ROX Interview: Frank Shankwitz



First President and Co-founder of Make-A-Wish Foundation

Interview by Ray Newton

Frank Shankwitz’s compassion in 1980 for a 7-year-old boy dying of leukemia lead to what is now the world’s largest charity granting wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. The movie Wish Man about his life was released in June 2019.

It started when Shankwitz was an Arizona Highway Patrol officer and he met Chris Greicius, a Phoenix youngster who wanted to be a Highway Patrol motorcycle officer. Something about the boy touched his soul, inspiring him to start the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted its first wish in 1981.

Shankwitz’s own youth was challenging. Much of his childhood was spent on the move until he ended up in Seligman. A local businessman, the late Juan Delgadillo, became his father figure and mentor. It was Delgadillo who pounded into Shankwitz the mantra “Everyone can be a hero.”

He graduated from high school in Prescott in 1961, joined the Air Force, and after returning to Arizona in 1965 earned a degree from Phoenix College in 1970. Two years later he began his 42-year career with the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS), where he was a motorcycle officer.

Shankwitz was deeply touched by his experience helping Chris — who was quite the fan of Ponch and Jon from CHiPs TV fame. He wanted to fulfill the lad’s wish to become an honorary Arizona Highway Patrol officer before his death.

Previously, the officer was injured in a life-threatening motorcycle accident. Then he meet Kitty Carlisle, a DPS secretary, who volunteered to help him get back on his career path, and at the same time help Shankwitz start the charity. They married in 1983, the year the Make-A-Wish Foundation went national. It is now international.

Today, more than 450,000 children in the United States and its territories and thousands more in the 36 nations on five continents are beneficiaries of Shankwitz’s vision. The organization granted more than 15,000 requests last year — one every 34 minutes — to fulfill a wish for a child with a life-threatening illness.

The couple may now live quiet lives in their Prescott home, but they both are called upon frequently to share their “Everyone Can Be a Hero” vision. Forbes Magazine named Shankwitz in 2016 one of the “Top 10 Keynote Speakers.”

Shankwitz serves on several national and international boards of directors, including Level Up Homes and Cause Equity, both based in Seattle. He is an advisory committee member for U.S. Vets Prescott Chapter, The Wounded Blue, Broadway Hearts and several other philanthropic groups.

Shankwitz wrote a book, Wish Man, published in 2018.


Everyone Can Be A Hero

GC LIVING: Frank, you’ve been lauded across the United States and internationally as the first president and co-founder of Make-A-Wish Foundation. What’s your personal reaction to that kind of recognition?

Frank Shankwitz: Very humbling. It’s not something I ever strove for. It opens up a lot of doors. It allows me to sit on boards and to assist other nonprofits. The most important thing — it gives me a little bit of credibility on how to tell people how to give back to their community.

Everyone can be a hero.

GC LIVING: What drove you to believe in giving back?

Frank Shankwitz: I had a hard, troubled youth — hungry all the time. But a mentor in Seligman, Arizona, Juan Delgadillo, became my first father figure. Before that, my mom and I lived in tents, we lived in cars, we lived in flophouses.

But the biggest thing was, “Frank when you can, give back.” This was the 1950s. He gave me an example: “Look at the Widow Sanchez. She’s always bringing you and your mom beans, tortillas. Look at her yard. It’s a mess. Look at that front porch. It needs painting and sanding. You’re big enough to go clean up that yard and paint. OK, you don’t have the money to give back, but give back your time.”

That just stuck with me. He also taught me a work ethic. He taught me about building character, what integrity meant, all of those things. He introduced me to sports. I also was in his dance band (laughs) at 12 years old, playing drums in bars all around Northern Arizona.

I always remembered Juan’s advice.

GC LIVING: Tell us about Chris Greicius and the first wish. What prompted you to go above and beyond to make this little boy’s wish come true?

Frank Shankwitz: Well it, it wasn’t just me at that time. I’d never met Chris. Tom Austin, Customs Agent, was a friend of Ron Cox, one of our undercover narcotics agents. Ron Cox and I went to the academy together, so we were friends. In off time we’d watch CHiPs. CHiPs was very popular at the time. — (laughs) — if anybody remembers CHiPs. It was a popular NBC television show about the adventures of two California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers Ponch and Jon.

