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Frank Lloyd Sonnenberg

June 22, 2020
Frank Sonnenberg

June 21, 2020

Tim Irwin, one of my Facebook friends who said he was best friends with Frank, reposted this obituary. For me, Frank Lloyd Sonnenberg was one of the iconic Missoula hippies of 1967.  I understand that Missoula poet Dave Thomas and Frank collaborated to write it.

Here it is:

MISSOULA – Early in the morning on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008, after a lifelong struggle with chronic illness, Frank got his wish of delocking the 324 cubic inch engine of his beloved 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 and burned rubber down the dragstrip of the Great Beyond and thereby blended his love of the Montana landscape and its health into the spirit that animates us all. His old friend, the artist, Jay Rummel, once said of him, “Frankie’s out mulching eastern Montana.”

Frank was born Jan. 21, 1948, at Mrs. Braddock’s boarding house in Chinook, during a blizzard that made it too tough to get to Havre and Sacred Heart Hospital. Upon his birth, his father, Lloyd, danced a German jig with his Aunt Marie (Bill) Miller.

Frank grew up on the old Blackstone Place, Paradise Valley, North Fork School District, Blaine County. He enjoyed the home place and northcountry grazing land of his grandfather, John Tilleman, on bikes, horses, scooters and, of course, his Olds. He claimed to know every coulee, spring, cross fence and lone tree of that ranch and most of the neighbors, too. He attended country school and then Chinook High School, graduating in 1965. During his high school years brucellosis struck his parents’ herd and put an end to his ranching dreams and made a college education more attractive. While in high school he also became a charter member and officer of the Eliminators Car Club and held the distinction of being the only member to win trophies at Lewistown’s King Kam dragstrip.

After high school, Frank attended the University of Montana, working his way with the Food Service and helping out with the Grizzly football team training table. While at the university, Frank was diligent in his studies but also active in the anti-war movement focused on ending the Vietnam War. News of the death of his friend and fellow car club member, Ronnie Ewing, in Vietnam, led him to desire to take a more active role in the events of the day and he moved to Bremerton, Wash., to live with his beloved sister, Myrna (Max) Hayes. Frank said he’d had four mothers, Lena, Juliette Archer, Myrna and his pinto mare.

Medically unfit for service, he became a counselor for poor black kids working in a program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. He was chosen by the Navy for this position because of his ability to communicate with disadvantaged people and understand their concerns, such as the statistically high number of blacks killed in Vietnam. As he worked with the kids, he gradually came to understand that thirty percent of them could not afford an alarm clock and became part of a group that persuaded prominent Seattle natives like rock star Jimi Hendrix to donate money for clocks and ferry tickets so the kids could cross Puget Sound and be on time for work. He also worked to improve their nutrition. He was always proud that this program, sponsored by the Navy and Job Corps, played a part in keeping Seattle calm during a summer when riots exploded in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Newark, N.J.

During this time, Frank also had major surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which resulted in a six week stay at the Methodist Hospital there. He remained deeply grateful to the citizens of Chinook for the huge blood drive they held on his behalf and regretted not being able to thank them in some substantial way.

Frank eventually returned to the University of Montana and graduated with a degree in political science in 1971.

Frank worked in the cooking profession as a student and later, after attempting other employment, graduated from the culinary arts program at the UM College of Technology. He then worked as cook and manager at various Missoula area establishments, including the Florence Hotel, Perkin’s (now Finnegan’s), The Silvertip Lounge, and The Rocking Horse (now The Mustard Seed) and at one point, owned and operated Wild West Pizza in the basement of Luke’s Bar (like mother, like son). He left The Rocking Horse to join the faculty of the culinary arts program at the College of Technology as an instructor. He became chairman of that department and a certified master chef and earned an M.S. degree in vocational education from MSU-Northern. His cooking career spanned 36 years, the last 16 at the College of Technology before his medical condition forced him to retire.

He was very close to his two sons, Chris and Max, and loved them dearly. He coached them in Little League and Kiwanis Quality Supply basketball. He loved to take them out in the woods to explore and hike, often in areas he had researched for their geographical and historical aspects and that were due to be logged, mined or subdivided. He wanted them to share his love of the land and be aware of its fragility. Something he also shared with his friends on river floats, car camping trips and Penguin parties (“Quack!”).

He also had a keen appreciation of art, music, automobiles and the history of Montana.

In his later years, Frank became interested in genealogy and updated the Sonnenberg/Miller family tree to 2008. In doing so he renewed acquaintances with relatives and discovered half of Wisconsin seemed to be Sonnenbergs.

