Frank Douglas is a World War II Veteran, Normandy Invasion; Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Recipient – 1985; Founder of the Frank Douglas Living Scholarship; Retired Geography/Global Studies Teacher; and Author.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Tell me about your Rock County roots.
The Douglas family has been here since the 1840’s. My great grandfather was a Baptist minister from New York. The family knew the Tallman family. He started a Baptist church here in the 1850’s. One of his sons, Frank Wheelock Douglas, started the Douglas Hardware business in 1907. Later, my father, Fenner, my Uncle Malcome and Aunt Clara ran the business until they passed away.
When my Uncle Mac died and my father had a heart attack, I helped to liquidate Douglas Hardware. I was teaching at the time, and my uncle’s son, Richard, had his own business, The Color Center, right down on River Street. He sold home decorating and paints for home remodeling. So, at that time, Dick Douglas and I closed out the business.
Did you ever have an interest in taking over the hardware business?
No, I was having more fun teaching! I used to tell people facetiously, “I’d rather deal with nuts than bolts, anyway.”
What were some things you enjoyed doing while growing up in Rock County?
Living! Growing up in the 1930’s, we lived on Terrace Street near Mercy Hospital. My mother was a nurse and Dad was at the hardware store. As a boy, even at 10 or 12 years old, I’d go down there and help once in a while, sweeping the floor and such.
When I was young, we had a family maid named Irene. Her parents were from Switzerland. Could she ever cook! She was with us for years and years. Irene helped my mother run the house and take care of us four kids; me, Bob, Yvonne and Barbara. When my mother was young, she worked. But, after having children, she stayed home with us.
We were the first people on the west side of Janesville to have a basketball hoop on the side of the garage! We were always out there with about a dozen kids in the neighborhood. There she was, my mother, Mrs. Douglas, teaching the kids how to shoot hoops! She was darn good, too!
She used to take us out hiking in the parks. We loved going to Riverside Park, up Devil’s Staircase and to other places.
In 1940, at age 15, I announced to my mother, “I want to go to New York to see the World’s Fair.” She asked, “How are you going to get there?” I ended up going by train with my cousin, Bill, who had graduated from Madison and was taking a job out east. He eventually became chairman of an airplane corporation and became a multi-millionaire. Anyway, I stayed for the duration with my Aunt in New York.
My mother and father were so different than most parents. They were accepting of my desire for adventure and let me go to the World’s Fair, all the way to New York, when I was just a teenager!
In 1943, I graduated from Janesville High School with my cousin, Richard, who was the same age. We both went off to the war and did some fighting. We were 18 and we had no choice. Every boy in my graduating class was in the war, except for two.
Are you willing to share some stories about your military experience?
I left for France with the 4th Infantry Division. Eventually I became a combat sergeant. I got my face all smashed up in a barrage and have had false teeth since I was 20 years old.
We invaded German-occupied France on Utah Beach at Normandy in Operation Overlord, June 6th, 1944 … D-day. We fought our way in and eventually liberated Paris.
We were the first Americans into Paris. We went down the Champs-Élysées to shouts of, “Vive l’Amérique!” We were hugged and kissed by quite a few Parisians.
My good friend, Wendell Chapman, and I made it through. I spoke to him on the phone just the other day. He lives down in Ohio, and we talk about once a month by phone. He also became a teacher.
Watch a documentary on D-day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIjmOcp_xhQ
How long was it until you could get home?
We were still fighting our way into Germany. But, I got wounded, so they sent me back to Fort Sheridan in Illinois. I was discharged in November of 1945 and returned to Janesville.
What happened after the war?
I received a GI Bill, which paid my tuition to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I received my bachelor’s degree in Education. I figured I earned it!
I continued my education beyond that, as I was interested in a variety of subjects.
Where did you start teaching?
I started in Deerfield from 1952-’58. In the fall of 1957, the head of the Social Studies Department at the School District of Janesville, who happened to be one of my favorite teachers, asked, “Why don’t you come work with us here?”
So, I came to Janesville and I taught here for 30 years. I’d taught a total of 35 years!
I started teaching at Janesville High School. After they created the two high schools, I was Chairman of the Social Studies Department and my office was in the new high school building, at Craig, so that’s where I stayed, though I lived closer to Parker.
What were some of your unique teaching techniques?
I’ve traveled to over 130 countries. My students always loved working on a project. So, when we studied Japan, the classroom was all Japanese! The kids would help me decorate the room. We’d have music and all sorts of displays. Many of the countries’ “set” pieces I made by doing woodworking in my basement. Whatever country we were studying, that’s what the room became; we were in a village or setting from that culture.
Sometimes I put sand on the floor if we were studying a desert country. I never ran out of volunteers, since the kids loved to help with it all.
You were known for turning some troubled students around. To what do you attribute that ability?
At UW-Madison I had studied psychology and earned my master’s degree in Guidance Counseling. I’d been in the infantry, a Sergeant in combat with boys who were 18-20 years of age, who were being shot at and had to deal with terror. Through my experience, I understood these kinds of things. I could have gone into guidance, but I preferred teaching geography and history.
Over the years, I had a lot of interesting interviews with kids. So, indirectly I’d done a lot of guidance. I’ll never forget a particular kid in my class who really needed to get ‘sorted out.’ Eventually, this boy became a doctor!
