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Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

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Bohls: Longhorn booster Frank Denius leaves huge legacy

Posted July 29th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Frank Denius died at his Tarrytown home early Sunday morning. He was 93.
  • Denius loved Longhorn football like few others, rarely missed a game and insisted on sitting in the stands in Section 4 rather than his private suite.
  • Former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said whenever there was a project, Denius was almost always the first to get involved and offer help.

Frank Denius took his last breath Sunday morning.

And the world became a little less kind and a little more dreary.

This was a remarkable, 93-year-old man of incredible stature but completely unassuming profile who gave of himself and lived daily by that mantra until he died at his Tarrytown home. Services for the native of Uniontown, Pa., who grew up in Athens, will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Westminster Presbyterian with a reception to follow.

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Most of you probably never met him. Some might think the name sounds familiar and that, yeah you’d heard his name before, but couldn’t place him.

Frank Denius with a few of the medals he received during WWII. Among them are a silver star with three clusters and two purple hearts. Denius served from 1943 to 1945 and was part of the D-Day invasion on Normandy. (Sung Park/American-Statesman)

If you did not know him, if your paths never crossed, you were the worse for it. This was a giant of a man with a boundless heart and tremendous compassion, a man borne with neither ego nor strut. He was a man of accomplishment, yet never boasted of it. He simply was one of the finest people I’ve ever met.

Frank Denius was a lot of things. He was part military hero, part humanitarian, part attorney, part husband and father, and big part sports fan, but always a gentle soul and an abiding, positive influence in the lives of so many whom he touched.

He graduated from Texas with a degree in business and from the law school in 1949. He served as longtime president of Southern Union Gas and director of JP Morgan Chase Bank.

He was Mr. Longhorn in every way imaginable.

A generous benefactor. A selfless contributor. A complete friend of coaches and players. A fixture at football games and practices. A philanthropist. A trail-blazing attorney.

“Frank Denius was the ultimate Longhorn,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said Sunday in a statement. “His generosity improved the lives of thousands of students and allowed UT to grow into one of the great public flagship universities in the nation. He was a friend and advisor to me and to many previous presidents. I will miss him greatly, but I know his legacy will last for generations here at the Forty Acres.”

Denius and his late wife, Charmaine, became so close to Darrell and Edith Royal, they regularly broke bread over banana waffles with a spirited game of chess on Sunday nights. So, too, did Mack Brown befriend Denius and celebrated his impact to the point he even named the Longhorns special teams the “Special Forces” after his military contributions.

Denius’ name adorned the football practice fields that sit snug underneath the passing motorists along I-35’s upper deck on land that Denius’ foundation purchased and donated, but that’s a mere glimpse of all the former Austin lawyer did for the university.

The Texas board of regents named the fields in his honor. They probably would have done more, but for the humility of a man who steadfastly refused self-promotion. He was as genuine as they come.

“He’s a hero. An absolute hero,” said former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who first met Denius at a meet-and-greet at the Headliners Club in 1981. “He stood for everything that was good and right. And anything we did at Texas, he was usually the first to say, ‘Let me help.’ “

Denius served on practically every committee ever formed, on the Longhorn Advisory Foundation, the Development Board as well as those for the Texas Exes.

Denius gave a “mega-amount” of money to the University as the director of the Cain Foundation formed by his uncle Wofford Cain. He helped champion Texas’ own medical school for decades. He helped Texas A&M become co-ed (his grandfather served on A&M’s board of regents). He assisted Longhorn players on their NFL contracts without charge, astutely adding incentives like a bonus for Bill Bradley for the number of plays he was on the field with the Eagles (knowing he’d be a special-teams force) and getting Diron Talbert a Lincoln Continental.

Without question, he was one of the most positive, upbeat personalities you’d hope to meet. This was a guy so friendly he’d say hi to a telephone booth. He so adored Christmas, he’d decorate his home from floor to ceiling. He was a voracious book reader of politics and business. He was an avid collector of toy trains, adding hundreds since he was a child.

Once when I penned an article about him more than a decade ago, he couldn’t stop thanking me and sent me a can of flavored popcorn every Christmas for years.

He saw the best life had to offer, tried to make the world a better place and counted every day a blessing.

He particularly had a soft spot for anything to do with veterans.

Denius headed up the stadium veterans committee and in 2009 helped organize the northwest plaza of Royal-Memorial Stadium that honors all the university students and faculty who died in war. A World War I doughboy statue serves as sentinel. The plaza bears Denius’ name.

