Joe Frantz, 1950-2009

Against the Current, No. 142, September/October 2009

Mike Parker

JOE GELDERS FRANTZ died unexpectedly on February 4, 2009. He was exercising at a club, fell or collapsed and hit his head. He died on the way to the hospital.

Joe came from an intense political background. He was named for his grandfather, a physics professor in Alabama who became a leader of the Communist Party there during the ’30s. (See Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe) Joe’s parents were active Communist organizers in the South and then in California.

I met Joe in 1967 in Berkeley when he joined the drive to register the Peace and Freedom Party on the state ballot. That was when he fell in with the Independent Socialist Club (soon to become the International Socialists). Ken, another person who joined that registration drive remembers:

“Joe was a child genius. He played chess and bridge. He told me it was odd doing these adult intellectual activities with a kid’s emotions. Once he got behind in a chess game, and then he deliberately moved his pieces to get taken like a kid would.”

He had traveled the state playing, and frequently winning, bridge tournaments. By the time we met him, Joe had abandoned interest in serious bridge (and chess), but played socially with some of us. He would not be paying any attention to the game, but always had the suits counted and individual remaining cards noted.

He didn’t fit in when he was a kid. He refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, and then didn’t understand when parents didn’t want their kids to play with him. Since his communist parents had lots of friends over, and they seemed all to be communists, he figured there were lots out there but only in the privacy of the home.

At the University of California, he came to my house late in the semester; he had enrolled in a calculus course but had never gone to class or read the text. He wanted me to tutor him for the final exam. I cannot recall my reaction but I would think it would have been “that’s impossible.” But we studied that evening. I think Joe went home and studied all night and the next day took the final and, yes, he got an A in calculus.

Joe dropped out of college. He chaired a huge rally in May 1970, the day after the Kent State students were killed protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Joe led the crowd through the UC buildings calling students out on strike, effectively shutting down much of the university that day.

In the early ‘70s Joe with a number of others from the Berkeley IS moved to Detroit as part of our effort to build a revolutionary socialist current in the working class. He worked for a time in the GM Fleetwood Assembly Plant. He helped build new IS branches, spending months in Pittsburgh giving classes. In this period he and Karen Kassirer married and divorced.

In 1975 he moved to Wheeling to take a job in the coal mines. It was a dangerous place to be. Even more dangerous than the mines were the right wing, anti-communist groupings in the mineworkers. Jo, a West Virginia native, remembers:

“He was going by the name of Joe Fine back in those secretive days. I remember him as a really friendly man and very much into his politics. I remember him driving a car full of us someplace on a secondary road in WV, talking energetically about politics. The faster he talked, the slower he drove, until he was creeping down the road about 15 miles an hour with a long line of cars backed up behind him and passing him every chance they got. We were in the back seat pressing our feet to the floorboard in hope of acceleration, which never came.”

Political work at the Wheeling mines was not successful so he moved. In 1977 Joe began working at Inland Steel in Gary, Indiana. He made it through the apprenticeship and became a motor inspector (electrician). He was active in the Steel workers, USWA 1010, and became a griever (steward) for the #7 Blast Furnace, the largest in North America. He was active in the national reform caucus inside the Steel Workers, which had won the Steel Workers District with Jim Balanoff as District Director.

His most important activity started out in the Local 1010 environment committee. He represented this committee in the Bailey Alliance, a movement to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant on the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan in the early 1980s. A unique feature of this coalition in opposition to the nuclear plant was that it was led by steelworkers and utility workers who would have operated the plant.

The anti-nuclear work became Joe’s passion. Jack remembers that Joe was the representative of the Bailey Alliance at anti-nuke events across the country. Joe told me that he considered it the high point of his political work. The movement stopped construction on the plant and nuclear power became a dead issue. During this work he met and married Brenda, becoming a dad to her two daughters.

In December 1982 Joe and Brenda moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Joe decided that he wanted to be a teacher; he went back to school. When he and Brenda divorced he remained in close contact with his daughters.

As a teacher, Joe become interested in bilingual education and started observations in bilingual classrooms as part of his teaching studies. He met Gladys Lazo, a bilingual teacher at Glen Park School in San Francisco. Joe and Gladys began a relationship and married in 1989; they had Joseph in 1990. They shared a passion for education and a loving commitment to each other.

Joe started out teaching 6th grade. He moved to McAteer High school in San Francisco and taught math and government. Joe’s ability to learn quickly served him well: When computer equipment was introduced Joe stepped into the void and became the school computer guru. Later he took a leave to work with a consulting group that introduced computers into schools, but the company failed with the dot-com bubble burst.

Joe was hired by the Emery school district as a technical specialist. He quickly rose to become a Director of Curriculum and Special Projects, Assistant Superintendent, and then Chief Business Officer.

Joe was proud of his work in the Emeryville schools. While Emeryville is a community run by commercial and wealthy commuter interests, the students are mainly poor African Americans and recent immigrants. He felt that the district, known for its innovation, had great potential.

His son Joseph describes Joe’s educational views: “He believed the entire system was broken; his main goal in education was to make it accessible for those who ordinarily would be ostracized by the system.”

In recent years Joe was not politically active. He generally supported the Greens but was alienated by the “campaign to lose” 2004 strategy. Early on he saw the powerful impact that the Obama campaign had on the African-American community. At the same time he understood the role of the Democratic Party in maintaining the oppression he witnessed daily.

Joe leaves a large family: his wife Gladys, his children Joseph, William, Gary, Grace, stepdaughters and grandchildren, his siblings Larry, Virginia and Alex, and his mother, Marge.

ATC 142, September-October 2009

1 comment

  1. I’ve been looking for Joe for years. What a way to finally find out what happened to him!
    I worked with him at USWA Local 1010 and the Bailey Alliance in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. He was one of the very best Union people I knew. He is and has been missed.
    So sad to hear of his untimely death.
    Mike Olszanski, past president, Local 1010

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