On May 3, 2004 we lost a truly great man, Maspeth civic and business leader and my friend, Frank Principe. Frank dedicated his life to the community, a life that was long on years (94) and accomplishments. He left his mark on Maspeth in its buildings and in its attitude. He not only protected it but he made sure that he instilled in its future, leaders with that same spirit.
How Frank led his life should be required reading for all schools. Full of challenges and short on excuses, Frank never complained about having the odds stacked against him. In our conversations he often used his early years as a basketball player to describe strategies in battling opponents much bigger than he. “You have to outthink them instead of going over them or through them. If you devise a plan you can go around them and under them…take advantage of your strengths and exploit their weaknesses and many times you will win,” said Frank, and win he did.
He never allowed himself the excuse of age for not taking on a noble challenge. In fact, one of his most notable challenges came in the early 1990’s when he was well into his 80’s, an age when most would be long retired, reminiscing about their life rather than still living it. Almost single-handedly he saved Maspeth from its most serious threat since the construction of the Long Island Expressway cut it in two in the 1950’s.
Mayor David Dinkins was planning to build a sludge composting center in West Maspeth. You couldn’t blame Dinkins for overlooking an 86 year old man as the only one standing in his way. Frank Principe's strategy in fighting the plant was to travel to several locations throughout the United States interviewing residents who lived close to similar facilities. Using his own funds, Frank made a documentary video of these interviews, bought space on billboards to protest, rented buses for demonstrations, formed coalition groups and ultimately defeated the proposal.
If that wasn’t enough, a year later he was elected to chair Community Board 5 and became the city’s oldest Community Board Chair ever, a position he held for 7 years. He took the fractured board through some of its worst times and brought it together with wisdom and a spirit to compromise. He taught board members how to focus on the issues rather than petty differences and personalities.
How could we ever give up when a man 86 years old could take on the Mayor of the City of New York and win! Frank won several battles but he taught us never to be afraid of defeat. “If you do all that you can do and still lose, you would still have the victory of sticking with your convictions,” he said.
With his take “no prisoners spirit,” even into his 90's, he was up to the challenges, helping us in our Herculean fight to stop the Home Depot and turn the Keyspan/Elmhurst Gas Tanks site into a park, a victory for Maspeth, Elmhurst and Middle Village.
He earned the title, “Mr. Maspeth,” with his contagious, persistent and competitive spirit and taught everyone around him that no battle was too big if it was worth fighting. Taking a piece of the 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I know what Maspeth would look like had Francis J. Principe never graced its landscape.
I will miss Frank dearly and this may sound like a cliche, but I know that Frank Principle truly lives on in many of us who fought side by side with him over the years.
I often said at meetings in introducing Frank Principe, that he was the greatest man I ever knew. That is why we made him the Juniper Berry “Man of Century” in 1999. His life could well be called “It's a Wonderful Life – Part 2.” We all live better because “Mr. Maspeth”passed through our world. Rest in peace, Frank, you will be sorely missed by all.