We learned later that Chris, who had terminal leukemia and only a few weeks to live, watched CHiPs all the time. Tom Austin had befriended Chris’s mother. Tom’s wife was a friend of Chris’ mother — a single divorced mom. She learned that Chris wanted to be a Highway Patrol motorcycle like Ponch and Jon.

He mentions this to Agent Cox. They talked to our commanders. They wanted to fly him to our headquarters building in Phoenix. They wanted me to be standing by when the helicopter comes in. They said, “Frank, we want you pulling in on your motorcycle just as a helicopter is landing. When Chris is coming in, he can look out the helicopter nose and see you.”

I could see Chris’ face — this big grin — as they’re landing.

I have very red hair like Larry Wilcox, who played the character Jon Baker. But I tan easily so I could’ve been Ponch, who was Hispanic. (laughter) When the helicopter landed, I thought our paramedics were going to help him out, because he’s coming off IVs. But the door opens. Chris jumps out in his little red pair of red sneakers and runs over.

“Hi, I’m Chris. Can I get on your motorcycle?”

I’m looking and his mother’s crying. Then it dawns on me. She has this 7-year-old who instead of lying in the hospital bed, is running all over the place, screaming. It’s because all these guys set this up.

I asked Chris, “Chris, let’s go for a ride on the motorcycle.” He got very nervous, no voice, really shaking, real serious look. “You don’t have doors.”

“Well, you just rode in the helicopter.”

“Helicopters have doors,” he responded.

Just then a squad car pulled up. I said, ‘Well, there’s a Sergeant. You wanna help him drive the squad car?”

“Well yeah, they have doors.”

So he’s driving all around the parking lot, red lights and sirens. One of the officers said, “Chris, you are a Highway Patrol officer.” He was sworn in that day, the first and only honorary Highway Patrol officer in the history of the Highway Patrol up until about a year ago. Complete with his Smokey hat, the badge that was assigned to him and the certificate making him the full police officer. Another officer said, “We need a uniform.” Two ladies spent all night making a custom uniform for the boy.

Early next morning, my commanders called me. “We want you to lead a full procession of motorcycles and squad cars to Chris’ neighborhood to present him his uniform. About 8 a.m., we’re in a real nice neighborhood in Scottsdale — red lights and sirens. Neighbors coming out. Chris hears it and comes out, just as big smile. We hand him his uniform. He runs into a house, comes out wearing his uniform, just beaming. He’s got on his Smokey hat. He asks if he can get on my motorcycle.

“Well, of course you can.” Then he gets on a motorcycle. He starts rubbing the wings the motorcycle officers wear. He said, “I wish I could be a motorcycle officer. How can I do that?”

First time I heard that word — wish. And I said, “Well Chris, this is a training we do. If you only had a motorcycle, we’d set up some traffic cones in your driveway right here and test you right now.”

:This little kid runs into the house, comes riding out a little battery operated motorcycle his mother got for him in place of a wheelchair. Where he got the aviator sunglasses is beyond me.

So we set up the cones. Chris goes through the cones, comes back very serious, “Did I pass?” I said, “You know, you did, Chris.”

Now, sometimes he gets in your face. “When do I get my wings?”

“Well, those are special order, Chris. The jeweler out in Apache Junction makes those. They’re not just on a shelf. I’ll order those.”

“You promise?”

“I promise, Chris.”

Two days later, as I was on the way to pick up the wings, the dispatcher called. “We just learned Chris is in the hospital, in a coma. You are authorized to go Phoenix and visit him.”

I walked in a hospital room. He’s in the coma. Just as I pinned the wings on his shirt, he came out of the coma. It was like a scene in a movie. He looked at me, “Am I motorcycle officer now?”

“Yes, you are Chris.” He asked for his uniform. He rubbed the wings. He showed his mother. He’s giggling a little bit.

I left. A couple hours later, Chris passed away. I always like to think, “Maybe those wings helped carry him to heaven.”

