I’ve been thinking back through the stories I could tell about Frank Karel, who died on Saturday.
His obituary certainly captures his extraordinary contribution to philanthropy, but what I remember most was the man himself. It was Frank who hired me at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and I had the great privilege of working with him for six months before he moved on to a retirement that was as full as his worklife until he was slowed by the cancer that ultimately claimed him.
Here is the story about Frank that comes to mind. I had been at the foundation 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 he 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. He had been a public affairs director at major educational, scientific and advocacy organizations, a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, director of the National Association of Science Writers, and chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s health section. Yet he took the trouble to wear a suit so this newly minted college graduate wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. That was Frank Karel. Kind, generous, humble, and one of the most fundamentally decent men I have ever met.
I only had the opportunity to work with Frank directly for six months. I wish it could have been longer. I caught him at the tail end of his time at the foundation. He made a point of stopping by to say hello whenever he was in the building after he moved on, and we would occassionally run into each other at conferences. I can’t claim to have known him nearly as well as many of my colleagues who shared so much more time with him. Yet he touched my life in that time, in the same way that he touched the life of that job candidate and so many other people with whom he came in contact—as a mentor, teacher, role model, friend.
I will miss you, Frank, and I am so pleased that you got to spend your final hours the way you lived your life—surrounded by family and friends.
Here are some tributes to Frank Karel and his work:
- Frank’s obituary on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Web site
- Frank’s obituary in the Washington Post
- A remembrance from Larry Meyer, along with a collection of stories about Frank. Please share your story there (or here) as well.
- A tribute to Frank from Grantmakers in Health when he was awarded the Terrance Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy
- The announcement of the creation of the Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.
- Frank’s personal reflection on communications at RWJF.