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Photojournalist captured flames and the spirit of firefighters

Francis F. Wong ’50

A picture of Frank Wong

Frank Wong ’50 (left) on the fire line in Oakland, California

Francis F. Wong ’50, July 15, 2008, in Oakland, California, from complications following vascular surgery.

Frank served in the U.S. Army as a medic during World War II. “We thought we were headed to North Africa. Next thing we knew, we were in Belfast, Ireland, in the middle of January, in suntan uniforms. We nearly froze to death,” he reported in 2005. Frank was among the U.S. soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, when Allied troops suffered heavy casualties from German defenders.

After the war, Frank entered Reed and earned a BA in chemistry, writing his thesis on the carbonyls of the light metals with Prof. Arthur Scott. He received an MS from the University of Portland in organic biochemistry in 1951, and moved to San Francisco, where he worked at the University of California Medical School, and later at the California State Health Laboratory in Berkeley. He then worked for the Western Regional Research Laboratory, USDA, in Albany, and published many scientific articles. His career in chemistry spanned 30 years.

Frank's avocation as a photographer began as a teen, when he taught himself how to use a Univex camera. He continued to take pictures throughout his life, a skill that led to his becoming official photographer and honorary assistant chief for the fire departments of Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Piedmont, and other East Bay cities. He focused his photography on fire suppression efforts and equipment. “Eventually this caught the attention of the fire department officers, who asked me to show the results of my efforts.” The chief of the Oakland Fire Department was so impressed by what he saw that he gave Frank a fire-line pass so that he could shoot closer to the fires. As “Photo One,” Frank was issued official protective gear and was alerted to fires by a scanner. His wife, Matilda, drove him to each location. The photos were used in investigations, evaluations, and for public relations.

In 2007, in honor of his 50 years of service, the Oakland Fire Department dedicated an entire wall at its headquarters to his photography. When Frank's death was announced, the department instructed every station to fly a banner in his honor—a first for a nonfirefighter. Survivors include his wife, one brother, and four sisters.

Appeared in Reed magazine: November 2008

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