A couple days later, my commanders called me in. “We just learned Chris is going to be buried in Kewanee, Illinois. We have lost a fellow officer. We want you and your partner to go back and give him a full police funeral. The good news is this is an authorized mission. You can be in uniform, everything else. The bad news is we can’t pay for anything. You’re going to have to use vacation time. You’re gonna have to use your own money. But, we’ve already started a fundraising thing, passing the hat.”

In those days, it was Phoenix to Chicago on an emergency type thing — $767 –round trip. They passed the hat, came up with about $1,000. But I got a call from a friend: Jerry Foster, a helicopter pilot for Channel 12 NBC in Phoenix.

Jerry followed me all over the state — news stories and such. “Frank, come on down to the station. I need to talk to you.” I walked in, saw a receptionist. She said, “Jerry just left on assignment, but here’s an envelope for something.” There was a check for $767. The note said, “Frank, take this and go bury the little boy. I’d have blown this on a blonde anyhow.” (laughing)

We arrive in Chicago. We were met by TV stations when we landed. Somewhere this word had got out. Chicago PD took us for lunch and got us lodging.

It was about 180 miles to Kewanee. To get there, we were met by State Police, City Police, County Police. Chicago PD had notified these people that we’re there to bury this fellow officer. Chris was buried in his uniform. His grave marker reads, “Chris Greicius, Arizona Trooper.”

Coming home, I just started thinking, “Here’s a little boy that had a wish, and we made it happen. Why can’t we do that for other children?” That’s when the idea was born — at 36,000 feet over Kansas. May 1980.

Then, when Chris’ mother returned, I approached her. “I’ve got this idea. I want to do this in memory of your son.”

“Yes, let’s do it,” she agreed.

Ralph Milstead, head of DPS, calls me one day and said, “Frank, I know what you’re doing. I support you. I’m gonna give you one of our empty offices to have your meetings in. I’m gonna let you sit in there, three or four hours a day, every day, to do what you need to do. You’re gonna give me eight hours work. If it takes you 15-16 hours, 20 hours, you’re gonna be out there and maintain those high arrest records you have.”

I respect the heck out of that man.

GC LIVING: So Chris was really not the first “Make-A-Wish” recipient?

Frank Shankwitz: We didn’t do our first official foundation wish until March 1981. When we started the foundation; it was for children with terminal illnesses. Leukemia was a death sentence. We heard of a 7-year-old boy named Frank Salazar, a Yaqui Indian, in Guadalupe, Arizona. Bopsy was his nickname. He had a single mom. Very poor, dirt floors on the house, outhouse for plumbing.

I borrowed a patrol car. I’m in uniform. I go there, and mom was embarrassed for me to come in the house. So Bopsy crawls in the car with me. At first, he was stoic. He was going through manhood training at the Catholic Church so he wasn’t supposed to show a lot of emotion.

But I asked him, “Well, if you ever wanted to do something, see something, have something, be something, you ever think about a wish, what would it be?” And he’s thinking for a while, “I wanna be a fireman.” I said, “You’re sitting in a highway patrol car with me in cop uniform and you wanna be a fireman?” (laughing) I got a little giggle out of him there.

I thought to myself, “That’s easy.” Kitty has a brother who is a Phoenix fireman.

Then Bopsy said, “No. I wanna ride in a hot air balloon.” I thought, “That’s easy, too.” My friends, the Pierce brothers up in Prescott had a hot air balloon. I told Bopsy, “We can do that.”

Then Bopsy said, “No. I wanna go to Disneyland.” I paused because we had maybe $2,000 in our bank account. “OK, let me go talk to some people, see what we can do.”

I went to the Board. I said, “Let’s grant all three wishes. We’re gonna get so much press out of this, it’s gonna put us on the map, nationwide.” Luckily, they agreed.

The Phoenix Fire Department got him a little turn-out suit, fitted to him, and a helmet that fit him. He got to slide down the fire pole. He got to spray all the cars. It was a nice, sunny day in Phoenix. People came out and their cars were all wet. (laughs) But the press really picked it up.

Then we took Bopsy to Prescott Valley. The Pierce brothers put him in the hot air balloon. That story got coverage all over.

