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Frank Pope: He’s the Man at the Gate for Dear Old State

by on August 23, 2018 5:00 AM

 

You’re one of the 100,000-plus people who is inching your way toward Beaver Stadium’s gates on an autumn Saturday. You look at your watch, count the bodies in front of you, look for the shortest line, look at your watch again. It’s a mindless process — unless kickoff time is approaching. If that’s the case, you’re wondering why you played those extra rounds of corn hole in the parking lot.

Yes, the Beaver Stadium queue is boring. And sometimes it’s stressful. But we’re living in the post-9/11 era, so maybe all of us should accept the necessary nuisance. Better yet, maybe we should thank the leader who runs the gates to help keep us safe. So who would that be? Who is in charge here?

The answer to that trivia question is Frank Pope, an alumnus of Penn State, Class of 1970. He has worked at every Beaver Stadium game since his graduation, and this is his 37th year of directing Gate Operations. In short, Frank has seen it all. And, according to those who work closely with him, he’s done an excellent job.

“The man knows what he’s doing,” says Bucky Quici, long-time head of ushers in the general seating sections. “It’s obvious that he needs to be there. He is in a very strategic and important position — especially now, in the times we’re in today.”

BOWLING BALL & HOCKEY STICK

Quici is also a Beaver Stadium veteran, entering his 44th year of service during football games. (See the story I wrote last fall about him and his friend, Mark McFall, head of ushers in the student section.) He is quick to praise Pope and the gate attendants for their stellar work, although he can’t resist mentioning two bizarre anomalies from over the years.

“I know there was a time that a bowling ball was found in the stadium,” says Quici. “I don’t know how it got in; it made no sense and had no relevance to anything. And then, during another game I got a call on my radio one game that there was a hockey stick in the stands. It was removed with no incident, everything was fine. Frank was concerned about it, but later we had a chuckle over it. When you consider over 100,000 people per game, how many games per year, and about 40 years… to have just two objects that stand out, Frank and his crew are doing a pretty darn good job.”  

FOOTBALL, GYMNASTICS SPARK INTEREST

Frank Pope’s connection to Penn State football began in a relatively humble state. Frank was just a freshman when he first walked into the Beav in the fall of 1966, and the Nittany Lions were destined for a 5-5 season behind their new head coach, Joe Paterno. But Joe wasn’t one to settle for such mediocrity, and Frank got to see some remarkable things during his student days.

By the time Pope grasped his diploma, Paterno’s Lions had won all 11 of their games in 1968 (including Frank’s all-time favorite, the 15-14 Orange Bowl victory over Kansas) and all 11 in 1969. “That was a phenomenal football program that evolved during my four years in school,” says Frank.

But it wasn’t just football that made Frank think about a career in sports management. He also tasted athletic excitement as the student manager for Penn State gymnastics. “Gene Wettstone was the iconic coach,” notes Frank, “and I learned that my (vocational) interest was in athletic administration. I wasn’t an athlete, but I liked the operation of it. A men’s gymnastics meet under Coach Wettstone was like a three-ring circus, so to be a manager for him was really great training.”

Frank had previously considered becoming a Methodist pastor, but the extensive readings required by seminaries made him think twice. And he realized he was most keenly interested in athletics. “I found out you could be a Christian without being a minister,” says Frank, “and I started following this other passion.”

$4 PER GAME

At first, Frank pieced together some part-time jobs in the State College area. He worked at nearby Woodward Camp, did clerical work in the athletic ticket office and served as a stadium usher. “I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket for football,” Pope recalls, “so I got paid $4 a game and got in the stadium. I was ecstatic to see the football games, but the more games I worked, the more interested I became in the functions.”

Over a number of years, Frank steadily worked his way up as a Penn State administrator and computer specialist.  And he also met the former Evelyn Peachey from Belleville, marrying her in June of 1976. But regardless of his 9-to-5 job — various Penn State jobs and one outside sales position — Frank always made sure he was working at Beaver Stadium for home football games. In 1982, after observing a variety of gate-related complaints, he said, “I think I can help” and became director of Gate Operations.

As he enters his 37th year as Penn State’s ultimate gatekeeper, Pope summarizes the job’s biggest overall challenge: “Needing to simultaneously be in a rules environment and a customer service environment,” he says. “You want to be compassionate, you want to be fair, but when you’re within that rule enforcement part…”

Sometimes, of course, the solution comes through humor. Frank remembers a season in the mid-1990s when a particular student showed up with a full-size cardboard version of Joe Paterno. “And he arrived early so he could sit in the first row,” says Frank. “Well, we had some concerns that the cardboard Joe might be taking a seat away from a human. We expressed our concern, and the next week the student showed up with two tickets — one for himself and one for Joe. He did that the rest of the season, and we all got a kick out of it. Of course, we were all Joe Paterno fans.”


