Academic duties aside, the college years are not necessarily a time of great responsibility. Between spring breaks and frat parties, they’re basically adolescence with a beer budget. But when Frankie Presslaff was still an undergraduate, he found himself undertaking the greatest responsibility of all, fatherhood, under the most intimidating of circumstances: He wanted to adopt, and rescue, young brothers being raised in a deplorable drug den. And he fought tooth and nail against skeptical, discriminatory state agencies to do it.
Many years and eight adopted children later, it’s clear as can be that being a caretaker is in Frankie’s DNA. And he and his husband have since built a family founded on the principle that compassion is a human responsibility.
That’s a lesson he learned from his own parents.
“My mom had a giant heart,” says Frankie. “There was always food on the table for anyone who needed it. My family was always taking care of the underdog.” Sometimes literally: Frankie grew up on a farm on the fringes of Bloomington, Indiana, a progressive bubble in the midst of Hoosier country. He spent his childhood helping to raise animals, from the countless stray dogs his mother welcomed to their home, to the horses, pigs and other livestock he tended and introduced to other neighborhood kids through a 4H-style “mini camp.” This being the ‘70s, a “hippie commune” eventually sprung up down the street from the farm, says Frankie, and his mother even became “Mama Earth” to the flower children, inviting them in for a bite or warm shower.
“It was a very colorful life,” laughs Frankie. Being liberal outliers in the more conservative Midwest also had its perks when he came out as gay. His New York native mother was high school classmates with Harvey Milk and remembered him fondly; on her deathbed in 2008, with the movie “Milk” in theaters, she pulled money from her purse and demanded her son get himself to the nearest cinema. “He made a big impact on her,” says Frankie. “Toward the end she spent a lot of time talking about it.”
But in college, Frankie got a front row seat to see the flip side of his charmed, open-minded early years. While volunteering at a homeless shelter in 1989, he found himself growing attached to a trio of grade school-aged brothers — hardly moppets, but rather a ragtag crew of ill-behaved kids that seemed “straight out of ‘The Jungle Book,’” chuckles Frankie. When they disappeared from the shelter with their dysfunctional, drug-addicted mother, Frankie managed to track them down “living in a crack house.” “I asked their mother, ‘What can I do to help?’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Take my kids.’”
And so he did, in rotations to start. Barely in his twenties, Frankie began stealing away the boys, one at a time, to buy them haircuts and clean clothes. They’d stay at the house he shared with college roommates, and accompany him to class like little brothers being babysat. When one of the boys needed skin grafts for burns he got playing with gasoline while his mom was passed out cold, Frankie was the one who brought him back and forth to doctor’s appointments. By the time he rescued one of the boys, covered “knee to chin” in bruises, from the mother’s latest cockroach-infested tenement, Frankie knew he needed to find a way to make their relationship permanent.
“I buckled them in my car, called my mother and said, ‘I don’t know what to do, but I’m basically kidnapping these kids,’” says Frankie. His mother, always the caretaker, offered a simple instruction.
“Bring them here.”
So he did, where the family lawyer was already waiting in the middle of the night. While the eldest boy would eventually go live with a responsible uncle, Frankie was prepared to hatch a plan to formally adopt the younger two boys, Devin and Dylan who were 7 and 4 at the time. It was a daunting idea for a single college-aged guy to entertain, but Frankie couldn’t imagine sending the boys to live with someone else when they had finally forged a bond with a reliable caretaker in him. Still, it quickly became clear his benevolence would be met with resistance. As he began to meet with reps from state agencies, he noticed a critical tone being levied in his direction. The subtext was “Why does a young guy want these kids?” says Frankie. “They basically started accusing me of being a pedophile.” They even criticized Frankie’s suggestion that he would raise them Jewish and “deny them their Christian upbringing,” scoffs Frankie. (As if keeping kids in a crack den was fine Christian childrearing.)
A team of psychiatrists descended to speak to the Devin and Dylan, and Frankie and his mother were subpoenaed to answer questions that felt accusatory and invasive, about everything from sleeping arrangements and bath time to Frankie’s sexual proclivities. “There was nothing substantiating that the kids were in danger,” says Frankie. “I think they just assumed I was gay and made judgments from that. Meanwhile at this point I had dropped out of school and spent thousands of dollars to take care of these kids. It was probably the most stressful time of my life. I never slept.” He was terrified not just by the implications of misconduct being made, but by the prospect that the young brothers would be forever separated if he lost his bid to adopt.
After a long, protracted battle, Frankie was able to get the witch hunt called off, the kids placed in his custody — and some generous financial aid from the state to help care for them.