GC LIVING: What about Disneyland?

Kitty Shankwitz: I must have called Disneyland 10 times and told them, “This is the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” and nobody had heard of us. When I said we’d like to get some free tickets it was click … click … I finally went to Frank and said, “I don’t know what else to say or do, they won’t talk to me.”

Frank Shankwitz: I said give me the numbers and I’ll call. I called and spoke to the secretary for the Director of Public Relations and said, “This is Officer Frank Shankwitz, Arizona Highway Patrol, and I have a warrant for one of your people.” (laughing)

The minute I got the gentleman on the phone, I said, “I just lied to you. Now, here’s my name. Here’s my badge number. Here’s my supervisor’s name and here’s his phone number. All you have to do is call him, and I will be terminated immediately, but will you please listen to my story first?”

Thankfully, he listened and now, almost 40 years later, Disney is one of the biggest sponsors of Make-A-Wish foundation. I tell people, “Sometimes you have to lie, but qualify that lie if you can.” (laughs) We found out later that they get these bogus requests all the time.

Kitty Shankwitz: Make-A-Wish wouldn’t be what it is without Disney.

Frank Shankwitz: Bopsy was the first official Wish child. Chris was the inspiration.

GC LIVING: How did you become a public speaker for hire?

Frank Shankwitz: I met Greg Reed in 2011. He asked me how much I charge for speaking? I said I don’t charge for speaking at Make-A-Wish events. And he said, no for your personal speaking events. I said I’ve never done any of that. And he asked, why? He heard me speak at an event and said, “The audience is in tears.” He said, “Look at your standing ovation.” He said, “We don’t have speakers that get that type of standing ovation, plus you’re not selling anything, except a message.”

I said, “Well, I’ve never thought about it.” Now, I’m getting ready to retire about 2014 and thinking what am I going to do afterward? So, I said, talk to me, Greg. I’ve never thought about this as a career. So, this started our great relationship and we became good friends.

About 2013, that’s when he approached me and he said, “The audience reaction is so good today and plus we have a movie director who saw this.” And he said, “We need to make a movie about this guy.” He said, “Because if I can capture what that audience is feeling, we’re going to have a hit movie.”

So, they approached me and said, “We want to do a movie.” And I said, “No you don’t.” And they said, “Yes we do.”

And I started thinking about it. I said, “Only way we’re going to do this is if I had complete script approval.”

“Well, we don’t do that in a movie.” I said, “Well then we don’t make a movie.” So we have a contract, where I have complete script approval. It took two and a half years to write that screenplay. And all of a sudden, we’re setting, the set designers are coming in.

I’m going to give you a story that happened during filming. One of my jobs was consulting producer and technical adviser. Every morning we were usually the first ones on the set, me and the crew. I’m working closest with the script supervisor every day, going over the screenplay for the day — the script, the sets, making sure everything fits — lots of questions. Are the costumes right, is the settings right, is there continuity between scenes?

A young lady named Kennedy Del Toro was the script supervisor. She knew what the movie was about and who I was. We’re getting along fine. We’re the third day into set. She comes in and gives me a hug and starts crying. “Kennedy, what’s wrong? What’s happened? What did I do?” And she answered, “I’m a ‘Wish’ child.”

GC LIVING: Oh. Wow.

Kitty Shankwitz: Somehow, she ended up on this movie.

Frank Shankwitz: The whole crew, the whole group is crying. There’s about 30 of us in there and everyone is bawling their eyes out. It was one of those full circle, weird things.

GC LIVING: In the movie you’re under investigation for an incident in Bullhead City, is that accurate? It’s not in the book.

Frank Shankwitz: Yes. The screenwriter said you couldn’t have had all positive stuff in your career in the movie. What was the worst you remember? I said I don’t usually talk about it but … and that’s what ended up in the movie. They wanted some excitement to keep it from being a boring documentary.

GC LIVING: Did you really die?

Frank Shankwitz: Yes. It was Easter break and I’m chasing a drunk driver, going 80 miles an hour in a 25 mph zone. It’s all twists and curves on the old highway by the Colorado River near Parker. Just as I look ahead, he rolls his truck and another drunk driver pulls right in front of me and I hit him broadside at 80. They said the crash was spectacular.

