Abagnale, a Charleston resident who’s youthful decisions were brought to the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can”, has spent his adult life catching electronic criminals – from bank fraud to corporate malfeasance. He works for the FBI.
This thick white haired gentleman is emboldened by his own experiences. He is much too humble and understated for what he has been able to give back to the world in sensitive parenting messages, ethical guidelines and moralistic stories that inspire. He has saved businesses – big and – billions upon billions from would-be criminals. Abagnale is contemplative, naturally pleasant and forthright in his candor. He is justly proud of his children and steadfast in his reverence of his wife. She changed him. His depth of purpose is the sidelight to his career, though it could
certainly be seen that his life’s work has not been his career, but his self-imposed duty to reassert needed morality in every quarter.
He is a redemption realized.
The character that is Frank Abagnale has heightened the sense of cleverness as it is detailed in his best selling book (and the later movie and Broadway musical) entitled “Catch Me if You Can.” It was written in 1980 upon a suggestion by famed late night television host Johnny Carson. In fact, it was published by Carson’s own publishing source. It has remained in constant print for over thirty years and is available in 35 languages.
The persona in that book and movie was a uniquely developed character. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction! The book essentially details the honest and true account of Abagnale’s six-year journey from a shattered home to a federal prison. Two of those years had been spent in other prisons of Sweden and France. In between, he had posed as an airline pilot, a schoolteacher, a stockbroker and a doctor – among other characters. Incredibly, owing to his profound academic prowess, Abagnale passed the State of Louisiana BAR exam after studying for only two months. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent, Joe Shea, who had pursued the composite character of Frank Abagnale, was certain he was trying to apprehend a seasoned mastermind of extraordinary experience, deception and enterprise. He thought him to be in his mid thirties. His intensely pursued suspect was only a teenager.
Abagnale had left his New York home at the age of 16. He had been summoned from a high school classroom to a courtroom by a judge to choose which parent he would live with after a divorce was decried. He would live with neither. He ran away. In the years that followed, though he spoke with his father by phone, he never saw his father again. It was a much-lamented circumstance of a bad decision.
The young runaway’s acute abilities and believable sincerity had channeled him to a life of fraudulent crime. He became adept at the art of defrauding large corporations by counterfeiting their payroll checks. He realized there was no turning back. He expected to get caught and he did. He was extradited from a Swedish prison to the custody of the F.B.I. at the age of 21 in 1970.
Abagnale and Special Agent Shea had a common thought. Both knew the eventuality was that Abagnale would be apprehended. His twelve-year sentence for what amounted to nearly $2.5 million of fraudulent corporate checks would have seemed to be the book’s last chapter. It was - in the reality that is life - only the beginning. What followed placed Abagnale on a path to become a man of great character and impeccable morality.
“I’d like to say the prison system works and it changed me or that I became born again or that I had grown up and matured and was contrite.” Abagnale stated. “But none of that happened.”
Something much more meaningful in Abagnale’s life changed him. But before that could happen, another event would present itself. Precisely because of his now-catalogued file of ingenuity, Abagnale was not a forgotten inmate number.
The pursuer, Joe Shea, came back to Abagnale to work a deal in 1974. Abagnale was not a violent criminal. He did not defraud individuals. He showed a unusual pattern of honesty throughout the pursuit. Real criminals depend upon dishonesty as a weapon. He was just a child that had reacted to an extreme domestic circumstance by striking out on his own. He did not steal from people or carry a handgun. Shea pleaded for a deal with the FBI. Abagnale became a bargain deal to crack fraud cases for the FBI.
“I was working undercover in Texas in 1975. I met Kelly as part of this assignment. She was an innocent aside and not a part of the focused criminal operation. I immediately fell in love with her.” Abagnale intimated. “I did the unthinkable and blew my cover. She had total faith in me. She believed in me. She trusted me despite everything I told her in honesty about my background. Against the wishes of her parents, we were married in 1976 in the Church.”
“Her parents, once they knew of my federal prison time and lack of formal education, tried everything to dissuade her from marrying me.” Abagnale offered. “And you could see their point. They thought it was another con and that my life, once my service to the FBI was over, would revert to crime. It was foolish for me to try to convince them otherwise. They were trying to protect their daughter.”
Their daughter was trying to save the life of the man she had consented to marry. Abagnale knew what he felt. It is rare to hear a man speak so lovingly about his wife.
“She made me see that a marriage and a family can be so very positive. She knew that my parent’s divorce was the catalyst that started my life of crime. She elevated my belief in people and especially in marriage.” Abagnale continued. “In this way, she was the real reason my life changed and I was able to go back to my true core values I had learned in parochial schools. My entire life turned on the love of a woman.”
The match, though destined for a rocky start, proved to be special. Kelly Abagnale relived the expedition in her own words.
“Meeting Frank was the beginning of an amazing journey which has brought me true love, joy, family and a closeness to someone I never believed possible.”
She catapulted him forward and inspired his true character. It is “character” that is illustrated by an incredible restoration of the human spirit. That character change came from an extremely human intervention – the caring woman that would become his wife of 35 years.
The Abagnale value system is exemplary and refreshing. It is indeed his resolution of his own character and reputation over a lifetime. He benefited from his own upbringing. He was taught by Catholic brothers. His father, in contrast to the movie’s perceived character, was honest, responsible and diligent. He died in 1971. As a ‘flight risk,’ Abagnale was not allowed to attend his funeral.
Frank Abagnale’s French-born mother never remarried as the movie depicts. She is 83 and still lives in New York near Abagnale’s other two living siblings.
The character portrayed in the movie by actor Leonardo DiCaprio would lead one to believe Abagnale was a suave and sophisticated con artist that reveled in the activity for the thrill of it all. That was not quite what Abagnale really experienced. He was always on the run. He could not afford to trust anyone. In part, his activities were based in simple survival. The two years in European jails were not emphasized in the movie as they were in the book that detailed the misery. The French prison he endured was a hundreds-year old facility lacking modern conveniences. It took Abagnale great resolve and personal fortitude to tolerate these Spartan experiences. It took character.
That foundation of internal character is personified in the fully evolved Abagnale. His core value system grew to embrace the tenets of impeccable ethics and staunch morality. This became his personal triumph. That leap is greater than any book or movie could perceive. It is a lifetime resolved and a commitment to the goodness within.
His post FBI venture of protecting businesses from fraud has saved billions. His speaking ability, though so profoundly entertaining, arrives at a conclusion of a very special message. He is clear in his point.
Abagnale’s route of redemption brought him to the Holy City reluctantly at first. Now he loves it.
In Charleston, Frank William Abagnale, Jr., is a character we enjoy with the character of great warmth and sincerity that teaches lessons of moral character to our entire community. Catch him when you can.