Originally Published: May 7, 2015 1 p.m.
Come Saturday, Prescott resident Frank Shankwitz will don a tuxedo and join some pretty rarified company.
Shankwitz, the founder of Make-a-Wish Foundation, is one of 100 Americans selected to receive the 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO). The awards will be presented Saturday night, May 9, in a black-tie ceremony on Ellis Island, followed by a gala dinner in the historic Great Hall.
Other 2015 recipients include TV host Meredith Viera, New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and 11 members of the U.S. military. Past recipients include six U.S. presidents, generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, Sen. John McCain, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Walters, Bob Hope and Mia Farrow.
"NECO seeks to inspire America to embrace diversity, tolerance and respect for all of its citizens by celebrating those who have given so much of themselves to the betterment of our nation and our world," NECO Chairman Nasser J. Kazeminy said in a news release. "Each of these honorees represents traits that I admire in great Americans: the vision of a better world for all, the tenacity to overcome challenges, and the leadership and imagination to blaze their own trail. And most importantly, they have the humility and self-reflection to appreciate the amazing opportunities that America has given them. They inspire me and we honor them so they can inspire others as well."
Shankwitz said he is excited, honored and very humbled to be chosen for the award.
He and his wife, Kitty, will attend the big gala. "She's been behind me in all these ventures that are behind this award," he said, adding that Kitty should probably be
the one receiving the honor.
Shankwitz, who graduated from Prescott High School in 1961, was a motorcycle officer with Arizona Department of Public Safety in 1980 when he helped a 7-year-old boy named Chris realize his dream of becoming a motorcycle officer like "Ponch" and "John" on the TV show "CHiPS." The department made him an honorary Highway Patrol Officer - complete with a custom-made uniform, badge and motor officer wings.
Chris, who had leukemia, died a few days later. He was buried in Illinois with full police honors, with Shankwitz leading the police funeral procession.
On the way back home, Shankwitz started thinking about how happy Chris had been, running around like a typical 7-year-old: "He forgot he was sick."
He wondered why they couldn't do the same thing for other children - and the Make-a-Wish Foundation was born. Shankwitz was the founding member and its first president/CEO.
Since its establishment, Make-A-Wish has granted 350,000 wishes. "There's a wish granted somewhere in the world every 26 minutes," Shankwitz said, "all because of one little boy."
Shankwitz has received the "President's Call To Service" award from President George W. Bush, the "Making a Difference in the World" award from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the "Making a World of Difference" award from the Tempe Sister City Foundation.
His accomplishments have been written about in numerous books, featured in a documentary film ("Stickability") and many TV programs, and will soon be the subject of a major motion picture, "Wish Man."
"Wish Man" will be filmed mostly in Prescott and Yavapai County, with six weeks of shooting scheduled to start in October, Shankwitz said, adding that casting is set for next month. They're looking for an actor to portray him in his mid-30s and Kitty in her mid-20s.
He and Kitty are still wish granters, helping out whenever they can.
However, Shankwitz is turning his attention to a new endeavor, the Ripple Effect Foundation. The nonprofit organization will benefit campaigns for all types of charities, disaster relief and individual causes.
"He's a perfect example of what we look for in an Ellis Island medalist," said Otto Coca, director of media communications for NECO.
Follow Arlene Hittle on Twitter @ahittle_dc. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2036, or 928-830-2928.