Remembering Elaine Frank: Pioneering community and business leader

elaine frank obit image
Elaine Frank

Elaine Frank, renowned philanthropist, community leader, and trailblazer for women in business and community service, passed away in late December at age 100. She was the first female president of JCC Chicago -- or any Federation-supported agency in the Chicago area. 

As a communal leader, Frank spearheaded efforts to secure the Jewish future through pathways that ranged from summer camps and community centers to endowments. As a business professional, she ran an empire that sold everything from cars to candy. She broke gender barriers in the non-profit world and country-club world, in classrooms, and in boardrooms.

"Elaine was a singular leader who inherited, and then extended, a most extraordinary legacy," said JUF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir. "She and her family have lent their vision, their dedication, and their generosity to the Jewish community, and particularly JCC, for nearly 70 years. 

"Nothing the Jewish community asked of Elaine was ever too small or too big, too hard or too much for her," Nasatir said. "Her answer was always, 'Yes.'"

Elaine was passionate about JUF and also about creating first-class summer camps for Jewish children, full of meaningful, memorable, and fun experiences. She named the flagship "Z" Frank Apachi Day Camp after her beloved husband Zollie. Twenty years later, her family surprised her by naming another facility the Elaine Frank Apachi Day Camp.  Under her devoted leadership, JCC's residential Camp Chi became co-ed, and its teen camp was established; the camp's lodge was dedicated in her honor.

The results impacted the entire community, and its future. "Elaine ensured that Jewish camping experiences would be part of every child's life," Nasatir said.  

"We often speak about JCC Chicago being over 100 years old. For over three quarters of this time, Elaine Frank was integrally involved, powering the agency to who we are today," said Alan Sataloff, president and CEO of JCC Chicago. "Elaine was a visionary and lifelong philanthropist whose commitment to our community touched multiple generations."

Before becoming president of JCC Chicago in 1948, Frank was president of its Women's Auxiliary. As JCC president, she spearheaded the development of the Bernard Horwich and Mayer Kaplan JCCs. 

It was Frank's JCC presidency that spurred Chicago's The Standard Club to change its rules --and allow women to join. But, as Frank's son Chuck said, "I don't think that Mom ever did what she did just to be a trailblazer. She didn't think, 'Oh, I'm a woman and I'm doing this.' She just did it as a matter of course."

The Frank family has been active in JCC since before it was even called that. A young Elaine watched her mother, Irene Hofheimer Spiesberger, teach first-aid and English-as-a-second-language classes at the Jewish People's Institute, the forerunner of JCC. 

Irene served on the JCC Women's Auxiliary and, after Frank herself married, brought her onto it, too. After four years, Frank became the Auxiliary's president. Four years after that, Frank became JCC president.

Frank, in turn, passed down this heritage to her own daughter, Laurie F. Lieberman -- who also served on the JCC Women's Auxiliary, then on the JCC Board, on to becoming JCC Chicago's second woman president. "As we grew up, what was important to her became important to me," Lieberman said. 

Frank also remembers her own mother being "very pleased with the birth of Israel, very proud." When some of her bridge-playing friends disagreed, "My mother got so incensed at her friends that she had a heart attack that night." 

Frank vividly recalls Israel's declaring its independence. "I remember Truman, when he declared our support of it… a marvelous moment," she said. "I've just been very proud of what they've done…giving wonderful things to the world." 

Frank was intensely patriotic, and grateful to America. "If our forefathers hadn't come to this country -- my background is German -- we'd have been in the Holocaust," Frank acknowledged.

Frank's husband, Zollie, fully supported her work at the JCC. He brought both colleagues and clients to her installation as JCC president. "He loved what I did," she said. "He always backed me up."  

Frank and Zollie were married for 53 years. One of her fondest memories was Zollie's proposal, which he made at Chicago's old Riverview Amusement Park. "We went up to a shooting gallery," she retold. "Zollie handed me a gun. I said, 'I've never had a gun in my hands' and he said, 'Oh, try it." There were five ducks. I hit them all, and he said, "OK, I'll marry you.'"

Frank was one of only three women -- in a class of 1,000 students -- who graduated from University of Chicago Business school. "I never even thought of it as a 'woman' and a 'man' thing," she said. "I loved business -- I still do -- and that was it."

Professionally, Frank served as president and chairwoman of Frank Enterprises: Z Frank Chevrolet; National Car Rental; Leaf Candy; Wheels, Inc.; and Business Travel Int'l.

Frank's visionary leadership extended to the Chicago Federation itself. She served as Federation Vice President from 1975-1981. Serving on its inaugural Legacies & Endowments Committee, she played a pivotal role in launching Federation's endowment program. Renowned for her hospitality, Frank also generously hosted JUF events in her Winnetka and Palm Springs homes. 

Her father, Sam Spiesberger, was a close friend of Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who helped inspire the family's philanthropy. This made it especially fitting when Frank received the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, JUF's highest honor, in 1992.

She learned diligence, too, from her father, who spent any spare hours he had working arduously to raise money for needy Jews; his work helped shape the Jewish Federation. "He was a fabulous fundraiser," she remembered. "He would go to anybody. He was very valuable." 

On the national stage, Frank served on the board of directors of both the Girl Scouts of America and the Infant Welfare League. As a delegate to the 1970 White House Conference on Children, she spent three years researching legislation to protect children's rights.

Even with all of Frank's Jewish communal and professional accomplishments, it was her job as mother to her four children that mattered most. "She was the most incredible mother," said Lieberman. "She allowed all of us to be the people we are today. She encouraged us to be the best that we can be." 

Frank, née Spiesberger, was pre-deceased by her husband, Zollie. She is survived by her children, Laurie (late Paul) Lieberman, Jim (Karen) Frank, Nancy (Marty) Schechtman, Chuck (Debbie) Frank, and Sanford Elias. She was grandmother of Lisa Lieberman (Morris) Barzilai, L. Frank (Alicia) Lieberman, Tricia (John Ferreira) Scobey, Penny (Tim) Jack, Jennifer (Richard) Rofé, Daniel Frank, Jordan (Laura) Frank, Keri (Hugh) Norley, Kenny (Stacy) Kaplan, Nicole (Adam) Friedman, Jana, Zach, and Melanie Frank. The great-grandmother of 20, she was the sister of the late Rita (late Armund) Schoen and a caring aunt of many. The family would like to thank her caregivers, especially Helina Slowikowska. Funeral services were held at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, followed by a private interment. Memorial contributions may be made to JCC Chicago.


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