Frank Bittner: The man and his legacy

HURLOCK — When someone we care about passes away, there is a hole in the universe where they once stood. When Frank Bittner died unexpectedly on Jan. 4 at the age of 64 the hole was deep and wide. Frank was a large presence in the world – physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

His contacts were legendary. He could reach a politician by dialing a private phone number; the press corps was equally available to him. No one escaped his interest and if someone had a particular talent and another person had a specific need, Frank was there to match them up.

His friend, Elaine Eff, folklorist and founder of the Painted Screens Society of Baltimore, called him a “connector” and indeed he was.
Frank touched people’s lives in ways that most of us can’t. He could be loud, friends called it “emphatic,” when he had a cause or an opinion. He had many friends, many causes, and many opinions.

Among his closest friends was legendary Earl Brannock. Frank spent countless hours sorting out Earl’s vast collection of naval books, papers, and artifacts. When Earl died Frank ensured that his funeral would be a fitting tribute to a special man. It was.

He lived multiple lifetimes in his 64 years. Frank was interested in and conversant about scores of topics: Politics, wood graining, Baltimore’s Polish community, history, books, clocks, telephones, electronics. He even researched the history of Baltimore’s marshmallow topped snowball.

Born in Curtis Bay on “the other side of the bridge,” Frank’s unique talents and creative brain were frequently underestimated. This was a well-educated man whose passion for history was exceeded only by his interest in electronics. He designed and installed music, public address systems and zoned networks in the Baltimore-Washington area, including the White House.

He loved the Baltimore of his youth. He celebrated its Polish community when he hosted Polish radio broadcasts as a young teenager. In 1971 he created East Baltimore Christmas with Santa in a horse drawn “arabber wagon” leading a procession of well-wishers who stopped for cheer at each local Polish landmark. The event continues today via the Polish Community Association of Maryland with attendance often topping 1,000.

During the Donald Schaefer-era Frank joined the Baltimore Office of Special Projects and learned the skills of raising money and volunteers for community parties when he launched the first Baltimore City Fair.

A robbery gone wrong over 25 years ago nearly killed Frank. He was beaten on his head with a pipe and spent months in the hospital and years recovering. Seeking peace and tranquility he moved to Hoopers Island for a while. In typical Frank fashion he learned the history of the south county.

That was followed about 20 years ago with a move to Hurlock in the north county where, because of his avid interest in accountability in politics and community service he founded the Hurlock Citizens’ Association.

In recent years, Frank distinguished himself as a wood grainer, reviving a dying folk art. Both his father and grandfather applied their signature faux finishes to window frames, doors and vestibules in Baltimore.

Frank’s achievements stand out via the doors of the Dorchester County Courthouse, local churches, boat sterns, private homes, and museums throughout the region. He loved teaching the art and hoped the tradition would be carried on by his apprentices.

In the early 2000s Frank discovered Anna Ella Carroll whose history as a confidante and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln was once taught in Dorchester County schools. In 2009 he organized a small group of senior citizens, the Friends of Anna Ella Carroll, to host the world premiere of Lost River, Ms. Carroll’s life story, produced by Bruce Bridegroom and starring well-known actor Fritz Klein. Bucking popular opinion that the event would only draw 50-100 viewers, he booked the Hyatt Regency and on Nov. 20, 2010, the movie played to over 1,200.

Based on that event’s success, state and national organizations asked the Friends to represent the Maryland heroine during the Sesquicentennial Observance of Civil War. This was a major step forward in achieving the original group’s quest for formal Congressional recognition of Ms. Carroll’s contributions. The project culminated in 2017 when Anna Ella Carroll was officially recognized by the War College in Fort Belvoir, Va.

Frank knew hundreds of people. He maintained friendships that spanned decades. His friends included the stray and feral cats that inhabit the wilds of Hurlock. The giant man was a tender softie who could be quick tempered and obstinate. Who cared? The guy was unique.

Frank believed: “To be happy you must let go of what’s gone. Be grateful for what remains. Look forward to what’s coming next.”

Editor’s note: Sandy Saunders contributed to this article.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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