Franklin Walter Vanik, who became an advocate for those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, died Friday at his parents' Rosedale home after suffering a head injury in an earlier fall. He was 46.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Rosedale, he was the son of Franklin Louis Vanik, a retired Crown Cork and Seal mechanical engineer, and Gertrude M. Vanik, an administrative assistant. He attended Red House Run Elementary School and Holabird Junior High School, where his teachers recognized his academic ability and recommended him for a newly created gifted and talented program.
He was a 1985 graduate of Dundalk High School, where he was a National Merit finalist. He also played football, swam and was a member of the school's basketball team.
"Frank was a teacher's dream. He was balanced and did not put undue pressure on himself. His learning style was laid-back," said Allen L. Stockett, a former English teacher in Baltimore County schools who retired last year from the Community College of Baltimore County. "We read a lot of arduous material, and he was the kind of student who when I assigned Dostoevski's 'Crime and Punishment' read every page. He never took shortcuts."
Mr. Vanik earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech University. While a senior, he noticed he experienced coordination issues and tripped over his own feet while playing basketball.
"He had some numbness and he was falling more often," said his sister, Julie Takacs of Baldwin.
He returned to Rosedale and joined the Bethlehem Steel Corp. at Sparrows Point. While in his 20s, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a medical condition affecting the nervous system. He initially walked with a cane, then used crutches and later a wheelchair.
"His laugh and smile were infectious. He loved everyone and everyone loved him too. He never got angry at the disease. He took it with grace and dignity," his sister said.
He went on medical disability, but started volunteering 80 hours a month with the Maryland chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"His new ticket to life was getting in a wheelchair and going to Orioles games at Camden Yards," said his sister. "He later volunteered at M&T Bank Stadium in the handicapped customer service booth."
He also resumed playing sports.
"It's just as exciting this way," Mr. Vanik said in a 1994 Baltimore Sun article about his resumption of skiing. "You turn the same, fall the same. It's really exciting to do something so close to what an able-bodied person can do."
He also water skied, played wheelchair basketball and twice sky-dived.
"His all-out effort as MS ambassador, volunteer and part-time worker won him yesterday a $1,000 Golden Rule volunteer award from J.C. Penney," said a 1996 Sun article about him. "Mr. Vanik's roles have included counselor, promoter of MS bicycle tours and walks and coordinator of wheelchair bowling, skiing and aquatic therapy."
At that time he used a hand-powered bike to go 150 miles in St. Mary's County.
"I never appreciated how important being independent was until I had to sit around and wait for someone to pick me up," he said in the 1996 article, where he encouraged those with MS "to be as active as they can in different ways."
"Frank was a role model for innumerable kids who have MS," said his teacher, Mr. Stockett, who lives in Towson. "He was determined to keep doing it all — in athletics, in sky diving, and in using a computer. He gave others the confidence — and the faith — they could do it as well."
Mr. Vanik joined Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports, a nonprofit. He went white-water rafting in the Gauley River near Lansing, W.Va., resuming the activity he enjoyed before his diagnosis.
"There's a lot more to life than getting up in the morning and getting dressed and going to work," he said in a 1997 Sun article. "Something like rafting is a thrill, and it's a life-fulfilling experience."
"It was a wild ride. It felt just like I remembered it before I had MS," Mr. Vanik said in that article. "If you are on a raft in a Class IV rapid, it feels the same whether you're handicapped or not. It doesn't change just because your legs don't work anymore."
As his condition changed, he worked with Volunteers for Medical Engineering and Learning Independence through Computers. He mastered Morse code and tapped messages using his index finger. When he lost the use of that finger, he used a mouthpiece to type emails and use Facebook.
He also lived independently in Rosedale.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon Wednesday at the Church of the Annunciation, 5212 McCormick Ave.
In addition to his sister, survivors include his parents, who live in Rosedale; another sister, Paula Drumm of Forest Hill; and nieces and nephews.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun