July 14, 2024


Automotive to Us

Frank Shankwitz, a Founder of Make-a-Wish, Is Dead at 77

Frank Shankwitz, an Arizona Highway Patrol officer who, after helping a terminally ill boy realize his dream of becoming a motorcycle cop, co-founded the Make-a-Wish Foundation and served as its first president, died on Jan. 24 at his home in Prescott, Ariz. He was 77.

His wife, Kitty Shankwitz, said the cause was esophageal cancer.

Mr. Shankwitz was on patrol in April 1980 when one of his supervisors radioed him to return to headquarters in Phoenix. The department had learned about a boy named Chris Greicius who wanted to be a motorcycle officer when he grew up, just like Ponch and Jon, the main characters on his favorite television show, “CHiPs.” He also had end-stage leukemia.

The department had decided to make Chris’s wish come true, if just for a few days. A police helicopter ferried him to police headquarters from the hospital where he was being treated. Mr. Shankwitz was to greet him out front, next to his motorcycle.

“Figuring he’d be brought out in a wheelchair, I was surprised when the door opened and a pair of sneakers emerged,” Mr. Shankwitz wrote in his memoir, “Wish Man” (2018). “Out stepped Chris, an excited 7-year-old boy who seemed so full of life it was hard to believe he was sick.”

Mr. Shankwitz showed Chris his motorcycle, and after he and the other officers gave him a badge, the head of the department made him an honorary officer. Chris was feeling well enough to go home that night, and the next day the officers brought him a custom-made uniform.

To become a motorcycle officer, though, Chris had to pass a driving test — which he did, in his front yard, on his small battery-powered motorcycle. Mr. Shankwitz promised to bring him a special badge worn by motorcycle cops; he also called NBC, the network that aired “CHiPs,” and asked for the show’s stars, Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, to autograph a photo.

The next day Chris was back in the hospital, and by the time Mr. Shankwitz arrived with the badge and the picture, he had fallen into a light coma. Chris had hung his uniform by the bed, and as Mr. Shankwitz pinned the badge on his shirt, the boy woke up.

“Am I an official motorcycle cop now?” Chris asked.

“You sure are,” Mr. Shankwitz replied.

Chris died later that day. Mr. Shankwitz and a colleague attended his funeral, in Southern Illinois, borrowing a pair of Illinois Highway Patrol motorcycles to accompany the hearse.

On the flight home, Mr. Shankwitz tried to process all that had happened. He realized that what the department had done for Chris, he and his friends could do for other children.

Before he landed, he had sketched a plan for what just a few months later became the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Today the organization has 64 chapters in the United States and 36 internationally, which have delivered “wishes” —  ranging from “eat in a restaurant” to “meet the pope” —  to more than 500,000 critically ill children.

Frank Earle Shankwitz was born on March 8, 1943, in Chicago. His father, Frank Paul Shankwitz, was a salesman at Montgomery Ward. His mother, Lorraine Geraldine (Mathews) Shankwitz, was a waitress.

His parents separated when he was 2 and fought bitterly over his custody — his mother kidnapped him several times, only to work out an uneasy arrangement with his father. When Frank was 10 she took him with her to Arizona, where they lived in a trailer in the town of Seligman, located close enough to the Nevada border that Mr. Shankwitz recalled seeing the glow from atomic bomb tests.

Mr. Shankwitz joined the Air Force immediately after high school and served for five years as a military police officer, mostly at bomber bases in England. He left the service in 1965 and moved to Phoenix, where he worked for Motorola and enrolled in night classes at a local community college.

Though he was rapidly building a white-collar career — by 1970 he had a wife, two children and a mortgage and had earned a college degree and a series of promotions — he was growing restless with office life. Some of his high school friends had joined the Arizona Highway Patrol, and it didn’t take much cajoling for him to apply. He was accepted in 1972; in 1975 he became part of an elite motorcycle unit, assigned to patrol the entire state.

In 1978 Mr. Shankwitz was pursuing a drunken driver when another drunken driver blindsided him. His partner pronounced him dead, but a passing off-duty nurse performed CPR, resuscitating him. It took him over a year to recover, and it was shortly after he returned to duty that he met Chris Greicius.

Mr. Shankwitz and five other people founded the Make-a-Wish Foundation in 1980, a few months after Chris’s funeral. It grew rapidly: Within a few years it had become a national organization, with state chapters opening almost monthly.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Christine Chester and Denise Partlow; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His first marriage, to Sue Darrah, ended in divorce.

Mr. Shankwitz never took a salary from Make-a-Wish and remained an active-duty state trooper until 1996; he later worked for the state department of motor vehicles. He twice received the President’s Call to Service Award and was the subject of the 2019 biopic “Wish Man,” starring Andrew Steel as Mr. Shankwitz.

Mr. Shankwitz stepped down as president of the foundation in 1984. But he remained its most visible ambassador for decades, traveling the country to advise chapters and meet with “wish kids.”

“I wake up every day with a passion to make a difference in their lives,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was once enough for me to be a dad, a cowboy and a highway patrol officer. But my destination changed.”