By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The first time he set eyes on it nearly 60 years ago, Dave Kopek knew what it was.
The hand-cut Celtic cross welded to a wrought iron fence pole was stuck in the ground in the middle of a small section of graves of very young children. It bore the poignant words, also hand-lettered by welding torch:
Kevin Patch Frain
Born Jan. 30, 1936
Died April 27, 1936
Sitting for decades not 20 feet from the graves of his grandparents in the northwest section of historic St. Mary’s cemetery, Kopek couldn’t help, even as a boy, but notice the love of a father.
“This had to be a guy who didn’t have much money for a grave marker,” Kopek told The Catholic Key.
An engineer who took up metal fabrication as a hobby, Kopek had a good idea of how long it took to create the monument, already rusted over when he first saw it visiting his grandparents’ grave with his parents.
“I would assume he used an acetylene torch to cut it with, then he used a torch to do the inscriptions free-hand,” he said.
The monument haunted him since. Then last fall, serving on the Catholic Cemetery Board, Kopek finally asked cemetery director Joe Harris, “What do you know about the Frain monument?”
“I knew exactly what he was talking about,” Harris said.
Harris first saw the monument as a seminarian, working summers on maintenance at St. Mary’s.
It stood out among the ornate concrete and granite memorials of the Irish, Italian, Hispanic and German Catholics, that make St. Mary’s a virtual museum of Kansas City immigrant Catholics, many of whom died more than a century ago.
Together, Kopek and Harris decided not only to preserve the monument, but to make it a fitting tribute to a baby who lived just three months old, and to a father who did what he could to make sure his son would not be forgotten in an unmarked grave.
A little bit of Internet research revealed that their presumptions about the father and his son were 100 percent correct.
“Patch” is a common Irish nickname for “Patrick.” A search for “Kevin Patrick Frain” turned up a death certificate from the Missouri Bureau of Vital Statistics, revealing that he died from complications of a brain injury suffered at birth.
The death certificate revealed the names of his parents: Joseph P. Frain, born in Illinois, and Grace Hanley Frain, born in Ireland.
A search of their names turned up their gravesite in Resurrection Cemetery in Lenexa, Kan., revealing that Joseph died in 1977, and Grace in 1999.
Grace Frain’s obituary was still in the online archives of the Kansas City Star daily newspaper, noting that she died when she was 98 years old. Her brief obituary produced the names of her two oldest surviving sons in the Kansas City area, Michael of Shawnee, Kan., and Jack of south Kansas City, as well as the fact that she had been preceded in death by another son, Kevin Patrick.
Jack was two years old when Kevin was born and died, and has no memories of his baby brother.
Michael, who was 4, remembered Kevin as if it were yesterday.
And he remembered his father, a welder who worked on petroleum pipelines, and how much he loved his sons, Michael and Jack, as well as Kenneth and Robert who were born after Kevin.
“He loved us all,” Michael said. “He would hold me in his lap and tell me that I was the smartest kid in Kansas City.”
Michael also remembered his father borrowing the truck of a friend with a torch built into it and going somewhere the night before Kevin’s funeral.
“He didn’t come back until the next morning, and his overalls had burn marks all over them like welders get,” he said.
“My mother asked him, ‘Where have you been?’” Michael recalled.
“He said, ‘I made a grave marker for Kevin’”
Michael Frain also remembers the day that his baby brother died.
“I held him,” he said.
“She said, ‘There is something wrong with the baby. I have to go call doctor,’ and she gave him to me while she went to a neighbor’s house to use the telephone,” Michael said.
“When she came back, she took the poor little guy out of my arms and went upstairs. By the time the doctor came, he had died,” he said.
Michael also recalls how Kevin was injured.
“They took him by Caesarian,” he said. “Two weeks before he was born, my mother’s water broke, but she didn’t know any better, so she didn’t call the doctor.”
For the next two weeks, she continued her normal routine as best that she could, with Kevin’s head no longer protected by his mothers amniotic fluids.
“When she finally told the doctor about it, they put her in the hospital right away and took the baby by emergency C-section,” he said.
