Frank Hespe – Chief Justice Gibson Award 2010

By Emily DuBois

Frank Hespe was presented with the Chief Justice Gibson Award for 2010 on May 7th, , an annual honor given by the Monterey County Bar Association. It was another lovely evening at the La Playa in Carmel, the late Mrs. Victoria Gibson’s favorite spot. Blaine Gibson was out of the country and un– able to attend this time, but he sent his best wishes to all and particularly to Frank. Opening remarks from the Honorable Conrad Rushing about Justice Gibson and his legacy were engaging, articulate and succinct, fine attributes all. The microphone then passed to Frank’s law partner Albert Nicora to introduce the honoree. Well, it was more of a roast really, but the initial heat soon dropped into warmth and fraternal affection; if Frank’s girlfriend had been in the audience, she would have still liked Al (and Frank) at the end of Al’s remarks.

We all know Frank Hespe as one of our own and most of us count him among our good friends, but he remains a man full of surprises. He is our own because of his evident wisdom and good taste in migrating from the east coast to come to California for law school at Boalt Hall and then staying, mostly. After law school he came to our own neighborhood. He served as the Director of Legal Services for Seniors for years in Pacific Grove, Salinas, and Seaside; the Dean of the Monterey College of Law in Monterey and then at the new campus, in private practice with Al Nicora in Carmel; adjunct faculty with the Panetta Institute and Robert Louis Stevenson school; clearly a community leader very much in the public eye. The Frank who is not readily visible is not our own in that way, but he shares.

Sit and talk with any friend or colleague for a bit and we’re bound to learn about experiences they have had that make us marvel, that we might never have guessed at. With Frank, who is such a good story-teller, it is particularly advisable to be sitting down when those experiences are shared. For example, if he shares the tale of how he started solo hitchhiking over summers at age 15. That first summer, he traveled 15,000 miles, across Canada, down to California, Colorado, Montana, then down to Mexico, back up to the great lakes, and then back to Jersey in time to start his junior year of high school. Sometimes he stayed in youth hostels, sometimes in graveyards (which are quiet and “no one bothers you there.” Good to know.).

Over other summers through college Frank took different routes, but always covering a lot of ground, including two round trips to Alaska. One summer he took a flying leap into an open rail car in California with a well-lubricated but agile hobo and rode through the freezing Donner Pass in the dark of night to wake up rattling into a beautiful, sunny morning in Sparks, Nevada. Frank recalls seeing the jealous longing in the eyes of all the men in suits, sitting behind the wheel at the rail crossing, watching this young man with a pack swinging his legs in the opening of that sunny rail car rolling past.

These experiences may explain why Frank, on behalf of the ABA, packed a bag for parts previously unknown to most of us (and now known as “the ‘stans.) His daughter Angela had started college and he had completed the Herculean task of moving Monterey College of Law from downtown to refurbished buildings near the CSUMB campus. Why stand still? Certainly those early roll-with-it travels reveal why Frank is confident and successful at navigating in unknown terrain, geographical and cultural. Unknown is one of the things he knows best.

Fortuitous for us, Frank’s faint but surviving homing instincts brought him back to the Monterey peninsula. It may have been in part the lure of his daughter and 3½ year old grandson Jacob who live in San Jose, or the fine, familiar office door Al Nicora left standing open in Carmel. It may have been the beauty of the coastline hills and mountains that Frank can frequently be found hiking. Perhaps his friends influenced that decision as well with our irresistible charm; he would admit that the community he enjoys here feels as close to home as any place on the planet. Regardless, it’s great to have Frank back in town. Congratulations, Mr. Hespe, on an award richly reserved.

Tribute from the Hon. Robert O’Farrell

After an exceptional ten years as a professor and dean at Monterey College of Law, and at the pinnacle of an enviable legal career, the news came out that Frank was following the call of the wild and striking out on a path much less travelled. He was going to live on the other side of the earth to share his legal knowledge and teaching skills with the people of Tajikistan. His commitment was for one year and would be pro bono. My first reaction of surprise and wonder quickly changed to admiration. Frank would be living and working in some very rugged and generally challenging areas. (Editor’s note: Judge O’Farrell knows this well, as his son Peter recently worked in Afghanistan.) Frank’s initial one year commitment turned into four years, and his work expanded to several more countries: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. Working in an area of the world so culturally different than ours must have had times of frustration. But it’s a certainty that the ideas he planted, and the goodwill he developed with his infec– tiously friendly nature, will steadily spread over the lands where he stayed.

When we talk about role models we usually tend to think in terms of influencing young people. Frank has undoubtedly done that with many law students and new lawyers over the years. But Frank’s life and career strikes an inspirational chord for us all.

