Frank Gniffke ’63

17 November 2005

Class: 1963

Major: English

Deceased: October 11, 2005

A remembrance by Lee Mauk

Frank and I didn’t have a close friendship at Carleton. Friendly, I suppose, but not really “friends.” So I was surprised to get a call from him in April 1998. Frank was living in Hawaii then, and a letter that I had written to our class had stirred him to reconnect with me.

What followed was a long series of numerous phone calls until Frank’s death in October 2005.

In 1997 Frank suffered an aneurism, and was in a coma for four months. Surgeons removed the blood clot while he was comatose. After coming out of the coma, he had paralysis of his left side. In his final years, he was living alone, confined to a wheelchair.

Those years were lonely ones for him; I was only a phone call away. When the caller ID read “Hawaii,” I knew it was Frank, and I knew we’d be on the phone for at least an hour. The 5-hour time difference was a challenge, especially when he got the urge to talk in the evening. And on the phone, his speech was slow and at times slurred.

Over those 7 years, I learned a lot about this guy. He did have a rather amazing career. Immediately after graduating from Harvard Law, Frank began working in Asia. He described his practice as business law, civil law, and international law. He was fluent in German, Chinese and Japanese languages.

Frank was quite involved in opening China and the Pacific Rim to American businesses. He was the 31st American to become a member of the Japanese bar, and served as an attorney while living in Tokyo for several years, and was a member of the Japan bar association. He was in the first group of American lawyers to join the Hong Kong bar, and was a member of Hong Kong’s law society. He was a senior leader of the American Chamber in Hong Kong. He was involved in a lobbying effort in Washington to promote American business in China. He worked with American banks and companies to transfer products and technology to their Asian facilities.

Frank represented drug companies (Pfizer, La Roche) who wanted to bring geriatric drugs to an Asian population that was starting to live longer. He worked with American entertainment companies to bring American pop culture to the third world, including Warner, CNN, ABC. He even helped Dick Clark to bring a rock and roll concert to Japan, featuring Cindi Lauper and Whitney Houston. He chuckled at General Motors’ hiring him to help with their “dream” to put a Ford in every home in China!

Frank’s personal life was troubled. He married a Japanese woman in the late 1980s, and they had two children in 1990 and 1994. In about 2000, Frank and his wife separated. The children and their mother lived just around the corner in Waipahu, Hawaii, which meant that Frank was able to see the children almost every day. His kids brought great joy to him. His phone calls usually came on days when he hadn’t seen them. He talked a lot about where the kids might go to college, and he was concerned about whether he would be able to provide the funds they would need for their college years.

After our first few phone calls, Russ, my partner, said, “Hmmm. Gniffke. Find out if he was ever a counselor Camp Ihduhapi.” I did ask, and yes, he had been. Coincidentally, Frank and Russ had been counselors in summer of 1960, at Minneapolis YMCA’s Camp Ihduhapi. This opened a treasure trove of memories as Frank reminisced about his summers as a camp counselor. I was treated to many shaggy dog stories of camp pranks and experiences.

Frank’s final years were long and lonely. In writing this, I am reminded of how much I appreciated my phone calls from Frank. I am also reminded of my sadness when, after several months of not hearing from him, I dialed his number on January 1, 2006, to wish him a Happy New Year, and heard that dreaded message: the phone number was no longer in service, and no further information was available.

How I wish I could have one of those conversations with Frank again. But even more than that, I wish those conversations had started at Carleton.


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  • 2014-08-06 18:31:22
    Al French

    I knew Frank well at CCC as we were in a singing group together. Now learning that his last years were lonely I wish I had known that I could at least have called him from time to time... but how many old acquaintances now are in that situation and I don't know? I just look up old acquaintances from time to time and surprise people by calling. If anyone reads this... Al French reachable at I'm 73, can still spit without getting my toes wet. Miss Frank !

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