On a quiet hillside beneath a bruised November sky, family, friends and former co-workers gathered to bid farewell and Godspeed to a man who had lived a life of duty, loyalty and perseverance for nearly ninety years. Fitting to the occasion and the man, police and military honor guards stood at attention as the bugler played taps and a bagpiper delivered a moving rendition of Amazing Grace. The long and productive life of Frank Geist lends credence to the maxim that character is fate and renders his a story worthy of telling.
Frank was born in Boston on New Years Day 1932, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, at a time when Herbert Hoover was President and Adolf Hitler merely Germany’s problem. His father and namesake, Frank Sr, was a Massachusetts State Trooper who, according to Frank, met his mother Florence Brockelbank in the course of a motorcycle patrol through Ipswich one day. Frank’s parents were not destined for marital bliss, nor was Frank the beneficiary of a stable relationship with his father. Troopers in those early days of the State Police experienced barracks living, eighty hour work weeks, and frequent transfer throughout the Commonwealth, a lifestyle surely not conducive to maintaining a family.
Frank spent his early years with his mother in Lynn, where the neighborhood ladies dubbed him “Little Maxie-Baer,” enamored with this sole, blonde-haired German gentile in their predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Frank and his mother later returned to more familiar settings in Ipswich, where Frank attended school graduating from Ipswich High in 1949. During those early years in Ipswich, Frank would have occasional visits from his father, but he mostly raised himself, with his mother working in the local mills during the day, and bar-tending in various local establishments at night. They moved frequently, from one attic or basement apartment to the next, doing their best to keep body and soul together.
As a kid, Frank also known as Bill or Billy, ran on the wild side and had what folks would call a troubled youth, though Frank would pointedly define himself as a ruffian. He and his cronies – kids just like himself, would throw tomato’s at passing police cars from Battle Point on Wayne Avenue, daring the cops to give chase. Frank claimed that the aging members of that ancient constabulary were too old and fat to catch them, but the police possessed keen memories, and when the opportunity arose, would administer swift, sharp and even-handed justice.
In High School, Frank, accompanied by close friend and future Ipswich Firefighter Joe Burns, relied on borrowed cars for transportation around town. The lack of owner permission didn’t deter them, but they never damaged a vehicle and always left them in public view for easy recovery. Eventually, Frank found himself facing the Judge at Third District Court in Ipswich. A local clergyman familiar with Frank recommended the Judge administer Old Testament Justice and send him to juvenile hall to teach him a harsh lesson. But the wise Judge followed the rule of compassion over punishment and Frank was remanded to the watchful supervision of a local Ipswich patrolman. Frank would report to Officer Gordon Ewing at the police station and account for his activities during the past week, keenly aware the town was small and the local cops knew the skinny on everyone’s business. Frank found it difficult to get away with much, and his behavior revealed a marked turn for the better. In hindsight, he thought that the experience was beneficial, providing the mischievous fifteen year old a different view of the badge and an awareness that would serve him well over decades of police work.
Despite this bumpy upbringing, Frank had people in his life that cared about him and helped him along. For a time, he roomed with the Markos family on Ryan Avenue, where he always had a warm bed at night, a hot meal to eat, a big family to be part of and a caring matriarch in Bessie Markos who supported him and helped round off the hard edges of his life. His aunt Elizabeth helped him too, both as a kid and later as an adult. Frank would always remember her and be grateful for her kindness.
Upon graduating high school, Frank pled with his mother to sign off on early enlistment and entered the US Army. At seventeen he trained as a paratrooper and joined the vaunted 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg. When asked why he volunteered for such a dangerous assignment, he simply replied that paratroopers earned an additional $50.00 in jump pay each month. The army recognized Frank’s superior intelligence and keen facility with numbers, and assigned him to a regimental finance position when he wasn’t jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. A rough landing left Frank with a permanent back injury and relieved of jump duty just as the Korean War broke out. When he learned that the 82nd would not be deployed to the war zone, Frank volunteered for any position that would get him there. His persistence led to an assignment with the Quartermaster Grave and Registration Division, a difficult and demanding position; accompanying the battle line, recovering and identifying deceased G.I.’s, caring for their remains and assuring their ultimate return home. At night he endured constant mortar attacks, sniper fire and other enemy action, taking a shrapnel wound to the hand, which like the memories of his war, remained embedded with him to the end of his life.