Tribute from Professor Richard Warner

Professor Richard Warner, brother of local attorney Charles Warner, was also participating in the ABA’s program, and he met Frank in the Ukraine. Here’s what he has to say. 

“Frank is an astute observer of people. When I introduced myself to him in Ukraine as “Chuck Warner’s brother,” he said, “I knew you were as soon as I saw you. Same look, same mannerisms, same accent.” It was the “same accent” part that caught me by surprise. He has a nice way of getting to the heart of the matter. We were in a meeting together, discussing “learning styles” and all the various theories. (The conference was devoted to training Ukrainian law professors how to teach in a Socratic style.) Frank cut through the nonsense. “Look,” he said, “people see, hear, and do. Some learn by seeing (reading), some by hearing (lecture, discussion), and some by doing (role playing, etc.). You have to teach to all three.” It was a great talk, one of the best of the conference. Professor Warner signs off this email to brother Chuck with the following: “I assume Frank is still among the living and this testimonial is for some other reason.”

Tribute from Jeanine Strong

So enough about Frank Hespe as world traveler and pioneer of democracy. Here a few other things you should know about “Francis,” as some of us from the law school affectionately refer to him.

The Wonderbread Years. Frank is the fourth of five boys. His mother passed away when he was four. From then on, he says he was “raised by wolves.” He and his brothers amused themselves with punching games – if you flinched, you were punched harder. Lesson learned? Never flinch. In stark contrast to Frank’s far-flung life, his four brothers all live within 20 miles of their New Jersey hometown, but he says they remain close.

Next there’s the 15-year old hitchhiker with a roll of $100 bills in his boot, saved from his job caddying at a golf course. As Emily mentions above, Frank spent high school and college vacations hitchhiking. Ever thoughtful, he sent his father a postcard every two weeks to assure him he was alive. He once waited 38 hours before taking a ride with a person who believed he was Jesus Christ, reincarnated. He was offered a gig as a nude model. He came through Monterey but did not imagine settling here one day.

On the road, he honed his exceptional people skills. He quickly realized that people like talking about themselves, so he asked questions, and he listened. His ability to connect with people, and to get the best from them, continues on unparalleled. Those who’ve seen Frank run a board meeting, work a room, or teach a class know precisely what I’m talking about. Also check your pockets before you walk away from him. He’s first-rate fundraiser.

Initially headed for Georgetown, followed by the U.S. State Department or an international law firm, Frank chose Boalt Hall in Berkeley instead. There he received the top grade in International law and was an editor on the international law review. He found himself in need of a credit, so he signed up for a legal aid internship in Oakland. He fell in love with the work. He started the first free clinic for low income people at Berkeley law school.

After graduating from law school, he turned down lucrative offers from law firms and opted for legal aid work in East Los Angeles. From there he came to Monterey, first to Legal Services for Seniors and then Monterey College of Law. He rose to the top of both organizations, and brought the law school back from the brink of financial disaster. Now for some observations that will make Frank blush. It goes without saying that he has a passion for making things work and making things better. He leads by example. He works tirelessly himself and inspires those around him to do the same. He doesn’t grandstand, he doesn’t demand praise and attention, he doesn’t inject his ego into the process, he just gets things done. And done exceptionally well.

Accomplishments and hard work aside, it’s far from what he does. It’s who he is. He’s an intellectual but his feet are on the ground. He is kind and warm but always commands authority. When pushed, he describes himself as an optimist and an idealist, in the vein of Plato, Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius. (Googling Marcus Aurelius, I learn he is famous for, among other things, writing Meditations, which is “still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty” and an “example of how Aurelius approached the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king.” Yup, sounds like someone Frank would admire.)

Frank’s all-time favorite novel is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He generally doesn’t read modern fiction. In his view, a work must survive the test of time, at least 100 years, before it’s worth reading. He’s currently reading a history of seven empires. The book is so compelling, he says he had to force himself to put it down and go to bed at midnight. (Fortunately Frank does not ask the interviewer the same question; she would have been forced to admit she’s reading the Steig Larsson trilogy. Compelling, yes, but likely to fail Frank’s 100-year rule.)

So, all this is a hard act to follow, even for Frank Hespe. When asked about his second act, he is circumspect. He wants to keep doing good work. (Was there any doubt?) He’s committed to calling the area home. After being in 40 different countries in last four years, he readily describes the Monterey Peninsula as “paradise.” He’d like to write more. He’d like to be a published author. There’s no shortage of material: hun– dreds of pages of notes, emails and stories. He is enjoying his first foray as a “regular lawyer,” in practice with Al Nicora in Carmel. He has a girlfriend (wait, was that fact not for public consumption?) He wants to hike the Inca trail into Macho Pichu. And off he goes again!

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