he was 70, he was a consultant to the president on efficiency and procedures for which he worked out early time studies. A heart attack retired him but not to the sidelines. He still had more things to do.
Long a leading member of St. Louis’ famed Public Questions Club, angular, hawk-beaked Frank O’Hare now formed a Monday luncheon group which he called The Dunkers. To record its exploits he started a “yellow sheet,” Dunkerdoings which went to honorary members overseas and to members on leave around the world in World War II. Justice Wiley B. Rutledge and U.S. Sen. Thomas C. Hennings Jr. were among its readers.
Frank often sent letters to the newspapers and a collection of these would be a delight in anyone’s hands. At the peak of a controversy in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1951 over the quality of Missouri hams, the former battler of The Rip-Saw wrote, under the title “When Pigs Died Happy”:
“My contention is that the old-time hog impregnated his flesh with the joie de vivre in which he flourished. His mass-bred successors, tended by hirelings, considered only as so much cash in the bank, distill their frustration and so punish us. And now the whole world is in agony. It looks almost as though we had tried to bend God to our own will and that we are being punished. The old-time Missouri hog died with a smile twisting his pink-tipped snout. We have lost our Missouri ham!”
They knew Frank — his baptized name was Francis Peter — in Chicago, in Kansas City, in Cleveland, out on the Pacific Coast, in New York, and on the Main Streets of the Midwestern mining towns. He named his sons for Debs and Edwin Markham for that was one of his ideas about immortality. Few people read more in religious philosophy and he always wrote Jesus as Jeshua which he stoutly maintained was correct.
For 30 years his second wife, the former Irene Reynolds, tolerated his idiosyncracies, and when he was mortally ill, helped him in his final project. That was the organization of a cultural exchange between St. Louis and Stuttgart, Germany, now an eminently successful international enterprise. . . . Just at this point the door has opened without a knock, Frank has poked his head inside and there is nothing to do but stop and have a good, long visit with him. There is so much going on that we must swap ideas about!
— Irving Dilliard, “Debunker Par Excellence,” FOCUS/Midwest, August 1962. Dilliard, a resident of Collinsville, Ill., was the former editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At the time this story was published he wrote a column for the Chicago American.