“The poor baby got a sore from his head rubbing against her hip bone,” Michael said, rubbing the right side of his skull near the top to show exactly where his brother’s wound was.
“That sore got infected and it went into his brain,” he said.
Today, Kevin Frain’s death might have been preventable. But in 1936, it had only been eight years since Alexander Fleming first discovered penicillin, the first modern antibiotic, and it wasn’t in wide use.
“They used sulfa drugs for infections then, but it didn’t do the job,” Michael said.
His mother blamed herself for the rest of her life about his brother’s death, he said. But his father never spoke a word about it, to Michael’s knowledge, either to Grace or to any of the boys.
Michael also remembered his brother’s funeral at St. Louis Parish, a block from the house the family rented near 59th Street and Swope Parkway.
“They had him in one of those white coffins for children.” Jack remembered frequent family trips to Kevin’s grave, but as the Frain boys grew older with lives and families of their own, those trips grew less frequent.
“There were a lot of people there, and I remember them standing around the coffin crying,” he said.
“One thing I do remember, they had a hand-dug grave and a (temporary) wooden marker,” Michael said. “They lowered him into the grave, and the people at the gravesite pick up a handful of loose dirt and toss it on the coffin.”
Michael said he wasn’t there when his father came back later to stick the hand-made steel Celtic cross at the head of his brother’s grave.
Michael also remembers his father later painting the steel marker black with white lettering. It didn’t last, he said, and the marker quickly rusted.
“I am surprised it was still there,” he said.
Kopek wasn’t surprised. Joseph Frain used high quality, high-carbon steel plate, probably scrap material left over from another job.
When he and Harris put their minds together they came up with a plan for a fitting monument for baby Kevin Patch Frain, as well as for the father and family who loved him for the three months of his life.
Kopek designed a new monument incorporating the original one. A steel flair would be added to the bottom of the cross, extending to a green granite base in which Joseph Frain’s original hand-welded inscription would be repeated, using materials that Harris acquired either free or at cost.
They took the original rusted cross and pole to the workshop at Mt. Olivet cemetery, where master craftsman Greg Robel carefully blasted off the rust in a special machine that uses synthetic silicone beads, harder but finer than sand.
It is the same technique that Robel uses to restore tarnished brass and bronze grave markers back to a like-new state.
The steel under the rust was so high quality that only a few pitted areas remained as Robel brought it back to the condition it was in when Joseph Frain finished it.
With the new flair attached as well as three metal posts that would anchor the monument into poured cement, Kopek then asked a big favor of his neighbor, Charles Legg, owner of the Friends and Family Auto Body Shop near Truman Road and Prospect.
Would Legg, asked Kopek, donate his talents to paint and preserve the monument using the latest paint technology?
The honor was his, Legg told The Catholic Key.
“When I was working on it, I could feel the energy from it. I could see the craftsmanship that went into it, and I tried to keep the originality there,” Legg said.
“It was a spiritual thing,” he said.
Legg first applied an anti-rust agent to the entire monument. Then he chose a dark green automotive paint for the Celtic cross and flair, then outlined the lettering and the circumference of the cross in an off-white.
Legg then baked the freshly painted cross before applying a modern “clear-coat” finish and baking it again.
“This monument will be here long after all of us are gone,” said Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland, as he conducted a brief prayer service on April 26 — one day short of the 77th anniversary of Kevin Patrick Frain’s death — to rededicate the monument.
Michael Frain was there, 81 years old and suffering from bone cancer that has put him in a wheelchair. So was Jack Frain, who wiped tears from his eyes. So were Bob and Therese Reynolds, Michael Frain’s neighbors and friends.
And so were Greg Robel, Charles Legg, Dave Kopek and Joe Harris, along with wives.
Bishop Boland also took note of the ground on which the small gathering was standing and praying.
Kevin’s Frain grave was practically in the geological center of a score of graves of children, all of which have ground-level granite gravestones telling the stories of children who died decades ago before their fifth birthdays.
“We are surrounded by little saints because they had all been baptized,” Bishop Boland said. “In those days, the rules were that you couldn’t be buried here unless you were baptized.”
“What a great centerpiece this memorial is,” he said.