Frank was preceded in death by his father Lloyd; his mother Lena; and his sister Myrna.

He is survived by his sons, Christopher (Krista) and Max; and grandchildren, Caleb and Berlyn; and a host of relatives in Blaine County and around Montana and many friends who will miss his quick wit and big heart.

Cremation has taken place and a service is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 1, details to be announced later.

###

Here’s how my life intersected with Frank’s. I had been going to high school in Dillon, quickly becoming disenchanted with the hard-core right-wing ideologies of the Southwest corner of Montana.

I started the University of Montana in 1967 so, of course, fought with my roommate, a straight kid out of a New York military school.  Thus rejected by most college freshmen and women, I gravitated toward the hipper, geekier, looser, pot-smoking types who frequented the food service dining room.  Frank Sonnenberg served us food and washed our dishes. This was the beginning of his profound influence.

I remember seeing Frank at the outdoor anti-war rallies that fall.  He had a charismatic, intense, but friendly look.  When the time was right for demonstrating solidarity, Frank was a leader.  This wasn’t new for him.  He started attending international relations functions sponsored by UM political science instructor Barclay Kuhn before he got out of high school.

Frank was easy to get to know, easy to talk with.  He was friendly, like you’d expect a rural kid from Chinook to be.  He wasn’t a huge person, physically, in fact it was common knowledge that he’d been ill.  But he was genuinely kind, and people gravitated to him.

A bunch of us quit school in 1968 to move to Seattle.  Most of us got jobs on fishing boats.  I refused to cut my hair or beard, so the captain wouldn’t hire me. Only thing left: I could sell hippie newspapers in the University District.  I ended up moving in with my brother Tom for a while, then I got my own place.  Then I sort of bounced back and forth between Missoula and Seattle.  Made a trip to Alaska, too, for a few months.  I lost touch with many of my hippie friends.  I learned to stay only short periods here and there, so I wouldn’t wear out my welcome.

I ran into Frank on the street in Seattle, and he said we could crash at a friend’s house across the bridge from the university.  I don’t remember who the generous soul was, but his floor was large enough to accommodate me for a few days.  He got me a job selling circus tickets by phone for a few bucks an hour. Frank knew how to survive.

Frank was politically active in the Seattle scene, so I went with him to several protests.

He and I were hiking across town one sunny day and he stopped.  “Isn’t that mary jane?”  Frank pointed at a spindly plant growing from a flower bed.

“Sure enough!” I said, snatching it up.  “Let’s smoke it!”  It wasn’t fully mature, but it had some fine leaves.  We were rewarded with a buzz.

It wasn’t bad weed at all.  I still smoked tobacco in those days and I always had some papers and matches handy.  As Frank and I made our way to “hippie hill” at the University of Washington, he told me that he used to broadcast marijuana seeds in the vacant lots around Missoula.  That’s when I first learned he knew about agriculture.

Frank was the kind of friend you could have a conversation with that might last five or ten years, picking up the thread the next time one of you was in town.  His generosity in planting the seeds went right along with his generous personality.  Frank and I got separated at an anti-war protest amid clouds of teargas and I didn’t see him again until years later. Well, I had a penchant for hopping freight trains in those days.

However, I heard about Frank’s whereabouts because he and some others from his hometown of Chinook formed a psychedelic band, called “The Golden Floaters.”  I think they operated on an astral plane that included more than guitars and drums.  

I, in the mean time, had gone into the Marine Corps, thinking to improve it.  A couple of my girl friends crashed at the home of the Floaters.  In talking to them I later learned that Frank was ill, had to poop out of colostomy.  

When I was in Missoula on leave from the Marines, I visited Dave Thomas and some of the other Floaters.  That’s when I learned a little about poetry, about alchemistry.  About the cosmos of the Floaters.

I forgot to mention the “Golden Floaters” were descriptive of the excretia of those who followed the zen way of macrobiotics.

Frank Sonnenberg was an important, profound presence.  He had a charisma, a modesty, a true friendship mind. He gathered friends like a clasp gathers hair.

I didn’t see Frank again until I was out of the service, married with children.  I saw him at Perkins restaurant. Much joy!  And months later at Luke’s Bar on Front Street.  I was in Luke’s, deafening hubbub, Frank Dugan was gesturing to me like he was shooting with his fingers.  More joyful reunion!  Then I saw Frank Sonnenberg when he brought forth from the basement kitchen some pizza.  More joy!

We moved to Billings to work. To raise our kids.

I attended the funeral for Grant Lamport in Missoula about 10 years after that and Frank Sonnenberg was there.  Another great moment.  

But that was the last time I got to enjoy his company.

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