Tell me about taking your students on field trips.
I had set up a fund so that when I’d die, there would be a Douglas Scholarship Fund. Then, I got to thinking, “Hell, I’m going to die before anyone gets this, and I wouldn’t even know who they were! They might not have the slightest idea who I was, until someone told them.” So, I started the Frank Douglas Living Scholarship.
I only took two trips overseas, but we would go every summer on a U.S. trip out west. I would pick a couple of boys to go each summer. We usually would go out to Oregon. I took 52 students, at my own expense, all over the United States, including Hawaii before it was even a state.
You know, I’d been to visit tombs for kings, with piles of gold, but it doesn’t mean anything and it didn’t do any good. I’d think to myself, “He should have been doing something while he was alive!”
On these U.S. trips, we’d be gone sometimes almost a month! We camped out; we’d go fishing and hiking. We flew out to Hawaii, we saw Pearl Harbor and everything.
I was teaching geography and figured we’d better go see these places!
Of all your travels around the United States, what was your favorite place?
Oregon is my favorite place, for sure. It’s mountainous with a west coast marine climate. The Oregon forests are amazing and there’s such a thing called salmon!
Of your international travels, what was your favorite place?
New Zealand. I’d been there many times.
Tell me about earning the Teacher of the Year Award.
In 1985 I was awarded Wisconsin Teacher of the Year. At least I was in the paper for something good and not for murder! After that, I couldn’t commit a crime in this town if I had to! The best part was the $1,000 check. I ended up taking two more students on a trip with that.
I’d taught over 4,000 students in my career. They used to say students had “The Douglas Experience.” I still have students visit me now and then. They’re getting older now, too, though.
I never married or had my own children. I had everybody else’s kids … in every sense of the word!
Mr. Douglas was a favorite teacher for many
The following is a small sample of social media comments from his former students:
“I can say my favorite teacher ever throughout all my schooling, including college, was Mr. Douglas. I’m sure anyone fortunate to sit in his classroom shares the same sentiment as I do. His caring nature, storytelling and the way he would deliver his lessons was second to none.
I needed to be challenged and Mr. Douglas provided that by challenge to us with high expectations. He gave us maps of continents and countries to color as best as we could, labeling cities, locations and spelling with 100 percent accuracy. To add to this, he would decorate the classroom to match the subject matter which heightened the learning experience.
I served in the United States Navy for 26 years and he inspired me to aim high and do great things. God ‘broke the mold’ when he created Mr. Douglas, one who impacted so many lives.” ~ Daniel Larsen
“A wonderful teacher, an honorable human being and a role model for me.” ~ Richard Dawdy
“My favorite teacher! Was in his class circa 1970 and I adored doing maps for his class. He taught me more than geography – discipline, attention to detail, and that I could be artistic. He challenged us to do our best, and his love of other cultures and places was inspiring.” ~ Gloria Lego-Hurley
“He made history FUN!” ~ Daniel Steinke
“He is an amazing man, a tribute to his family, his profession, and his generation.” ~ Santo Carfora
“He was the best teacher I ever had. I remember his slide shows. He had pictures of everywhere on earth. I was mesmerized by the stories of his travels. When you walked in his classroom and saw one of these (slide projector) you knew it was going to be a great day. His personal slide collection was incredible.” ~ Jimmy Davey
“Met my husband Charlie Nyborg (’86) in Mr. Douglas’ class. Best class ever!” ~ Amy Melvin Nyborg
“What a great teacher…I loved the way he would decorate our classroom with treasures he picked up on his amazing adventures!” ~ Katherine Gasser
“You ROCK Mr. D!!” ~ Tom Arn
“I was proud to be in his last class at Craig. World Geography and Global Studies.” ~ Steve Knox
“Thank you, Mr. Douglas, for making World Geography my favorite class and for inspiring me to want to be a teacher. God bless.” ~ Penny Barwick
“Thank you for your service to our country and to our community, Mr. Douglas!” ~ Julie Tyrrell Osborne
What did you do in your retirement?
I just went traveling. I was interested in other cultures. I gave dozens of talks and slide programs to various groups. At one time I had several thousand slides. Somewhere in Janesville there’s a room full of my slides. I’m not sure where they are, as haven’t seen them in years!
Some of my other hobbies were woodworking and gardening. I had a Japanese style garden in my backyard. Now and then I’d get strangers visiting to see my gardens.
What are some significant changes you’ve seen in our community?
I remember when GM plant was converted to produce military equipment in WWII. It was such a part of Janesville. There have also been several different companies that have come and gone.
Of all the inventions, which do you think was most significant?
Of course, the radio was significant, and the television. But, we never watched anything more than news on TV. We were out hiking around. We only watched on rainy days.
What’s your secret to longevity?
No one in my family lived past 80, and here I am at 94! My secret is walking. Eat reasonably, but keep walking. It’s the greatest healthy thing you can do. And you don’t even need to take a pill! I still walk every day. I walk with friends, too.
Go out and live life. Have fun!
“I’d rather deal with nuts than bolts, anyway.” ~ Frank Douglas on becoming an educator rather than running the family hardware business.