Lending a hand: Frank Washington's promise to late wife leads to joy, fulfillment

photos by Trenton Steele 

“I have a son and then I have 96 little grandchildren. The school really is my family now. I wouldn’t trade it,” says Frank Washington, a St. Patrick Catholic School volunteer.

Frank Washington was married to the love of his life for more than 20 years.

And when she realized she was dying in January 2015, she asked him for a promise: that he would remain in Meridian and continue working to support the efforts of local Catholic churches, including St. Patrick Catholic School.

It is a commitment that he has worked hard to honor daily, particularly through his support of the school, where he often arrives well before the school’s teachers and staff. And while he is honoring a commitment to his late wife, Tommie Jean “T.J.” Smith Washington, he says he also recognizes that the promise was a gift that has enriched his life.

“The school and the kids are absolutely what keeps me going,” the 75-year-old Washington, D.C. native said. “I go every day that they have school, and on weekends, if the alarm goes off or there is any kind of issue with the building, I go and check on it.”

Washington said his top priority is to keep the school’s students and staff safe. He handles the school’s security needs, including tasks like making sure smoke detectors are functioning and doors are locked. He monitors the perimeters of the school, addressing issues as they surface.

When students get out of their cars each morning, he greets them and checks their temperatures – a new protocol that has been added due to COVID. When there is bad weather, Washington goes out and analyzes road conditions and advises the principal about a potential closure.

Keeping others safe is nothing new to Washington, who is a retired federal employee. He worked in security related jobs, ensuring that individuals and groups of people were kept safe. He also owned a security business in Washington, D.C. before fully retiring and moving to Meridian with his wife, who is a Mississippi native.

Washington knows that his wife was concerned about the future of both the school and the Catholic church when she asked him to continue his efforts. But he also thinks she was probably concerned about him. The request for a promise was really a final gift from her to him.

“Being at the school – being able to help them and to be part of it – that has been a gift every single day,” he said.

Washington does not receive a paycheck for his efforts, but he does receive other payment – including notes of appreciation from students and families. He has several of them on his wall, and can quote the words of appreciation with ease.

He treasures moments where students let him know his efforts matter. One of his favorite moments was with a preschooler, who asked her mom during car rider line if she could call him “grandfather.”

While Washington views keeping everyone safe as his first job, he also cares for students physically and emotionally. He sometimes cooks for the school’s students and staff and pays special attention to the oldest students at the kindergarten through sixth grade school.

“I think it’s important to make the older students feel special,” he said.

He sometimes works with groups of boys before school, talking to them about the importance of things like manners, rule following and hard work. If they do not have money for extra snacks, they know they can go to him for a dollar or two.

He knows many of the students by name and says he feels like a part of a big, sprawling family.

“I have a son and then I have 96 little grandchildren,” he said, laughing. “The school really is my family now. I wouldn’t trade it.”

Washington said he would love to be an inspiration for other seniors who might be hesitant to get involved in the life of a school.

“Kids today really need people to take time with them,” he said. “Kids ask a lot of questions but I think that’s a good thing. They want to know about you and they want to have an understanding with you. But I do think they are eager to have adults in their lives – to have those relationships. They are looking for connections and I do believe that as adults we can make a difference for children.”

Washington, who is black, said that one thing that strikes him about St. Patrick’s is the openness between people of different races. He said that when he was younger, he never thought he would live in Mississippi – in part because of concerns about tensions between races.

But he said that he now believes unity and harmony are some of Meridian’s biggest strengths.

“You can’t believe everything you hear and read,” he said. “To me, the strength of Meridian is its people. People in Meridian have opened their hearts to me. They have treated me like a brother. We have good people here and that’s something we sometimes forget.”

He said that one group that is especially important to him is his Knights of Columbus, which is a Catholic fraternity. There are only about three black men in the group.

“They treat me just like a brother is supposed to be treated,” he said. “Their hearts are open. The people of Meridian have good hearts – they really do. I used to think I would move back to Washington, D.C. one day. But now, I can’t imagine leaving. To me, there is no comparison to Meridian. I really love it here and it is home.”

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