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Foundation to use $20 million to aid local organizations

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Robert Franke left La Crosse a $20 million gift.

And it will start fueling local organizations by December.

The Robert and Eleanor Franke Charitable Foundation will give funds to the Diocese of La Crosse, Mayo Clinic Health System and selected nonprofit organizations.

It's the largest bequest to further philanthropy in the area that La Crosse Community Foundation Executive Director Sheila Garrity remembers.

"It's a terrific contribution to the whole community," she said. "(Robert Franke) is a great example of someone who gave back to our community in a memorable way."

Franke died in September 2009 at 91. His wife died in 2001. They had no children.

Before his death, Franke left several bequests to local charities, but the largest share of his estate, $20 million, was left to support the community, said the foundation's CEO and executive director Mel Hoffman.

Every year, the Diocese of La Crosse and Mayo Clinic Health System will each receive a third of the fund's earnings, with the final third to be split up between nonprofits chosen by the foundation board.

"It's a magnificent gift that will provide thousands for those in need," Hoffman said.

Remembered most as an elderly man in a overcoat and fedora, walking his beagle, Franke was born in 1918 in the same Charles Street house where he lived for 91 years.

He graduated from La Crosse State Teachers College with a degree in education. After a year as a substitute teacher, he hired on as a fireman on the Burlington line. Franke was promoted to engineer, and later retired in 1984.

Franke and his wife attended Mass six days a week - every day but Sunday - and they always dressed up. Though his job was blue-collar, Franke invested early and wisely. When he was 9, he collected deposits on pop bottles to buy stock, said friend Darvin Klatt during a 2009 interview with the Tribune. Franke eventually owned more than a dozen houses on his North Side block.

On Wednesday, friends and city representatives met in Copeland Park to announce the establishment of the foundation, right in front of the train Franke had once operated.

To be eligible for fund consideration, the nonprofits' proposals must meet at least one of five criteria: promoting efforts of students to pursue educational goals, promoting the humane treatment of animals, maintaining and improving the health and well-being of those unable to pay for health care, assisting those unable to pay for basic housing costs, or funding projects that enhance quality of life.

Mayor Matt Harter said the foundation is a great asset to the city.

"These nonprofit organizations and charitable organizations that we have in the city of La Crosse are essential to what we do," he said. "The Franke Foundation will help provide a good quality of life and opportunity to people."

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Grant applications will be available Sept. 1 at www.frankefound.org or at www.laxcommfoundation.com. Applicants can also call the Franke Found…

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