News, Culture & Society

Biopic Wish Man covers life Arizona Highway Patrolman Frank Shankwitz founder Make a Wish foundation

Living like a super-hero for one day, coaching the Philadelphia Eagles football team, enjoying a private concert with Taylor Swift, snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef; for almost four-decades, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has made inconceivable dreams come true for children with devastating medical conditions.

And it all started with Chris Greicius, a terminally ill boy whose dying wish was to become a police officer and a crusty Arizona Highway Patrol officer who made that dream a reality.

Frank Shankwitz is a founder of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The former Arizona Highway Patrol officer turned Wish Man has spent most of his adult life seeking to fulfill the dreams of others no matter how big or small

By all appearances, Frank Shankwitz was an unlikely hero – eight years on the police force had made him cynical and withdrawn. At the time, his personal and professional life was mired in problems: he was coming out of a bad divorce and still recovering from a near fatal accident when he was faced with answering to allegations of police brutality. For Frank Shankwitz – redemption came in the form of a seven-year-old child with only one week left to live.

Frank Shankwitz has devoted his entire life to helping others, now his inspiring and unimaginable life story will be spotlighted in the forthcoming film titled Wish Man, released September 3 on demand.

‘All throughout my life people helped me, teachers, high-school coaches, my employers, mentors, everyone always helped me out,’ said Frank Shankwitz from his home in Prescott, Arizona. ‘We were so poor, the poor people were feeding us.’ 

Frank's police sergeant sits with Chris Greicius, the seven-year-old boy diagnosed with leukemia whose dying wish was to become a motorcycle cop like his heroes in  the television show CHiPS. Frank remembers turning to Greicius' mother and saying 'there's our bubble gum trooper,' years later she would write a book under that same title

Frank’s police sergeant sits with Chris Greicius, the seven-year-old boy diagnosed with leukemia whose dying wish was to become a motorcycle cop like his heroes in  the television show CHiPS. Frank remembers turning to Greicius’ mother and saying ‘there’s our bubble gum trooper,’ years later she would write a book under that same title

Frank Shankwitz was a member of the Arizona Highway Patrol's ten man tactical unit that covered the entire state by motorcycle, he stayed in the police department for 42-years  before retiring in 2014. After 18-months he passed on the Make-A-Wish Foundation to more capable hands who he said, 'turned it into what it is today'

Frank Shankwitz was a member of the Arizona Highway Patrol’s ten man tactical unit that covered the entire state by motorcycle, he stayed in the police department for 42-years  before retiring in 2014. After 18-months he passed on the Make-A-Wish Foundation to more capable hands who he said, ‘turned it into what it is today’

Shankwitz was just an infant when his mother left the home and did not return. ‘We had no idea where she went.’ Notwithstanding, he looks back on his earliest childhood memories fondly: ‘It was so much fun; aunts, uncles, cousins, there were family get togethers all the time. Just very happy times.’ His charmed childhood would come to an abrupt halt when his mother came back into his life, plucking him off the playground of his Kindergarten school. ‘A lady grabbed me and said, ‘I’m your mother and you’re going with me’ and I had no idea who she was.’

Little Frank and his mother, Lorraine ended up at a camp site in Cedar River, Michigan where they lived in a leaky tent for five years on the bank of Lake Michigan¬. ‘Survival was the biggest thing,’ he told DailyMail.com when remembering the long days he was left alone while his mother worked.

Frank Shankwitz Sr., never gave up looking for his son; and when little Frank was 10-years-old, his father finally tracked them down but before he had a chance to take back his son; Lorraine went on the run. ‘He went in to get the sheriff to get her arrested. She threw everything we had in the back of a car and took me to Arizona.’ This traumatic separation from his father for a second time would go on to haunt Frank for the rest of his life.

Learning this was a turning point for the director of the film, Theo Davies, who recalled driving around Arizona location scouting with Frank, ‘He started talking about his father and he started to get emotional, wiping away tears from his eyes. I thought, with all this distraction with Make-A-Wish, and everything he’s done to help kids around the world – this is really what shaped the man.’