When Frank mustered out of the service, he returned to Ipswich and worked as a Crane Beach lifeguard and in construction. He took the Civil Service police exam, likely acing it, and in 1954, began a 34 year career with the Ipswich Police Department. In 1955, he married the former Rita Troccoli of Malden, whom he had met at a dance at the Pavilion. They bought a place on Lakemans Lane and had two kids, Lisa and Mark. They would remain together until Rita passed in 2019.
Frank’s career with the Ipswich Police began at a time when the town remained much the same as the one he grew up in, hardscrabble and working class. Many of the police who chased him in his youth were still around; Chief Surpitski, Sergeants Boley Radzinski and Joe Arcisz, Officer Gordon Ewing, and others. Now Frank would be part of a new generation of cops, some from the Greatest Generation like Bob Comeau, and others his contemporaries like Pete Brouillette, Joe Carpenter, Ed Rauscher, Cliff Wentworth and Walter Klimaseski, members of the Silent Generation, born and raised in a time of widespread economic depression, world war and social upheaval.
The cop job in Ipswich then was largely a walking one. Sure, we had a “cruising car,” for patrol of the outer areas of town, and an ambulance to haul people off to the hospital, but local cops spent most of their time walking where the action was – downtown. Remember if you can, once downtown Ipswich had everything a person could want; clothing stores, restaurants, cafe’s and coffee shops, drug stores, a movie theater, barrooms, polls rooms, barber shops, more barrooms, gas stations, a train depot, hotel and a bowling alley along with factories, machine shops and other forms of commerce creating a rich, small town world for its residents. These businesses attracted hoards of people, and the police were there to keep the peace, enforce the parking rules, prevent burglaries at night and provide a sense of security to the law-abiding and a deterrent to the law-breaking. Cop’s walked alone, had no portable radios to summon help and learned to live by their wits. Frank quickly established a reputation for fairness to all and firmness to those who really deserved it. Perhaps it was his own difficult upbringing that informed his judgment, but he treated the least fortunate with the most discretion, extended compassion to those stricken by tragedy, and cast a gimlet eye toward the pomposity and pretense of the self-important.
With more than a dozen “establishments,” serving booze in town, Ipswich had long been one of the wettest of the wet towns for its population on the North Shore. This created the inevitable problems for the cops with drunk, disorderly, assaultive and pugnacious inebriates. Public fights were common, with the police making frequent arrests as a result. Frank was not a big man, but he handled himself with professionalism and restraint when possible, and exerted the force needed to get the job done where necessary. Frank took pride in keeping the peace, maintaining a “clean” beat and taking action when things were askew.
Pete Brouillette recalled one frustrating situation when he and Frank were young patrolmen that involved illegal gambling taking place in the wee hours at The Eagles Club above the Depot Spa. After two a.m., the downtown would normally be quiet and nearly vacant, but on certain nights both he and Frank noted many cars parked in the square and activity apparent inside the club. Action was certainly called for, and one night when the place seemed busy, good fortune revealed an unlocked door to the conscientious patrolmen who made entry to investigate a potential public nuisance (this was the 1950s remember.) A door on the second floor was also found unsecured and the two burst through with Frank announcing, “This is a raid!” as he jumped atop a table laden with cards and cash. The shocked players, mostly locals known to the cops, were duly marched down to Elm Street, booked for public policy crimes and released on bail so they could get to work in the morning. In court, the transgressors pled guilty and paid their fines without a whisper of a Fourth Amendment argument, nor did they hold a grudge or voice a resentment. And the gambling ceased at the Eagles.
Of more pastoral interest, Frank was often accompanied on the beat by a nomadic mongrel he named Von Tipden, who was known for his appetite for the hot dogs from the Depot Spa and the unsightly dingle-berries on his rear end. Frank’s loyal companion would wait for him to emerge from the side door of Town Hall at the onset of his shift and walk the walk with Frank in anticipation of his reward. These pre-leash law days allowed Von Tipden to live a dogs life, peregrinating freely among the streets and alleys of downtown, and once duly served his favorite treat by his favorite cop, would saunter off to home where his grooming continued to be be largely ignored.