As shown in this shot from the late 1990s, Frank has always enjoyed his work at the stadium.

FIRMNESS WITH FAMILY SENSITIVITY

It takes a special sensitivity for gate attendants to enforce safety rules without antagonizing customers. It helps that their leader cares not only about what comes through his gate but also who comes through his gates.

“You have this group of people who are just so excited,” says Frank, “this wave of people coming into the gates. Then you see this 14-year old girl walking with her parents, holding maybe the first purse she’s ever bought. And you have to be the one to say, ‘I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to bring that purse into the stadium.’ You can see the look in the parents’ eyes — they’re going from this high of excitement to this negative.”

Married to Evelyn for 42 years and the father to their two grown daughters, Angela and Kaitlin, Frank always has “family” in his mind. And he urges his gate staff, especially at the student gates, to think of fans in a family context. “These are someone’s children,” he says, “and for the next four hours their parents have pretty much put them in our care.”

FRIDAY NIGHT VICTORY

There was a day when Frank bore some responsibility for keeping fans off the field once the game was concluded.  And he cared deeply about that issue—not for turf maintenance but for fan safety. (On October 30, 1993, Wisconsin beat Michigan for the first time since 1981, and delirious Badger fans surged onto the field in one of the worst stampedes in U.S. history.  Although no one died, 80 fans were taken to local hospitals, including 10 who had been found unconscious.)

As certain key games approached in the later 1990s, Frank did his planning to avoid any such tragedy. He knew he could count on old friend Mark McFall and his staff of ushers. But ushers alone couldn’t stop a potential surge of 20,000 students. So back in the days before Paternoville or Nittanyville were organized, Frank would visit the kids who were informally camped at the stadium on Friday night.  

“As part of my strategy for keeping people off the field,” says Frank, “the people in the first row of the stands needed to know who I was and that I had treated them respectfully. So on Friday night, I would walk around and show them where they should line up if they wanted to be first (the next morning). And I would chat and tell them stories and develop rapport.

“By the end of our time, I would say, ‘Hey guys, just one more thing.’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah Frank, what is it?’ And I’d say, ‘When we win tomorrow, you guys are going to want to come on the field.’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah!’  And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to be the guy standing on the field, and if I’m flat on my back, you’ll never be in the first row again. And you know I’d be able to do that.’

“So I would develop a rapport with Row 1. I couldn’t stop 110 rows, but if I could stop Row 1 and there was no room for Row 2 to get to the railing, then we had developed a barrier.”

It was a strategy that worked, and on one occasion it yielded an additional benefit. For a particularly crucial game, Frank’s Row 1 buddies wore matching T-shirts that were pornographically insulting to the visiting team.  Pope then got a call from his gate supervisor to ask if they should be admitted. As Frank approached the group, they were excited to see him, but he was dismayed and perplexed about what he could say to them. Drawing on his past friendship — and some meal chits — Frank convinced the students to turn their shirts inside-out. “We were buying their loyalty,” says Frank with a chuckle, and his smile suggests he’d do it again to avoid such a negative situation.


Frank takes a break at a game in the mid-1990s with two of his gate supervisors—in the middle is Mark McFall (now a chief usher) and at right is Mark Campolongo. 

CHANGING SITUATIONS; ONGOING COMMITMENT

As one might expect, lots of things have changed since Frank began managing Beaver Stadium’s gates. The stadium’s capacity has gone up and down. The gates themselves have been reconfigured. Hand-held scanners are now employed to verify each fan’s ticket.

Even Frank’s employer has changed. Technically, he is now in his second year of working for Whelan Event Staffing Services, the company that is paid by Penn State to provide such functions as security, gate management and parking.

But nothing has really changed about Frank or his commitment to serving Penn State and its fans.  He still spends untold hours in thinking about the needs of 100,000 people and how to articulate those needs to his colleagues. As his former boss, Herb Schmidt, once said, “Frank Pope will drive you crazy trying to do things right.”

Ironically, Frank’s love for helping to stage a football game has far eclipsed his original love of the sport. He doesn’t have time to watch the action during home games, and he notices the score mainly so he can plan for the timing of spectator exits.  

So, Frank, what has it meant to serve so many years at Beaver Stadium?  

“It started out as just a passion over football. But you go through these cycles in life — marriage, children, different jobs, health issues. And this has been a common thread throughout my life, to work at Beaver Stadium. Here’s this opportunity to be a steward to this large group of people all at one time and try to help an organization like the university.”

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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