He was officially a dad — after a long, painful labor. “There was one moment during that whole awful process I’ll never forget,” says Frankie. “I walked in to the house and saw the kids’ stuff scattered everywhere. It like every molecule around me froze: like an out-of-body experience. I knew that was the feeling of love a parent has at the birth of their child, that feeling of overwhelming responsibility that everything in your life is about caring for your children.”
As any single parent knows, that foremost commitment to children can make dating quite a drag. However, through a personal ad, Frankie met Kelly, a strapping college boy from one of freewheeling Bloomington’s more conservative suburbs. “We just clicked,” recalls Kelly, who is the calm, measured and laconic yin to Frankie’s high-energy, spontaneous and loquacious yang. When they met, Kelly was even younger than Frankie: just 21 years old. Yet their chemistry was so immediate, the then-university student says he didn’t flinch at walking into a relationship with a young father.
“I didn’t find out until a few dates in,” says Kelly. “But I honestly didn’t care. I understood, especially at the beginning, that the kids were his first responsibility and I was second.” After a few months of dating, as they were preparing to move in, the kids learned the nature of the relationship and “reacted really well” to the introduction of their new co-parent, says Kelly.
They also had to go through the process of outing Kelly within his family — which, aided by an impromptu mom-to-mom talk from Frankie’s progressive mother, wasn’t terribly painful. In fact, Kelly’s dad, a successful Indiana builder, even surprised them with a house based on plans they drew up thinking they were helping him plan a model home.
A model home is exactly what Frankie and Kelly wound up providing to a growing family. Where Frankie once fought against the odds to become a father, he and Kelly soon found themselves the successful darlings of the local system. The county kept coming their way with adoption opportunities for kids who came from abusive, neglectful or otherwise far less fortunate homes. And with Devin and Dylan now old enough to head out on their own, the couple found themselves debating between becoming early empty nesters and bringing some new blood into their brood. “It had become so quiet around the house,” says Kelly.
The couple agreed to adopt nine-year old Nathan (now 23) who came from a background of neglect. After Nathan came Bailey who was four at the time(now 17). Soon officials came calling again: Would they take three more kids, who needed to be removed from a foster home? They agreed, and Travis, Alicia the lone daughter and Tanner who were 6, 18 months and three months (now 19, 15 and 13, respectively) joined the mix. When Bailey’s bio-mom gave birth to Gabriel, now 12, they took him in too at two days old. In rapid succession and within just one year, their home exploded from an empty nest into a very, very full house.
It was not easy, of course, but in most ways, says Kelly, growing the family fast was actually easier than if they had adopted every few years, and had to constantly deal with readjusting dynamics among the preexisting kids. “It was stressful, but at the same time there was so much going on that you didn’t even have time to think about it,” says Kelly. “And though they’re all different ages, because they came to us around the same time they really all grew up together.”
At this point, though, the couple had reached their limit. They were approached to adopt three more children, all of whom were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It was impossible to imagine offering that much attention while caring for the existing kids, says Kelly.
“Frankie always told me, ‘Never say never,’” chuckles Kelly. “At that point, I said, ‘I’m saying never.’”
There’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. Today Frankie, a life coach,(health/wellness and LGBT support are just a couple of his specialties) and Kelly, an administrator at a local university, have a life full of love, laughter, supportive families and a strong social circle in their community. Life is a constant exercise in “organized chaos,” laughs Frankie, but they’ve managed to make their crew into the kind of loving forever-family Frankie always dreamed he’d build when he was just a nice Jewish gay boy growing up on a Midwestern farm.
They’ve made it work by balancing each other’s strengths. Frankie is the soft nurturer, Kelly the rules enforcer; Kelly keeps the trains running on time, and Frankie reminds everyone to relax and enjoy the ride. It’s a dynamic that works splendidly, and keeps their own relationship running well even amid all the stress of parenting a small army. “The key is to make plenty of alone time,” says Kelly, when asked the secret to keeping their relationship strong. “You have to carve out time for yourself.”
“And, if I’m being honest, have plenty of sex,” he advises with a laugh.
Now the twosome is able to see their family grow even further. Devin and his wife recently had a baby daughter, making Frankie and Kelly young granddads. And it only underscored that certain caretaking instincts are as sharply honed as ever.
“I knew when I saw my granddaughter for the first time, I was going to be in love,” says Frankie. “But I didn’t know when I get in the car to drive back, I would feel like I was abandoning another child!” He laughs.
Old habits die hard — and sometimes, if you’re lucky, not at all.