By DAVID SWEARINGEN
EDITOR’S NOTE: Residents of Dublin, and the rest of Erath County, are very fortunate to have many men and women who make living here safe, many of whom are volunteers. They are Hometown Heroes! These people keep us safe and we owe them our thanks and our respect. THANK YOU!
STEPHENVILLE (October 16, 2016) – Today’s Hometown Hero is retired police officer Frank Gaitan, who worked for 31 years in law enforcement. First spending two years in the Dublin Police Department and the other 29 years with the Stephenville Police Department.
Gaitan, 58, was born in Pleasanton on February 13, 1958. He has one older sister, Mary, and a younger brother, Leroy. In 1966, at the age of 8, he and his family moved to Dublin (where he has lived for 50 years now, from Lubbock where Gaitan graduated from Dublin High School in 1977. He has been married to Sarah Darlene Gaitan for 24 years, they have two kids and 12 grandkids. Country singer, the late Johnny Duncan, was a close personal friend of the family and often ate the cooking and delicious tortillas prepared by Frank’s mother.
Though he always wanted to be in law enforcement, Gaitan did some teacher’s aide work at Dublin ISD while attending the Tarleton State University Police Academy. He received some of his police training at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and in 1981 he became the first Hispanic to work in law enforcement in Erath County.
Law enforcement runs in the family. Though Gaitan retired from Stephenville PD as Lieutenant Commander in 2014, his younger brother, Leroy Gaitan, currently serves as the Constable Precinct 2 and his cousin, Orlando Gaitan, works for the Stephenville PD. Gaitan said his favorite thing about law enforcement is serving and protecting people.
On several occasions, he had the opportunity to help out some folks in need – some even homeless – with money, food, clothes and/or a room for the night. And he did these all out of his own pocket.
Gaitan encouraged brother, Leroy, and Sheriff Tommy Bryant to get into law enforcement when they were both young men and said he’s proud of where both men are today. Gaitan said he remembers driving by Appletons and seeing Leroy and Tommy working outdoors doing some welding work for the company. He said it was a very hot day and he brought them some drinks and he told them that they needed to consider law enforcement instead. With a huge grin, Gaitan considered it a moment and said, “All these years later Leroy is an Erath County Constable and Tommy is the County Sheriff.”
Even though he’s retired, Gaitan still has athletic skills when it comes to playing slow-pitch softball. He currently takes the field with the senior league playing in Dublin on Tuesday evenings. But Gaitan has been athletic his whole life.
It all began when his dad bought him a glove, bat and ball at Baxter’s in Dublin after the father and son talked with the Lions Club Little League coach at a practice. They accepted the invitation to join the team and the younger Gaitan immediately fell in love with the game of baseball, and later softball as well.
Although, Frank Sr. had to help his son overcome the fear of being hit by the baseball when batting, the younger Gaitan kept stepping out of the batter’s box as the pitch would come in. He would back away as soon as the ball was pitched so his dad placed some bats on the ground behind young Frank which caused him to slip and stumble as he stepped back into the baseball bats lying there. This eventually broke the bad habit and his lifelong love affair with the game began.
Gaitan said his father taught him to be tough on the field as well as in life, recalling a time a fly ball busted his lip open but his dad would not let him stop playing. He laughed, saying his mother was not to happy with his dad over the incident.
Frank Sr. played shortstop in the minor leagues for the Boston Red Sox organization as a young man. While Gaitan was playing in Little League, his coach noticed he had a strong arm so the coach put him on third base and did well. Then most of the team’s pitchers had to miss a few games because of Scout Camp and the team was short on pitchers. Since Gaitan had a strong throwing arm, the coach asked him to give it a try and Gaitan officially became a pitcher. Even after the other boys returned, Gaitan remained the team’s main pitcher, doing most of the pitching from that point on as the team went on to win several tournaments.
It was around this time Gaitan caught the eye of an area baseball coach named Ronnie Tate who recruited young Gaitan to play for his team. Coach Ronnie Tate gets a lot of credit from Gaitan for developing him into the player that he became. Tate was tough during the several years they were together as player and coach. But Tate was a neighbor of the Gaitan family and he saw the potential Gaitan had.
