I never met him.
I also never had the chance to call or text him, and come to think of it, I also didn’t know anyone who was friends with him.
As a matter of fact, like pretty much everyone else who assumed he’d always be here for us, I didn’t even know his name.
That was how he wanted it.
Yet for me and tens of thousands of other folks around here, his impact was immense. In fact, in just a few short years, he became a social media phenomenon: out of our San Luis Obispo County coastal community here in California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and totaling about 250,000 people, he had close to 55,000 Facebook Friends.
For us, he was known only as the SLOStringer.
(In journalism parlance, a stringer is an old-timey word for a freelance writer or photographer who contributes reports and photos to news organizations on a regular basis.)
Using this pseudonym, and not unlike today’s tornado chasers of the Midwest, he traveled our entire County and sometimes headed to adjacent ones — well over 3,000 square miles — always on his own dime, informing the public of car accidents, fires and other disasters. Indeed, he was often the first (sometimes, only) reporter on a breaking story, but made a point to never get in the way of first responders. For this, he earned a great deal of respect from that side of the aisle as well.
And something else: almost always, his stories were accompanied by extraordinary videos and photos that were so good, they would have been right at home in the pages of National Geographic magazine.
It was a need that needed filling, because while this is a wondrous place to live, it is also not a place where there are 24/7 news and traffic reports.
He informed me twice in this way.
A few years back, he responded to a Facebook message about a child care center surrounded by a SWAT team, which was also on a major street that is part of my husband’s drive home. The event wasn’t covered by any news outlet, but he knew all about it, writing me back that a homeless man had wandered inside the center, but that all had ended peacefully.
The other incident was a gnarly traffic accident about a mile or so from my house a few weeks back. There were lots of sirens; bright lights, and emergency vehicles, but since the incident happened at around nine p.m., I couldn’t find any news reports. But once again via Facebook, he got back to me the next morning, giving me details and assuring me that although it had been a head-on collision, there were no serious injuries.
Then, in a curious twist of karma, his own life ended a couple of days later, in a fiery nighttime crash.
On a cold rainy highway on Tuesday, March 21, at around four a.m., he was on his way to cover a house fire about 20 minutes away. For still-unknown reasons, his 2009 Chevy Tahoe veered off to the right shoulder of the road, then careened down a grassy embankment toward a tree. The car then rolled over, its top crashing into the tree. Landing hard on its tires, the vehicle immediately caught fire.
The SLOStringer was pronounced dead on the scene.
The first article on the crash, which I read with bated breath a few hours later, simply reported the accident, with a photo of the mangled car. It’s a busy highway, and one that The Teenage Daughter drives on a few days a week, so I did a mighty exhale when I saw that the vehicle was not hers. The next report, only moments later, stated that the car and the license number matched those belonging to the SLOStringer. The third article, reported soon after, affirmed that the SLOStringer was the lone fatality.
Out loud, sitting at my laptop, I said, “Oh, NOOOO!”
It was only then that I learned his name.
He was Matthew Frank, 30 years old and a home grown boy, a graduate of the 2005 class of San Luis Obispo High School. At the time of his death, he was taking business classes at Cuesta College, the awesome community college that my daughter also attends. To close friends, he was a quiet young man who loved tinkering with motorcycles; in fact, it turns out that he owned a bike repair shop right in San Luis Obispo.
Those who just knew Frank by his public persona also now discovered that he was the person who painted over some nasty graffiti on a railroad bridge two years ago.
Because the bridge is owned by Union Pacific, the city didn’t have the authority to cover the four-letter word that faced traffic. So, Frank simply got some gray paint and took matters into his own hands. And since he was allowed access, his fans now learned that he had also helped feed and comfort the pets of many families who had been forced to evacuate their homes during the Chimney Fire, a horrific inferno that lasted for weeks last summer.
There were other acts of kindness toward the firefighters he loved.
One fire chief recalled his crews fighting a nighttime blaze for hours. Everyone, said this chief, was completely spent when they returned to their station. As they were wearily rolling hoses and getting ready for the next call, Frank showed up with breakfast burritos.
Like my baby girl is to me, Matthew Frank was also an only child.
As most of my friends know, I lost her first father to suicide. I might have taken my own life soon after if I hadn’t had a small child who needed me. But if my daughter were to pass before me, it would absolutely bring me to my knees. I’d get up, but it would take a good long while. I also know, with absolute certainty, that the hole in my heart would be utterly irreparable.
Yet, as Matthew Frank’s mother Jacquelyn said, “He loved the community service he did, and he died doing what he loved.”
This affection was returned in spades at Frank’s memorial, attended by hundreds of people and dozens of fire engines and tow trucks parked outside the venue. The church service also included a firefighters’ “last alarm” bell-ringing ceremony, and a flyover by the County Sheriff’s Aero Squadron — a group that Frank hoped to join one day.
Perhaps one firefighter said it best.
“I’m a little nervous now,” he said, “because God has got one hell of a cameraman.”
Sleep well, Matthew Frank.