MARENGO – Call Herb Franks a trailblazer, and he’ll bristle.
Bring up the fact that the Marengo lawyer won the first $1 million verdict in McHenry County, or that he was the only attorney from this county to serve as the president of the Illinois Bar Association, and he’ll talk about the competitive drive deep within him.
Point to his house through the window of his office, and the Democrat’s face will curl into a smile. He’ll tell a story about what growing up on a dairy farm taught him about living. He’ll tell a story about home.
At 84 years old, Franks is the kind of guy with no plans of retiring.
“They’ll carry me out,” Franks said, sitting in the library of Marengo-based Franks, Gerkin and
McKenna law firm, where he is managing partner among nine lawyers in an office that has become a manifestation of Franks’ personality: bookish, adventurous, irreverent.
A walk through the hallways peels back the curtain on what Franks loves. One room features a collection of whopper fish he’s caught over the years.
His desk is piled with papers and case files. His shelves are covered in trinkets from his travels. On one wall hangs an original Salvador Dali illustration of Don Quixote, the noble knight of Spanish literature who set out on horseback to seek romance and adventure.
In Don Quixote, Franks found a kindred spirit.
Franks grew up on a Marengo dairy farm, where he woke up before the sun every day to milk the cows and returned at dusk to repeat the seven-days-a-week process.
He eventually left the Marengo farm to graduate from Roosevelt University in Chicago. He was drafted into the Army and met his wife, Eileen, in 1956 while stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. They married in 1957.
Franks attended American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. He worked on Capitol Hill during the day, and took classes at night. He was admitted to the Illinois Bar in June 1961.
He later returned to Marengo, where he and Eileen raised three children, all lawyers – David Franks, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks and Eli Franks.
Franks sat down with the Northwest Herald to talk about what’s he’s learned along the path.
My father and mother brought me here when I was 4. We lived on the next farm down the road. I never left. Well, I almost left, but I didn’t get the job. I went to work for Sen. [Stuart] Symington when he ran for president, and he didn’t make it, so I decided it was time to come home. It truly is home.
On bringing people to McHenry County:
I brought some businesses here. Down the road there, that used to be my land, and this side where the library is, and there was this factory in Chicago, and I had a friend, and he was complaining that his factory kept getting broken into. I said, “You live in Oxbow, why the hell are you driving to Chicago for a factory?” So now they have over a hundred employees, but now they’re in Union. I started the local bank here – First National. And I started the Wonder Lake State Bank, which is now State Bank.
On being a trailblazer:
(Groans, rejecting the idea). I can’t believe I’m as lucky as I am. You get a work ethic when you’re on a farm. At 5:30 a.m., you’re in the barn for milk. At 5:30 p.m., you’re in the barn for milk. That’s seven days a week. The animals have to be fed. They have to be watered. As a result, almost everything I did in life afterward was easy. That may sound crazy, but we really had a work ethic. I am the oldest of five kids, and every one of my siblings were all quite successful people.
When I was in the Army, I met this young lady from Tallahassee, Florida, and we got married. She told me on our third date, “I’m going to marry me a Yankee.” And honest to God, I said, “I wish you luck.” I was that dumb, and so we got married, and we had these kids, and she backed me up. We believe in strong discipline and rewards for doing well, and unrewards for doing bad. I think that helped them. You know, it’s no accident having three kids, all lawyers.
On how long he’s been married:
On traveling with his family:
We go all over the world.
On his favorite spot on Earth:
New Zealand. I used to go down there every two years to fish. I was in a bookstore down there – it was raining like hell – and there it was: Zane Grey’s “[The Angler’s Eldorado].” I picked up the book. He was a great fisherman, and I did not know that. He spent nine months going from the Bay of Plenty up in the north part of the island all the way down to Invercargill, which is in the southern part of the island. He spent several months introducing big game fishing there. And I read that, and I said, “I’ve got to do that.” I got a buddy of mine, as crazy as I am, and we started doing that. We only spent three weeks, but we got it done.
On his love of reading:
I read a book a week. Sometimes two or three books a week. When I get into a novel, and I’m sitting there, I’m liable to read until 2 or 3 in the morning, and I sleep. I’m a fast reader. I love to read. I skipped fourth grade, which was a terrible thing to do, because when I entered high school, I was 16 years old and 5-foot-4.
On advice he would give to anyone trying to make something for themselves:
Do what you love. I can’t believe how lucky I am. Can you believe people pay me? “Mr. Franks, what do you think?” How in the hell do I know what I think? I haven’t read Dear Abby yet this morning (laughter). The fact is, I love what I do, and I think it shows, and that’s why I get clients.
I really love my clients. That might sound crazy to you. You’re supposed to be cool in this world. You’re not supposed to get emotionally involved. How can you not be involved emotionally with some guy who’s putting bread on your table? If the man comes to you, the woman comes to you, and they’ve got problems. If you can help, you’ve got to care for them. That’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a father figure, somebody to say, “OK, you’re wrong, and you’ve got to do this,” or “You’re right, and we’ll do what we can to get it right.” I just love it. I love to come to the office in the morning, see what mail I got. I love to meet new clients. I love what I do. That’s how you get success.
I surrounded myself with good people. I always tried to find somebody that was smarter than I was.