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Artist, activist, Book of Kells expert Frank Crowley dead at 76

Frank Crowley was a labor organizer and civil rights activist who marched in Alabama. | Maureen O'Donnell / Sun-Times

Frank Crowley crafted Celtic-inspired kites from scratch, displaying them at art exhibitions.

But first he flew each kite at least once “just to get the wind in it,” said his wife Pauline Kochanski. “That gave them life.”

After their wedding ceremony in Key West 21 years ago, they flew kites on the beach.

Mr. Crowley, an artist and expert on the Book of Kells who taught art and curated the gallery at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, died of heart failure last month at 76.

Frank Crowley. | Facebook

He’d worked as a labor organizer, painter and school stationary engineer and, for a time, owned a bar, Crowley’s, at 3916 N. Ashland.

A civil rights activist, he was inspired to  join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama after seeing photos of marchers beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in March 1965.

In his memoir, he wrote of his shock and outrage from the perspective of a son of Irish immigrants: “Since childhood I learned about the British invasions and religious oppression of people in Ireland. . . . a struggle my own family was caught up in. My family’s history in Ireland made me aware that ignoring or not doing anything aided the oppressors. What could we do to fight against oppression, here, in our own country?

Young Frank grew up on the West Side, the youngest of seven kids. He went to St. Mel’s High School and loved the greenery at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

His wife said Mr. Crowley earned a psychology degree and a master’s degree in art education from Northeastern Illinois University, taking classes through its Inner City Studies program, where he was one of the few Caucasian students.

“He was very enthusiastic,” said retired professor Conrad Worrill. “He tried to get other of his colleagues who were white to [attend] classes because he was so fired up by the curriculum.”

In Chicago in the 1960s, Mr. Crowley helped organize hospital employees and worked for the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, attracting police surveillance, according to Gene Tournour, a labor organizer with the American Federation of Musicians, who said, “We were constantly followed by the Red Squad,” the notorious police unit.

Mr. Crowley’s time in Alabama was sobering and frightening, said his first wife, Rosemary, who was pregnant when they headed south after Bloody Sunday to participate in civil rights activities.

Frank Crowley’s art showed Chicago and Celtic influences. | Provided photo

Mr. Crowley wrote that, at one point, “We were told to form a circle, men on the outside surrounding the women. We men looked at each other, realizing that we were the first line of defense.”

At the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a center for the Montgomery bus boycott, “The Church received a phone call alerting us. . . .that a shooting took place just outside the city,” Mr. Crowley said in his memoir.

Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five and a volunteer from Detroit, had been killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

When the protesters left Montgomery to return north, “Right before we pulled out on the highway, our Chicago pastor requested the bus driver to turn off the bus’ interior lights. We all sat on the floor to avoid being targeted through the windows,” Mr. Crowley wrote.

He had a wry, knowing sense of humor that made people feel like they were in on the joke. And he was patient, said his son Colin, executive chef with Terlato Wines in Lake Bluff, who remembers, when he was 8, his father showing him how to make steak frites.

“The first time I ever really cooked,” he said, “was with him.”

The design of this Celtic-inspired kite by Frank Crowley mimics the Book of Kells. | Facebook

Mr. Crowley taught his kids how to draw, and he built them aquariums for tropical fish.

He became so expert on Ireland’s Book of Kells — the medieval manuscript of the Gospels that monks decorated with riotously interlaced, richly colored designs — that “he could tell different pieces by different monks,” according to his wife.

In addition to teaching about the masterpiece at the Irish American Heritage Center, he did presentations about it in Japan and at New York City’s American Irish Historical Society.

It inspired the Celtic kites he made. He organized exhibitions of artists’ kites through the Windy City Arts, a not-for-profit group.

Mr. Crowley is also survived by his daughter Jeanne Atkinson, son Tim and six grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned for 2 p.m. Friday at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave.