Frank Shankwitz, an Arizona Highway Patrol officer who co-founded the Make-a-Wish Foundation and served as its first president after helping a terminally ill boy realize his dream of becoming a motorcycle cop, died on January 24 in his home in Prescott, Arizona. He was 77 years old.
His wife, Kitty Shankwitz, said the cause was esophageal cancer.
Mr. Shankwitz was on patrol in April 1980 when one of his superiors radioed him to return to Phoenix Headquarters. The department had found out about a boy named Chris Greicius, who wanted to become a motorcycle officer as an adult, as did Ponch and Jon, the main characters on his favorite TV show “CHiPs”. He also had terminal leukemia.
The department had decided to grant Chris’s request, if only for a few days. A police helicopter took him from the hospital where he was being treated to the police headquarters. Mr. Shankwitz was supposed to greet him in front next to his motorcycle.
“When I thought he was being brought out in a wheelchair, I was surprised when the door opened and a pair of sneakers showed up,” wrote Shankwitz in his memoir, Wish Man (2018). “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 department head 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, Chris had to pass a driving test – which he took in his front yard on his small battery-powered motorcycle. Mr. Shankwitz promised to bring him a special badge worn by motorcycle police officers; He also called NBC, the network that broadcast “CHiPs,” and asked the stars of the show, Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, to sign a photo.
The next day Chris was back in the hospital and by the time Mr. Shankwitz arrived with the badge and picture, he had fallen into a mild coma. Chris had hung his uniform on the bed and when Mr. Shankwitz was putting the badge on his shirt, the boy woke up.
“Am I now an official motorcycle cop?” Asked Chris.
“You are sure,” replied Mr. Shankwitz.
Chris died later that day. Mr. Shankwitz and a colleague attended his funeral in southern Illinois and borrowed a pair of Illinois Highway Patrol motorcycles to accompany the hearse.
On the flight home, Mr. Shankwitz tried to process everything 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 devised a plan for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which started just months later. Today the organization has 64 chapters in the US and 36 internationally that have “wishes” granted – from “eating in a restaurant” to “meeting the Pope” – to more than 500,000 seriously ill children.
Frank Earle Shankwitz was born in Chicago on March 8, 1943. 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 two years old and fiercely fought for custody – his mother kidnapped him several times just to reach an awkward arrangement with his father. When Frank was 10 years old, she took him to Arizona, where they lived in a trailer in the town of Seligman, which was close enough to the Nevada border that Mr. Shankwitz remembered seeing the glow from atomic bomb tests.
Mr. Shankwitz joined the Air Force immediately after high school and served five years as a military policeman, mainly on 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 clerical career – in 1970 he had a wife, two children, and a mortgage and a college degree and a number of promotions – he became troubled with office life. Some of his high school friends had joined the Arizona Highway Patrol, and it wasn’t long before he applied. He was recorded in 1972; In 1975 he became part of an elite motorcycle unit that was supposed to patrol the entire state.
In 1978, Mr. Shankwitz was chasing a drunk driver when another drunk driver blinded him. His partner pronounced him dead, but an off duty nurse performed CPR and resuscitated him. It took him over a year to recover, and shortly after returning to duty, he met Chris Greicius.
Mr. Shankwitz and five other people founded the Make-a-Wish Foundation in 1980, a few months after Chris’ funeral. It grew quickly: within a few years it had become a national organization with state chapters open almost monthly.
In addition to his wife, two daughters, Christine Chester and Denise Partlow survive; 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 soldier on active duty until 1996; He later worked for the State Department of Motor Vehicles. He received the President’s Call to Service Award twice and was the subject of the 2019 biopic “Wish Man” with Andrew Steel as Mr. Shankwitz.
Mr. Shankwitz resigned as President of the Foundation in 1984. For decades, however, he remained the most visible ambassador and traveled the country to discuss chapters and to meet with “desired children”.
“I wake up every day passionate about making a difference in their life,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was once enough for me to be a father, a cowboy, and a patrolman. But my goal has changed. “