Frank shows Chris Greicius his motorcycle. The police department had a custom made uniform created for Greicius; the store owner and two employees stayed up all night sewing so it to be finished in time. Chris died a few days later

Frank shows Chris Greicius his motorcycle. The police department had a custom made uniform created for Greicius; the store owner and two employees stayed up all night sewing so it to be finished in time. Chris died a few days later

Learning this was a turning point for the director of the film, Theo Davies, who recalled driving around Arizona location scouting with Frank, ‘He started talking about his father and he started to get emotional, wiping away tears from his eyes. I thought, with all this distraction with Make-A-Wish, and everything he’s done to help kids around the world – this is really what shaped the man.’

After weeks on the road sleeping in the car, Frank and his mother eventually settled into in a tiny trailer with no running water in Seligman, Arizona – the small town where they finally ran out of gas and money. Shankwitz began washing dishes at Delgadillo’s famous Snow Cap Drive-In to pay for bills. Juan Delgadillo became a stand-in father-figure to Shankwitz, ‘He got me involved with sports, I had never played before. He taught me basket basketball, music, how to build things. He taught me integrity and character,’ explained Shankwitz. ‘And the biggest lesson he taught me in life was that you don’t have to have money to be a hero or to give back.’ That lesson would inevitably be the driving force behind every decision Frank made as an adult.  

And then suddenly, at 12-years-old, Frank’s mother abandoned him again: ‘I had just started seventh grade and my mother said she was leaving, that she’s going to move to Prescott and I’m on my own.’ He pauses, ‘and that kind-of devastated me.’

Distraught, Frank turned to Juan for help. ‘He taught me how to turn negatives into a positive,’ said Shankwitz. Juan arranged for him to stay with a local widow for $20 per week. Now instead of showering at the Santa Fe Men’s Quarters, he lived in a house with running water, had his own bedroom with an en suite bathroom. ‘The next positive, she’s the best cook in town. You don’t have to worry about meals anymore. And the final positive- she’s got the first television set in Seligman, Arizona.’

Chris Greicius poses in his police uniform on his motorcycle. Shankwitz told DailyMail.com: ‘...Chris changed me, just all of a sudden, I could see that I had a different mission in life'

Chris Greicius poses in his police uniform on his motorcycle. Shankwitz told DailyMail.com: ‘…Chris changed me, just all of a sudden, I could see that I had a different mission in life’

Frank Shankwitz (left) poses for a photo with actor Robert Pine who plays Sgt. Eddie Newman, a mentor of Frank's while he was working in the Arizona Highway Patrol

Frank Shankwitz (left) poses for a photo with actor Robert Pine who plays Sgt. Eddie Newman, a mentor of Frank’s while he was working in the Arizona Highway Patrol

After graduating high school, Shankwitz joined the Air Force but managed to avoid serving time in Vietnam because he was stationed in England. He was recruited by Motorola after his enlistment because they were looking to hire veterans with top-secret security clearances while developing missiles for the government. They paid for Frank to attend college on the G.I. Bill where he got his degree in Statistical Engineering, ‘my math teachers got a big kick out of that,’ he laughs. For seven years, Shankwitz was happy working for Motorola, he had a great salary and was constantly being promoted but he felt like something was missing.

Several of his friends joined the Arizona Highway Patrol, and at their nudging he also applied on a whim. ‘Best career choice I ever made because 42 years later I finally left,’ he said to DailyMail.com.

There were some difficult times for Shankwitz too, the film delves into a story line that shows Frank Shankwitz being framed for a police-brutality incident by a fellow cop. According to the film, Shankwitz called for backup when a routine traffic stop got out of hand. Things got worse when the responding officer that was known for his bad reputation, used excessive force while arresting the drunk passenger in the stopped vehicle – beating the man within an inch of his life with a flashlight. The internal investigation was undermined by the guilty cop who then pointed the finger at Shankwitz. When asked if he wanted to discuss the claims, Shankwitz said: ‘No. We’ll let the movie speak for itself, it’s over and done. I didn’t want to add that in the movie because it put somewhat of a bad light on the Highway Patrol that I spent 42 years with.’

In 1978, Frank Shankwitz was involved in a near fatal car accident where he was pronounced dead on the scene. He hit another vehicle broadside at 85 mph while on his motorcycle during a high-speed chase with a drunk driver but pulled through after four minutes without a pulse. He spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from a skull fracture, a massive traumatic brain injury and multiple broken bones. After making a full recovery, his doctor told him, ‘You died that night and God spared you for a reason. Now it’s up to you to find that reason.’ He continued, ‘And it was two years later when I met Chris that we found that reason.’