Even as a youngster, Gaitan had three really good pitches: fastball, curve and a change up. From the time he was in the Little League, his dad would sit in the stands behind home plate and give Gaitan signals on which pitches to throw. Even at an early age, the topic playing professional baseball was discussed. Tate encouraged him to pursue a professional baseball career and Gaitan said he would have probably ended up pitching in the majors had it not been for his fear of flying.
While in high school, Dublin did not have a baseball team, but Gaitan was picked up to play on a traveling team when he was only a sophomore in high school. He played on a traveling baseball team as well as a traveling softball team. In baseball, his fastball was clocked as high as 98 miles an hour. Gaitan often received $100 a game, plus expenses, to play on some of these teams. Sometimes he would make $200 to $500 a weekend as a player. If there was a tournament, he might make as much as $600 a weekend.
With this money, Gaitan was able to help out his family with the earned money. He said he supposed he could have gotten in trouble with the UIL, but they never found out and his family needed the money. Gaitan tried out for the Texas Rangers in 1977, and with his 98 mph fastball, they made him an offer. But he turned it down, largely, because of his fear of flying, he said.
In 1978, the Philadelphia Phillies called on him to sign, but again he turned it down because of his fear of airplanes. Gaitan did play in the minor leagues (as a pitcher) for the San Antonio Mission in the late 1970’s and remembers winning his first start as a professional minor league pitcher by a score of 3-2. Gaitan has played against several major league players in either baseball or softball including Jose Canseco, Ozzie Canseco, Walt Williams and Mitch Williams.
In softball, Gaitan has played for several years on a traveling team called the Playboys in the 1990’s and is known mainly to play shortstop or leftfield on defense. He is noticed most for his ability to hit the ball a long, long way. The Playboys were the 1996 World Champions of the USSSA Softball Triple Crown Tournament. To earn that title, they defeated a team who had not been beaten in 3 or 4 years. The Playboys even defeated an upstate New York team in one inning – winning by a score of 42-0 in the first inning and were batting with only one out when the other team decided to give up and walked off the field.
When asked about one of his most memorable moments in softball, Gaitan said there was a tournament in San Antonio where he hit a long and high home run to center field that busted out a light fixture causing it to turn to the side and emit sparks.
The Playboys once played in a big tournament (about 50 teams participating) where they started out by receiving a loss by forfeit due to a mix up. The tournament was a double-elimination so the next loss would eliminate them. Gaitan said they were able to battle their way through the loser’s bracket of the tournament to eventually win the whole thing. He recalled they had to win 15 or more straight games to accomplish the feat.
That same never give up attitude is how Gaitan chooses to live his life.
Four years ago, Gaitan had a kidney removed because of the presence of a large tumor. Around this same time, two more “spots” were detected on his left lung. It took three and a half years for the spots to get large enough to do a biopsy. It was determined Gaitan had Stage 4 cancer and he received chemo treatments for about six months which weakened his immune system. He said he lost a lot of weight because the chemo treatment made everything taste like copper and left him with very little appetite. These treatments also caused him to develop an infection in his blood known as sepsis, which is highly dangerous.
Gaitan needed to be flown to Ft. Worth by helicopter for further treatment due to the dangerous nature of the sepsis in his system. But once again, his fear of flying almost caused him even more life changing trouble. Gaitan recalled he told the doctor he would not get in the helicopter and the doctor told him if he didn’t he would die. So Gaitan faced down his fear of the skies to take down death.
They flew to Harris Methodist Southwest in Fort Worth and upon arrival, Gaitan spent six days in the intensive care unit as doctors and staff attempted to save him from the sepsis. The treatments he received worked because he was back home in Dublin and no longer receiving chemo treatments. Gaitan said his is eating well again and the doctors have told him that the cancer is either totally gone or at worst very, very small.
Despite the fact that he has never smoked, Gaitan has to follow up with his doctors still to make sure the cancer does not return and is scheduled for a checkup every three months with a lung cancer specialist in Fort Worth.
Gaitan has a very strong faith and credits God with his successful battle against cancer and recovery. He also would like to thank all the family, friends and lots of total strangers who have been praying for him. Amazingly enough, Gaitan was back on the softball field in Dublin, playing softball exactly two weeks after being flown to Fort Worth.
“I want to thank the people of Erath County, friends, family and people from all over the world for the many prayers. The good Lord has given me a great gift and with it I feel like I can do whatever I want,” Gaitan concluded. “The good Lord gave me another life and I am very thankful. I am blessed and I think the good Lord still has a place for me in this world.”