The life of Charles A. Fracchia Sr. was an only-in-San Francisco story. Fracchia, who died on July 21 at the age of 83, loved this town and devoted a good part of his life to that passion. He was the founder of the San Francisco Historical Society, a prolific writer of books and articles about The City, a teacher and one of the very best San Francisco raconteurs I ever met.
Fracchia’s ties to The City, and its culture and history, were deep and sometimes surprising. He was a friend of Gov. Jerry Brown, one of San Francisco’s most famous sons, from their pre-Jesuit days, but left that religious order a year or so before Brown. That friendship continued for decades with the politician occasionally taking time from his busy schedule to discuss theology with the historian. Fracchia was also one of the original founders of Rolling Stone magazine, made and lost a few fortunes in the stock market, was the one-time owner of the William Westerfield House on Fulton Street, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and seemed to pop up, Zelig-like, in strange places in San Francisco history and culture.
A few years ago we were having dinner together when, completely out of the blue, Charles asked me, “When McCovey hit that line drive, was Bobby Richardson shifting to his left or did he catch it because he wasn’t shifting?” He was referring to the final out of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, which had occurred more than half a century earlier. When I told him Richardson was not shifting, Charles then told me he had been at the game, which the Giants lost to the Yankees. This surprised me because I had never known Charles to be a baseball fan at all. His son, Charles Jr., on the other hand, is still the biggest Giants fan I know.
Fracchia was very much a product of an older, more conservative San Francisco. He loved The City, but that love was grounded in the 1950s before the Haight, the Summer of Love, the Gay Rights Movement, punk rock, radical political power, the tech boom and everything else that was part of the last third of the 20th century in San Francisco. The City’s history, going back to before the Gold Rush, its Catholic traditions, its place in the 19th century American West, the rich Italian American culture and the political and historical characters were what drove Fracchia’s passion for San Francisco.
My friendship with Charles, who I first met in the late 1960s in New York, was an unusual one as it crossed ethnic, religious, political and, most significantly, generational boundaries. Fracchia was a full generation older than me. Indeed, I met him and first got to know him through my parents and remain close friends with his son, Charles A. Fracchia, Jr.
Fracchia Sr. was the more conservative, one-time Jesuit who led more than a few Passover seders at my mother’s house in my youth. During those same years, I was the young Jewish kid at more than a few Easter Sunday dinners with the Fracchia family enjoying his mother’s fantastic Italian cooking.
We grew closer as Charles grew older. He enjoyed gossiping about people we had known back in the 1980s and discussing the changing city. When he came to my younger son’s bar mitzvah in Manhattan, to lend the event the necessary Jesuit presence, Charles puzzled my New York family and friends by constantly, and unconsciously, referring to San Francisco as The City. As an older man Charles was philosophical about death. I remember him telling me several times “we know not where or when” and sometimes “we know neither the time nor the place.” I will carry that wisdom from my friend with me for the rest of my life.
Charles was a public figure who will be most remembered by those who read his works or had the pleasure to hear him lecture or attend one of his walking tours.
But for me, it is his compassion I will always remember.
The last time I went to see Charles, he was sleeping and did not know I was there. But the last time he called me was about a month ago, when he was fighting the battery of illnesses that would eventually take his life. He had heard my beloved dog Isis had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to tell me how sorry he was to learn that.
Fracchia’s relationship with his own children, not least his only son, was complex, but I will always remember how he and his wife, Liz, were so generous and caring towards my brother. My older brother wrestled with mental illness throughout his life, but at his absolute worst, most desperate and most frightened moments, Charles and Liz never forgot him. Whether he needed a meal, a haircut, a place to rest for the night or most importantly just somebody to listen to him, they were there for him. In my brother’s later years, some of his happiest moments were at the Fracchia’s country place in Gold Country, where his ashes are now scattered.
For me, San Francisco will not be the same without Charles Fracchia. His stories, humor and love for this town made him a constant presence in my San Francisco. His impact on The City, and on telling its history, will remain with all of us, even those who never met him.
Charles Fracchia, Alav Hashalom.
Lincoln Mitchell grew up in San Francisco and has written numerous books and articles about history and baseball in The City. He teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. For more of Lincoln’s work please visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.