A year after SLOStringer's death, father opens up about his son's life and impact

Wednesday marks the anniversary of the day Steve Frank's entire world turned upside down.

At 9 a.m. on March 21, 2017, Frank and his wife Jacquelyn opened the door to two officers and were told that their only son, Matthew Frank, had died in an early-morning accident.

Matthew, 30 — better known as SLOStringer to his fans — crashed into a tree on Highway 101 on his way to cover a two-alarm fire in Atascadero. He died immediately upon impact.

A year later, Frank still struggles to adjust to life without his son.

"He was my whole life," Frank said as he brushed tears off his cheeks. "My wife is part of me, but he was my everything. It's a big hole. I don't know what the rest of my life is going to be like."

On Wednesday, the pair will visit Matthew's grave with a bouquet of roses, before trekking out to the site of his fatal accident to lay flowers at the base of the tree. A small white cross bearing the phrase "We love you" rests nearby, on private property.

Somebody else put that sign up, Frank said — a testament to the deep connection many locals felt to the social media photographer who made a name for himself reporting on first responders and local emergencies.

Matthew Frank was better known to many San Luis Obispo County residents as SLOStringer. Frank family photo

After his death, Matthew's supporters and fans began contacting the Franks, sharing their stories of how he impacted their lives.

A small sampling of those stories: During last year's Chimney Fire, he went behind fire lines to check on an elderly woman's pets and pick up her medication after she was evacuated; he gave a new widow information on her husband's car accident, and then year's later helped her when she herself was in an accident and he was the first on the scene; he showed a wife what her CHP pilot husband actually did with his videos from a helicopter rescue.

"There were so many things he never told us," Frank said. "We never knew so much of this."

But according to Frank, that was the kind of guy Matthew was — a self-taught jack-of-many-trades with a fierce belief in volunteerism and the stories of first responders.

Frank said looking back, he could see how his own profession as a traffic engineer and his work on the Sheriff's Aero Squadron instilled those values (and an appreciation for the finer points of traffic code) in a young Matthew.

"He loved this concept from a very young age of volunteering," Frank said. "That concept of volunteerism stayed with him his whole life. And it translated into his passion for exposing the job that first responders do for us."

One of his biggest dreams was to join the Sheriff's Aero Squadron like his father — he had applied several months before his death, with the hope of bringing more drone technology to the squadron, but his application was never approved.

At the start of 2017, Matthew came to Frank saying he felt he had reached his full potential as SLOStringer, and wondered what else he could do for the community.

"He said, 'You know, Dad, I think I've achieved my goal,'" Frank said. " 'I don't think I can keep doing this, and it is going to impact that many more people.' ... He said, 'If they would let me into the Aero Squadron, and let me make drone technology a part of the organization, I would close my website.'"

This desire to always ensure he was serving his community in the best way he could was an integral part of Matthew's personality, Frank said.

Frank Memorial024
More than 300 people attended the memorial service for SLOStringer, aka Matthew Frank, on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at Mountainbrook Church in San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Today, SLOStringer's reporting legacy lives on in the form of numerous Facebook public safety groups — the chief of which is SLO County News and Public Safety, whose organizers have taken cues from Matthew's quick information-sharing style to keep the local community updated on safety alerts, car crashes and helicopters circling overheard.

"Nothing will ever compare to what SLOStringer provided us, but as a community we can help each other and let our community know about things when they happen," reads the group description.

Frank is a member and sometimes contributor of the group, and sees the outpourings of love for Matthew on the page to this day.

Though nothing can fill the gap left by losing a child, the Franks have spent the better part of the past year giving back to the community that has grieved alongside them.

Frank said Jacquelyn recently made cupcakes in honor of their son's birthday on March 6 and took them to local firefighters. She also donated several of Matthew's old Beanie Babies to the San Luis Obispo Police Department, to help comfort children involved in car accidents.

Frank also has hoped to start a Cuesta College endowment in Matthew's name that would pay for students' tuition, though that is currently on the backburner as the family continues to cope with their loss.

He is also waiting to see what happens with plans to name a stretch of Highway 101 between Avila Beach Drive and Spyglass Drive the Matthew "SLOStringer" Frank Memorial Highway. That's currently in the state Senate, and will eventually end up before the governor.

Once it is approved, Frank said he plans to buy the biggest sign Caltrans will allow him to place next to the highway.

"If they'll let me put up a billboard, I will," he said. "I'll buy it."

On Sunday, a group of motorcyclists will go on an 80-mile memorial ride through SLO County to remember their fallen friend and stringer. A memorial barbecue has also been planned for Sunday at 1 p.m. at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.

The group plans to ride by the cemetery where Matthew's grave is; as they do, they'll be greeted by the solemn figure of Frank, waiting out in the rain for a son who didn't return.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect day for the memorial ride. It has also been updated with additional information on the public memorial barbecue.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie
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