‘First Chair Frank’ Walter remembered for passion, faith and outdoor enthusiasm
Special to the Daily
If a life’s value can be measured in how many people have nothing but good things to say about them after they pass, Frank Walter was one of the richest men to grace Summit County.
Frank Walter, a man whose grace, persistence and charm made him a legend at Copper Mountain, died on March 5 at the age of 97 at an assisted living facility in Golden. Frank leaves behind six children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. But more than his immediate family, “First Chair Frank” left behind hundreds of grateful human beings who treasured his presence and saw him as a saintly citizen, one whose ironman streak of first chairs at Copper Mountain may never be topped.
Frank was born in 1922 in Milton, Mass. to Theodore Franklin Walter and Mable Hale Walter. Raised in Boston, Walter got his bachelor’s degree in engineering at Tufts University and a master’s in engineering from MIT later on. Walter served in World War II as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Marines Corps, flying a Vought F4U Corsair and rising to the rank of captain.
“He epitomized the Greatest Generation,” said his longtime Frisco friend, Steve Franks. “My own dad was a fighter pilot in World War II, and they are both cut from the same mold. If someone asked me to describe Frank, it’d be as a perfect example of that generation.”
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Frank’s grandson, Jake Bright, remembers how it wasn’t until relatively recently, after decades spent together as best ski buddies, that his grandfather opened up about his service in the war.
“He was part of the first wave of Marines in the Pacific island campaign,” Bright said. “He was stationed at Omura base in Nagasaki, and ended up managing the quadrant there for an extra year after the war. He was a very modest man, and wouldn’t tell anybody about his service until about seven years ago. We are so proud of him for that service.”
Frank went on to work for the Chrysler corporation in Michigan, where he eventually became Vice President of Timing and Production, which involved managing the meticulous logistics required to ensure smooth production of vehicle parts as they were needed to put on the assembly line to build cars. He was also involved in the design of some of Chrysler’s most popular models of the time, including the Plymouth Superbird.
Frank was famous for his insistence on being on time.
“When I first met him, he invited me to go ski with him, and told me, ‘Be there at 8:30, if you get there at 8:31, I won’t be there,” Franks said.
“He was very concerned about timing,” said another longtime friend, Loren “Stinky” Steinbrink, who used to serve as pastor at the Copper Mountain Community Church, where Frank was a constant fixture as a parishioner. “He always had his watches timed to the exact second; if we didn’t start church on time, he’d start looking down at his watch and concerned if we were late. He insisted that we start church on time.”
To that end, “Stinky” and his wife Karen remembered Frank as a devoted man of God who poured over scripture at every opportunity.
“He had his Bible there, and wrote down his notations and interpretations in the margin,” Loren remembered. “He’d say to me, ‘I need to talk to you about the sermon on Sunday, I don’t agree with your interpretation of it.’
Frank’s faith was something that had a profound impact on his stepdaughter, Gay Whalen. Whalen said that Frank encouraged her to strengthen her relationship with God, and the example he set from those teachings would affect how she viewed the good in people forever after.
“He was a Christian foremost,” Whalen said. “I think I picked my husband because of his example. He was the most loving, kind individual. When my mother was dying, he was beside her on a 24 hour watch. I’ve never seen anyone take care of someone so well.”
Whalen remembers endless stories about Frank, including how she had 22 cars before the age of 21 because Frank let her try out cars and take notes on possible improvements for quality control. She also recalled how he was always, without fail, there for her during “every swim meet, every soccer match, every ski meet.”
“You never met a man like him,” Whalen said. “He would show up in the freezing cold, wearing a three-piece suit, watching me as I came down the mountain. Always.”
Larry Walter, Frank’s eldest biological son, remembers the great enthusiasm for the outdoors and outdoor activities infected him through his father from a very young age.
“I remember being taught to water-ski at three years old,” Larry remembered. “When I fell and couldn’t get up, he would put me on his shoulders and ski around the lake. What a thrill that was.”
Many years later, Larry maintained a close relationship with his father that was in character for Frank’s insistence on preciseness and consistency.
“I spoke to Dad every night at 6 p.m. mountain time, and made monthly visits for a week at a time to make sure he was well cared for and enjoying what was most important to him,” Larry said.
Both Franks and the Steinbrinks recall how all the lifties knew his name, and knew he would be there for the first chair at 8:30 a.m. on the dot.
“He was loved by everybody, the kids, the lifties, everybody,” Loren said. “If he hurt a rib and couldn’t bend down, the kids would go help take his boots taken care of before he went up the lift.”
Aside from his reputation as a good person, Frank also had his local reputation as the most dedicated skier at Copper Mountain.
“One year, out of 162 days it was open, he skied 160 days,” Steinbrink said. “In 1985, I believe, he skied 8.7 million vertical feet. That requires about 45,000 vertical feet every day. He got a special watch so he would be able to keep track of his vertical feet.”
Frank was so dedicated to Copper Mountain that the resort named a ski run after him.
The Frank’s Fave run branches off Collage run and empties down to Center Village, right next to the American Eagle lift. Frank’s grandson, Jake, said that it was where Frank’s friends at Copper would wave at him from the bottom as he came down the mountain.
“My grandfather was all about spending his time with nature and friends, and anybody can continue to do that,” Jake said. “When you’re by Frank’s Fave, wave at the people coming down the way they used to when he was there. That’s what I’ll do.”
His friends and family say his legend will live on, as it already does among the many people he inspired and helped make better.
“Frank has been a true inspiration to our Summit County community and a testimony for longevity by following his lifelong passion to stay active, physically and mentally, especially with skiing,” said his long-time caretaker and friend, Gini Patterson, who is the director of Timberline Adult Day Services in Frisco.
“Frank was known for his love of the outdoors and a calm respectful manner shown to all,” said his son, Larry. “Frank also had a great enthusiasm for painting and created brilliant works on canvas.”
Before his passing, Frank was widowed from Antoinette Gilberti Walter and Elinor Churchill Walter. Frank was survived by son Larry and daughter Carol, grandson Jake; stepchildren, Gay, Joy, Bruce and Niki; 12 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.
A memorial service for Frank Walter is planned for the future, and will be announced when public gatherings are once more made possible.
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