By SHIKIRI HIGHTOWER
Frank Kelleher, a Mission District native, married to the same woman for 64 years and the father of eight children, died of complications from diabetes April 12. He was 87.
Kelleher began life the same year the Castro Theater was built.
One of five siblings, his Irish-American parents raised their family on Van Ness Avenue in a Mission District of the 1920s and 1930s full of Irish and Italian immigrants. Kelleher’s family first came to the U.S. in 1820.
His younger sister, Kaye O’Halloran, said their mother was the PTA president at St. Charles Elementary School on 18th Street, where she introduced a program to give free breakfasts to all of the elementary school’s children.
O’Halloran said she has fond memories of growing up in the Mission District, window shopping on Mission Street and going to movies with her big brother Frank. “He took me to the El Capitan Theater every Saturday,” she said.
“There were always two movies and during break I’d run up on the stage and sing “Springtime in the Rockies.” My brother didn’t like me running on the stage. He’d get really mad,” she said. “Homestead Bakery used to give away free bread. It was exciting. There was always a wonderful aroma from the bread baking—it floated out in the street.”
“My brother was always the apple in everyone’s eye,” said O’Halloran. “It’s a big hole. We miss him a lot.”
After Kelleher married, he moved out of the Mission, but was known as a community organizer and youth advocate throughout his life. In the 1980s he was chair of the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Commission.
“My father always thought—maybe he learned from raising us—that some kids that act out in the community aren’t necessarily criminals,” said his son Matthew Kelleher, of El Cerrito. “He felt that intervention was more important than incarceration.”
“He definitely believed there should be kids that are locked up. He wasn’t unrealistic,” said his son. “He also thought there were a large number of kids who got caught up in what he called the system that just needed stable parenting, stable home life, food, clothing, the basic necessities.”
While on the Juvenile Justice Commission, Kelleher made significant changes to the system, according to his son. He helped begin educational psychology testing for every minor imprisoned at the Youth Guidance Center. As a result, the San Francisco schools developed remedial programs for youth.
“He felt that kids get incarcerated because of problems at home, like abuse, or problems with learning, like dyslexia, or because they’re teased at school because they’re different,” said his son. “From a practical level it ends up being far more expensive to incarcerate people than educate people.”
Retired Assemblyman Charles Meyers, who from 1948 to 1970 represented parts of the outer Mission District, said, “Frank Kelleher was a gem.”
“Stinky,” as Myers called Kelleher during their days together at Sacred Heart High School, was a star athlete. Kelleher received all-city honors in football and track. He was also an adamant fan of the San Francisco 49ers.
“He missed six 49er games between 1950 and 2004,” said his son. “When Roger Craig fumbled against the Giants, he blamed himself. He was at St. Mary’s Hospital having a bypass.”
Kelleher, then a member of the communication’s union, worked for Pacific Bell, and was influenced by the 1934 San Francisco general strike. It was the country’s first general strike and lasted 83 days. It led to the unionization of all of the West Coast ports of the U.S.
Kelleher’s son said that during the strike the San Francisco Police Department shot and killed two strikers, and that event deeply affected his father. “He felt terrible that people exercising their rights to freedom of speech would lose their lives on their own soil,” he said. “I think that was a seminal moment in his life.”
He said his father, an active member of the Catholic Church, was also involved with the priest and other church members who helped Cesar Chavez. “A lot of people don’t realize that the Catholic Church and a number of priests had a lot to do with the formation with that union,” he said.
“As kids, my brother and I used to go with my dad to Delano. We’d leave at 3 a.m. on a Sunday and drive down there and crack eggs, and they’d make scrambled eggs for the workers,” he said, adding that they met Chavez many times.
Kelleher, a graduate of the University of San Francisco, also served in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. In the 1960s he joined Pacific Bell’s management and went on to work for the company for 41 years.
“He believed in personal rights—a person’s right to work, a person’s right to a safe work place, a person’s right to free speech, a person’s right to not be discriminated against for any reason,” said his son. “I was proud of him. I supported him 100 percent.”
In addition to his wife Patricia Lucille Flaherty, sister Kay O’Halloran, daughter Mary Ann Bodendorfer, sons Mark, Matthew, John, Frank Jr., and Joseph, he is also survived by seven grandchildren. Services have already been held.