At the dedication ceremony, Royal and Dodds gave Denius a T-ring. He never took it off.

Frank Denius is a fixture on the sidelines of the University of Texas football team as they practice in 2002. Denius was a lifelong donor to the university and this field along I-35 and Red River is named after him. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

He was one of the most decorated war heroes in history, earning two Purple Hearts and four Silver Stars for his role in spearheading the Allied victory after D-Day on the shores of Normandy beach and the battle for Mortain, France, where he helped hold off 70,000 Germans and five Panzer tank divisions. He was an artillery man who helped pin down German forces and was wounded twice, but as befitting his philanthropic side, later became one of the first to ever launch artillery shells filled with medical supplies to help the injured. And he did so as a teenager, enlisting at 17.

Each year on Veterans Day, Denius paid for several burn victims and other wounded warriors to take in a Texas game from the Centennial Room. His Cain Foundation rebuilt a paraplegic wounded vet’s house in San Antonio to install a hydraulic lift in every room. That’s the kind of man Denius was. He never forgot how fortunate he was, and he loved this country. He didn’t need a hat to help make America great again.

One of his close friends, Adam Blum, 58 years his junior, said Frank was moved to tears when Blum said his sister and her family were moving to Israel. It stirred deep-seated memories in Denius, who recounted the atrocities he witnessed as he and his fellow soldiers liberated concentration camps in 1945.

Denius returned from a reunion event in Normandy not long ago and told Blum and former Longhorn great Ted Koy over iced tea at the Frisco Shop stories about the deep appreciation still shown to Americans by the residents of the French town near Hill 314 where Frank and his troop valiantly held off thousands of German forces in a siege that lasted for days in a conflict that helped turn the war.

Texas athletics benefactor Frank Denius earned Purple Hearts for his contributions in the Allied forces Normandy invasion in World War II. (U.S. Army)

And he so loved his Longhorns.

Ever since the days he returned from the war and graduated from Texas, he became infatuated with the Texas football team to the extent that he scheduled his work day around Longhorn practices. While players toiled in the baking August heat, he’d patrol the sidelines, a wide-brim, white Stetson hat his trademark accoutrement.

“He was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met,” said former Texas running back Ted Koy, who with his wife Valerie were frequently traveling parties to away football games. “He loved coming to practice. When players would go from one drill to another, they’d shake his hand. It didn’t matter if it was the star or the walk-on.”

On Saturdays, Denius rarely went in his huge luxury suite behind a glass pane, preferring to be on the field or in the stands close to the action. When sideline restrictions removed him, he insisted on always sitting in his Seat 26 of Row 15 in Section 4 next to fellow Longhorn fan Ed Berry.

“I have sat with Frank at both home and out-of-town games for the past 20 years or so,” Berry said. “I can describe Frank in one word — gentleman.  No more needs to be said.”

Jones Ramsey, Texas’ patriarch of publicists, used to joke that Frank would be on the sidelines and, when the action drew near, would yell, “Fumble, fumble,” as if he could ordain a pivotal turnover.

That was as close to offering commands as it got. He wouldn’t dream of second-guessing a coach or suggesting what he might ought to do. He was a soldier who knew his place.

“You’d see him at practice every day,” long-time historian Bill Little said. “He loved coming to practice, and he loved defense. He always watched the defense.”

Before a road game against Kansas not long ago, Koy noted the chilly, raw day and told Denius he assumed he’d be in the visiting AD’s suite. “He said, ‘No way.’ It was almost an insult.” Denius then reminded him of just how comfortable those foxholes during World War II were.

Nothing made him happier than Longhorn victories, especially the 2006 Rose Bowl win over Southern Cal to clinch Texas’ last national championship. On Denius’ 81st birthday, no less.

Frank loved only football. He didn’t attend basketball or baseball games, to my memory, but he adored the football program. He’d be so nervous at games, he’d never eat more than a bag of peanuts. And he’d befriend the players from the All-American to the walk-on. He had a particular affinity for kickers and punters, perhaps because he punted at Citadel before transferring to Texas.

“He was totally married to football,” Little said.

He never missed a game. Well, rarely. He did miss the 2008 Missouri game, ending a string of consecutive games since the 1982 Sun Bowl he missed because of a blizzard. And he grumbled about missing the Mizzou game and having to go receive the Patriot Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He’d always rather be at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

He hung around long enough that he took in 72 consecutive Texas-OU games in the Cotton Bowl.

He’ll miss this year’s October showdown.

But no more than we will miss him.

 

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