Catching Frank Abagnale

How the HP seniors get one of America’s best speakers

When the story of a man’s life attracts Steven Spielberg’s attention, it’s a good story. And when telling that story commands a $27,000 fee (plus expenses) as the man’s standard honorarium - and he gets hundreds of request each year to tell it at that price – it’s a very good story.

Frank Abagnale is the man whose life between the ages of 16 and 21 inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, directed by Mr. Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Devastated by his parents' divorce, Frank (whose premature graying hair made him look 10 years older than his real age) ran away from reality and soon became the world’s greatest con artist. He spent the next five years of his life posing – first as an airline pilot, then as a doctor, and finally as a lawyer. He passed hot checks all along the way before police apprehended him.

What the movie mentions only briefly at the end about Abagnale’s life, however, is the most remarkable part.

During the fourth year of his 12-year prison sentence, he was approached by the federal government with an offer he couldn’t refuse. If he agreed to help the FBI detect fraud in its toughest cases, his days as an inmate would be over.

Regaining his freedom by becoming a law-enforcement expert, Frank Abagnale had an epiphany. Supported by the love of a new wife, he proceeded to have a stellar 30-year career at the Bureau, remained happily married, and led his three sons into productive lives.

Just as impressive is that, despite his successes on many levels, his conscience would not allow him to annul the facts of his past misconduct. He refused pardon offers from three presidents.

The story of Abagnale’s transformation from notorious criminal into accomplished detective and family man drew the attention of this year’s Highland Park High School senior class officers, Elizabeth Carlock, James Miers, Roxanne Jett, and David Rian.

“Remember what being an adult is: It has nothing to do with money or awards”

Frank Abagnale

The graduation committee members, led by parent volunteers Kathy Jenevein and Cindy Lucas, were searching for the person most likely to deliver a “WOW!” message at the baccalaureate ceremony on May 21.

Obviously, the budget for the occasion didn’t include $30,000 for a speaker’s honorarium and expenses, so the class officers and committee came up with Plan B to “catch” Abagnale; they wrote and delivered a powerful personal message to him, hoping a man of his values simply couldn’t resist it.

The persuasive invitation read as if it emanated from the minds of master wordsmiths like William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson:

“Mr. Abagnale, we have grown up in this affluent community where competition to be the best sometimes makes people do things like take short cuts to take advantage of situations. We want to hear from those who can and will make us realize that opportunities are important, but our parents, families, and friends need to continue to be a part of our lives.

“We need your inspirational story of a boy becoming a man. We are the audience you have been waiting for and you are the speaker we need at this time in our lives. This is a once in a lifetime chance to share the truth of your life story with us before we begin our life stories.”

Mr. Abagnale received the invitation and responded: “Never in my career have I received such a well-written, meaningful, and impressive email or letter. May 21st is the day my youngest son will graduate from the University of Kansas. Since his graduation is in the afternoon, I am going to accept your wonderful invitation to be your speaker that morning.

“There will be absolutely no fee for my services and no reimbursement for any travel expenses ... I am extremely moved by what I consider to be one of the best-written letters I have ever received and am truly honored by your request.”

And so Frank Abagale came to the Meyerson on May 21 and told the graduates and their families his life story. He closed with the message they most wanted to hear:

“Remember what being an adult is: It has nothing to do with money or awards. A real man loves and is faithful to his wife. You will do nothing greater in your life than be a great spouse and parent.”

Talmage Boston
is an attorney in Dallas who resides in the Park Cities.

Reprinted from Dallas Morning News, May 2006