Toni Franke sits in her formal dining room and sips coffee from ornately-patterned china. Under five feet tall, her purple sweater clasped with a sparkling silver brooch in the classic fashion, one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate the lifetime of adventures this 92 year old woman could relate with a still-discernible Bronx accent and sharp New York sensibility.
Her Christian name is Antoinette, but she was always Toni; so named after her grandfather, Anthony, a peasant farmer in the Italian village of Piamonte. Her father died when she was five, and her mother took her from the Bronx to Italian Alps to be with her family for a year; just long enough for Toni to develop a treasure trove of memories and forget English.
Back in New York, Toni’s mother re-married a police officer whose beat in the theater district afforded opportunities to catch the best Broadway acts. (“He would allow chauffeurs a place to park their limos, and in exchange he would get tickets to all the shows for his wife and daughter,” Toni recalls.) Her mother, a factory seamstress, would copy swatches from the clothing lines at New York department stores and sew dresses for her. (“I never wore store-bought clothes in my life, but I was always very finely dressed.”)
She met her husband, Jack, at age sixteen while vacationing in Packanack Lake, New Jersey. On one of their first dates they danced to the sounds of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, accompanied by a very young Frank Sinatra. (“He was just a skinny little kid then…you know…wasn’t anything.”) It was love from the beginning, and Jack, a college graduate working for his father, would drive into the city on weekends to continue the courtship.
World War II broke out shortly after they were married, and Uncle Sam honored Jack’s status as a conscientious objector provided he did something else for the country. For some reason that still escapes Toni to this day, she suggested farming. (“Jack said he didn’t know a thing about farming and I said neither do I. So that’s what we went into.”)
They spent 15 years building a dairy farm in Wayne Township, New Jersey. Toni says the other farmers raised a skeptical eyebrow at the two “city-slickers” but they were fortunate enough to have the money to invest in good stock. Every month they were one of the county’s top milkfat producers. They also began raising a family, adopting a son and a daughter, Richard and JoAnn. Just as they were selling the farm, Toni became pregnant with their youngest daughter, Beverly.
Beverly attended Vermont’s Goddard College, where one summer her studies included touring the art museums of Western Europe. Toni seized the opportunity to accompany her daughter on this three- week trip that still makes her eyes light up with wonder at having seen the great masterpieces. Beverly and her husband settled in Guilford and had a daughter, Melissa and a son Nolan. JoAnn and Richard also graduates of New England Colleges settled on the west coast. JoAnn and her husband, Dale have a daughter Erica. Toni convinced Jack to move to Brattleboro so they could be closer to their east coast grandchildren.
The Franke’s became generous supporters of BMH from the onset, and over time they experienced the quality of care it provides. “Jack was in the hospital for quite a while before he died and Dr. Tepfer, the heart specialist, was the most wonderful, wonderful man,” says Toni. “My son-in-law, Dale, is a neurologist and he too has been very impressed with the doctors here.”
For Toni, the hospital also offers a social life after Jack’s passing. She meets for lunch every couple of months with other women she has met through BMH’s Director of Development, Ellen Smith. Toni regularly contributes to the annual fund, and made a gift to the capital campaign in Jack’s name. She also purchased a tree outside the new hospital building in memory of her mother, who began Toni on her lifetime of adventures back when she was five years old.