Andrew Steele, who plays the role as Frank Shankwitz talks to the young actor playing Chris Greicius during a poignant scene in the film

Andrew Steele, who plays the role as Frank Shankwitz talks to the young actor playing Chris Greicius during a poignant scene in the film 

Actors Andrew Steele and Kirby Blanton (left) stand next to the real Kitty Carlisle and Frank Shankwitz

Actors Andrew Steele and Kirby Blanton (left) stand next to the real Kitty Carlisle and Frank Shankwitz

It was while recovering from the accident that Frank met his current wife, Kitty Carlisle. Carlisle was working as a secretary for the police department when she was asked by the commander to monitor Frank in the immediate days after he was released from the hospital. ‘Lets just put it this way, it wasn’t a love/hate relationship. It was a very much ‘not like’ relationship. He had a huge chip on his shoulder as big as Texas, and he wasn’t very fond of women you could tell,’ she told DailyMail.com.

‘During that particular period, yes, I was somewhat angry. I had just gone through a bad divorce and I was suffering from a lot of PTSD from having to work on that fatal team. Just too many dead bodies constantly,’ explained Frank.

Shankwitz was on patrol one afternoon when the dispatcher radioed in and ordered him to find the nearest payphone as soon as possible – his commanders at the station had an important message for him. ‘I called in thinking I was in trouble for something,’ remembers Shankwitz. Instead he was being asked for a favour by a Customs Agent named Tom Austin who had befriended a little boy named Chris Greicius with leukemia. Chris’ heroes were Ponch and John from the hit television show about the California Highway Patrol, CHiPS and his only wish was to meet a real motorcycle cop.

Wish Man will be released on demand September 3

Wish Man will be released on demand September 3 

They arranged to pick Chris up from the hospital in the helicopter and flew him to the police headquarters in Phoenix. ‘As the helicopter was approaching…I could look up and I can see this kid’s face pressed against the glass, looking down a big smile on his face,’ said Shankwitz, who expected the paramedics to help him out once they landed. Instead, Chris came bounding out the door with energy, ‘He was laughing and giggling, running all over the place.’ He couldn’t contain his excitement. Shankwitz remembers looking over at Chris’ mother crying, ‘I couldn’t understand why at first. Then it dawned on me, she has her seven-year-old back.’

Chris’ dream was to be a motorcycle officer and the station commissioned him a set of ‘wings’ – the silver insignia that all motorcycle cops wear pinned to their uniform. Before they had a chance to present it to him, Chris took a devastating turn for the worst and fell into a coma. Shankwitz rushed to the hospital and pinned it to his tiny custom-made uniform that was hanging near his bedside – he became the first and only honorary highway patrol officer in the State of Arizona. He died a few days later.

Flying back from Chris’ funeral is when Frank came up with the idea for Make-A-Wish, ‘I started thinking, here’s a boy who had a wish and we made it happen. Why can’t we do that for other children? And that’s when the idea for Make-A-Wish was born.’

Kitty joined the board along with four others that included Chris Greicius’ mother and fellow colleagues from the police department. ‘I think that’s when I started having feelings and falling in love with him was during the beginning of Make-A-Wish because he just turned into a totally different person. He lost that facade of the tough guy,’ said Kitty to Dailymail.com.

Getting Make-A-Wish off the ground was not easy, but work ethic was something Frank learned at a young age when he had to survive on his own without parents. Frank and Kitty continued to work full time at the police department while trying to balance the non-profit in 20-hour long days. After 18 months Shankwitz made the decision to hand over the reins to more capable hands. ‘I was also going into narcotics at the time, I couldn’t have my face and name plastered all over the place anymore.’

More importantly, Frank knew he needed professional help from the non-profit world: ‘You’ve heard the phrase, ‘surround yourself with people smarter than you’ right? Well that was the best decision the board made at the time.’ They began hiring people that had the proper experience, background and contacts to turn Make-A-Wish into what it is today – a worldwide non-profit in 50 countries around the world that have granted more than 334,000 come true.

Helping people has been the fabric of Frank’s life since he was young. ‘What I expressed to Theo, the director, in all these interviews we did was that Chris changed me, just all of a sudden, I could see that I had a different mission in life.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


Comments are closed.