Like all cops, Frank worked overtime and side jobs to make a better life for his family and to afford his children a higher education. When the Agawam Diner once overlooked Depot Square from the heights of Saltonstall Street before it decamped to Peabody and then to its present location in Rowley, it would stay open after the bars closed to serve those who just couldn’t bear the idea of going home just yet. Weekend nights could be trouble, so they hired a cop to run heard on the rowdies who swarmed the place. The pay was extraordinary; five bucks, a sandwich and glass of milk. For this the cop on duty would watch the register, keep the peace and when needed, evict the disorderly. Why someone would act up at a place where they serve you good food and clear your dirty dishes remains a mystery, but I digress. A waiting cruiser would usually be parked in the square with an officer keeping a weathered eye on things. When the detail cop decided someone earned the blue plate special and needed to be arrested, he would summon the officer with his flashlight, cuff the mouthy miscreant and stuff him in the back seat of the arriving cruiser for a ride to the cell block. Frank also worked at his aunt and uncles Surf Restaurant in Magnolia, where he was the host and coat room attendant, and ran the cigarette and candy concession. At closing, he would take a pizza back home, eat half, save the remainder for the kids and report to the station for duty at one a.m.
As any cop in any small town knows, death by homicide, accident, fire, suicide and other tragic means usually result in police involvement on a personal level. Often, the victim is known to us or there is some familiarity with a family member or relative. In his career, Frank dealt with many families in the worst moments of their lives. He provided the steady, calm demeanor so needed at a time of tragedy, maintained a quiet reverence for the dead and respect for surviving family. He oversaw what needed to be done and quietly brought relief to families through his competence and knowledge. His was a stoicism steeped in compassion , and the inner strength that he forged in Korea equipped him to provide aid and comfort to the stricken and afflicted in Ipswich.
Frank had spent nearly fourteen years in patrol, when in 1967, he was promoted to sergeant upon the retirement of Sergeant Joseph Arcisz. The community then was on the cusp of societal change with all of the attendant problems related to drug abuse, addiction, and rising crime right here at home. Frank would no longer be on the street, but would supervise the other cops from inside the station. This presented a frustrating situation for someone so hands-on and adept at his trade. He would take opportunities to exchange the desk for the street where he could, responding to the most serious matters, or taking an hour or two on patrol to feel more like the cop that he was. Those of us who worked for him admired the solid, steady leader who didn’t suffer fools gladly, called things as he saw them and never forgot where he came from. He understood how complex our jobs could be at times because he had experienced it, wrestled with the same problems and recognized that although there was a wrong way to do things, there was certainly more than one way to do the right thing. He let you learn from your errors, told you when you made a mistake and supported you when you were right. With his incisive wit and a wry smile, he deflated folly and foolishness, kept our morale up and set the example of what an Ipswich cop should be. We were indeed blessed to call him Sarge.
In 1988, Pete Brouillette announced he would be retiring that summer. Frank would have been the natural choice to replace him, but was fully vested and ready for something different himself. He beat Pete out the door, leaving in April to work the evening shift as a tax examiner at the IRS in Andover. He did this for ten more years, assuring that you and I paid our fair share and not a nickel more. He liked the relative calm of the evening shift there, enjoying the quiet ride home where he would settle down and watch the Tonight Show that Rita had recorded for him. During the day he would work on his wood pile, visit with neighbor and friend Armand Michaud, tolerate visits from people like me, and keep the home fires burning.
After Frank and Rita fully, finally and completely retired, they spent their time devoted to one another and Lisa and Mark. Aging gracefully, you could spy Billy at the bank on occasion, busy making sure all things added up, shopping with Rita at Market Basket or dining at the Sylvan Street Grille or the erstwhile Spuds. The martini’s at Spuds were light on olives, so Frank would smuggle some in from home so Rita could enjoy a proper cocktail. Later on, Rita’s fragile health grew complicated, demanding more attention, care and devotion from Frank. Eventually, Rita would need a skilled nursing facility to live in, and Frank would visit her there every day, bringing a muffin, the latest news, and most importantly to Rita, his love. At the onset of 2019, Frank would endure a double blow of tragedy, losing both Rita and daughter Lisa in the span of three weeks time. These losses shook him to his core and he was never quite the same afterward. His son Mark became his caretaker and primary support, dividing his time between his family in California and his father in Ipswich, doing all a son could do in such circumstances. To the end, Frank remained feisty and determined to live as independently as he could, until on October 28th, when he passed quietly to his rest.
The Frank that I knew was a very private man adept at keeping his deepest thoughts to himself. He was loyal to his friends and family, and tended to his business as he allowed others to tend to theirs. When the situation demanded, he was a man of action, yet always remained a man of thought. He was a quietly proud veteran, a patriot and an exemplary police officer and sergeant. His passing marks the near-ending of an era, with Pete Brouillette now the lone sentinel of that remarkable generation of cops who dealt with a rapidly changing society as best they could, strove to do the right thing always, and above all, keep Ipswich safe. And when you think about it, that’s not a bad legacy to have.