Today’s offering is actually about two different entities: One was a theater in Washington, D.C., where our 16th president was murdered 150 years ago this month and the other a friend and Napa schoolmate of mine from the 1940s.
The theater was Ford’s Theatre, a converted Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., owned by a John T. Ford (no relation). On April 14, 1865, just five days after Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant, ending America’s bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot and fatally wounded while attending a stage play.
Lincoln, 56, was in the presidential box when an actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, 26, entered and shot him in the back of the head.
Booth then jumped from the box to the stage, ran out a rear door and escaped on a waiting and saddled horse.
The injured Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house where he died early on the morning of April 15, 1865.
Booth was found 10 days later about 95 miles from Washington. On the morning of April 24, 1865, he was shot and killed while resisting arrest.
Now to the other side of the story: My friend and schoolmate was Frankie Teague.
Frankie was born in 1931 in Oklahoma. Her family migrated to the Napa Valley in 1939, during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and settled in a house on Napa’s Salvador Avenue.
The family was very poor. Later in life, Frankie told me that, as a little girl, she did not have shoes and remembered what it was like to be hungry.
I first met Frankie in 1942 when we were both enrolled at Salvador School. We were friends from then through Napa Junior High and Napa High. I graduated in 1948 and she in 1949.
When Frankie was 15, her abusive father became upset with her and evicted her from their home. She had to work to support herself while going to school.
Frankie was a good writer and went to work for the Napa Register where she became the society editor covering items such as weddings, anniversaries and family reunions.
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After high school, we went our separate ways, and it was not until years later that I was told that Frankie had left town, gotten married and divorced and was living in Washington, D.C.
Frankie had a varied adult working career. According to several Internet sources and, based on our personal conversations in the 1990s, she worked in corporate advertising, was a staff assistant for governmental agencies, directed a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, was a public affairs adviser to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and was very active on John Kennedy’s presidential election committee.
In 1963, Frankie married Don Hewitt, the originator and longtime producer of TV’s “60 Minutes.” It was her second marriage. They were divorced in 1974.
Frankie was acquainted with Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall and knew that his department had control of Ford’s Theatre. While married to Hewitt, and with his encouragement, she prevailed upon Udall to follow through on a tentative plan to convert the neglected government warehouse into a museum but also a replica of the live-action theater it was in 1865. She was successful.
Frankie founded the Ford’s Theatre Foundation, which provided financial support and a theater, looking very much as it did over a century before. It opened on Feb. 12, 1968, Lincoln’s birth date.
The success of the first few stage presentations was less than satisfying, so Frankie assumed the position of executive producer. During 33 years of involvement, she produced over 150 plays and musicals.
Presidential galas were produced and aired on television. It was great to watch them and see my friend Frankie sitting next to Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.
While serving as the executive director of the Napa Chamber of Commerce from 1990 to 1996, I arranged and headed several citizen delegation trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for what is today’s ongoing Napa River Flood Control Project.
I contacted Frankie on our first trip and we met for lunch and talked about our youth in Napa. She then made arrangements for our group to attend a play at the theater.
For future Chamber trips to Washington, I only had to call Frankie’s assistant and she would arrange for the group to attend the theater. Frankie always met with the group and proudly admitted that she was from Napa.
She died of cancer at age 71 at her home in Kensington, Maryland, in 2003. Two daughters survive her.
Frankie received many recognitions and awards. She was the 1978 Washingtonian Woman of the Year and woman of the year for several of her other organizations. In recognition of her many accomplishments, on the day before she died, President George W. Bush presented her the National Humanities Medal.