An off-duty emergency room nurse out of California that heard the wreck and came running. If you ever get hurt, get an off-duty nurse. She was the one who performed CPR. My partners said the first thing you said to her when you came to is, “Am I in heaven or are you an angel?” (laughs).

Back in 1980, Kitty was our traveling secretary for our DPS squad. When they had all 10 of us together we would rough out the reports and give them to her. She would type them and give them to the courts. That’s how we knew each other. There was no relationship at that point. She was tasked with helping me get back on my career path.

GC LIVING: You filmed much of the movie in Prescott. How was it?

Frank Shankwitz: I was a location scout, technical adviser and consulting producer. For two years I drove around, looking for locations for a scene. They would send me a scene and tell me find a location.

Now Kitty’s big part was finding the old stuff. We have to find set design for 1980.

Kitty Shankwitz: We had some stuff at home, like the coffee cup Frank was using in the movie. But we had to set up the office to look like it did back in 1980 with typewriters and steel desks, the old radio and stuff like that. We hit every thrift store around.

Frank Shankwitz: And the people from the movie would go around the town and ask people, “Can we use your house?” (laughs)

GC LIVING: How many of the wish kids have you met?

Frank Shankwitz: Thousands.

GC LIVING: That has to be touching. How do you keep your stability? That must be hard.

Frank Shankwitz: You can’t break down in front of the kids. You want to but can’t. Now I get to meet wish kids who are now adults. They’ll come up and say, “I’m a ‘Wish’ kid.”

I’ll ask what was your wish. And I’ll look at their eyes, and you see them relive that time in their lives. It could be 20 years ago, and you can see them relive that whole thing. I also get so many people to come up and say I’m the mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, brother, sister of a wish child.

There are many wish kids I’ve stayed in contact with. One is Jazzlyn Urenda from Bagdad, Arizona. I think she was 10 or 11 when we first met her. Two years ago, I get a call from her and she says, “I’m in my senior year and graduating, would you be our commencement speaker?”

Now I’ve spoken at Harvard, Ohio State and all over. She asked what do you charge. And I said for you I’ll give a reduced fee, $2,000.” You could hear the hesitation on the phone, and she says, “I think we can do it. We’re going to have bake sales and car washes.” So, we go over to Bagdad. They put us up at one of the mining executive homes who was on vacation, gave us tours and everything else. And we did the commencement speech for the 15 people in her class.

At the end she said we’ve got this check for you. I asked, “Are you going to go on your senior trip? You put that money on your senior trip. But I need one dollar, so she gave me a dollar, and that was my fee.” (laughs)

Kitty Shankwitz: They gave him a copper plaque they made at the mine. The whole community, it’s just unbelievable how they treated us.

GC LIVING: Any final thoughts you want to share? Anything you’d like readers to take away?

Frank Shankwitz: I wrote this down: Be kind. When somebody needs help, try to help them. Everyone can be a hero. You don’t have to have money to help. You can give your time. Kitty and I live on retirements, but we are able to give a lot of our time to help people out.

One of the touching moments I have from Make-A-Wish with children is in the book. Make-A-Wish sent me to Guam, Saipan and Tinian; 11 exhausting days. And come one of the last days, and I just wanted to jump in the ocean.

All of sudden there’s a knock on the door. “Frank, we’re going to take you and a lot of wish kids to this special, private beach.” So we go to this beach. It’s strictly for the natives of Guam, not tourists.

When we get there, it’s like a scene out of a movie, just incredibly beautiful. We have all these wish kids getting in the ocean, playing in the ocean. They have this big luau they brought in, and I’m having so much fun with these kids.

I get in line to eat, and they say, “No, no you sit down,” and they bring me my food, they bring me iced tea. These are wish kids waiting on me. That just got to me so much. I started getting all teary eyed, excused myself and grabbed a cigar and started walking down the beach.  I just wanted to be alone.

Then all of a sudden, I’ve got all these kids walking with me down the beach. That was just so emotional to me. Because we’ve taken care of wish kids for years. Suddenly, the wish kids were taking care of me.