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Obituaries

Frank Gasparro, 92; Chief Engraver at U.S. Mint

October 03, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Gasparro, former chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, whose designs ranged from the Lincoln Memorial side of the penny to the Susan B. Anthony dollar, died Saturday at a hospital in Havertown, Pa. He was 92.

"I've been called the world's richest artist," Gasparro, chief engraver for the last 16 of his 39 years at the mint, liked to say.

The claim did not bend the truth by much because about 50 billion of his Lincoln Memorial pennies have been circulated since 1959. That amounts to $500 million worth of pennies, each with Gasparro's initials etched at the base of the monument.

Gasparro also sculpted the model for what was, at least initially, the U.S. Mint's biggest flop: the Anthony dollar. Spurned by the public after its 1979 introduction, the coin languished in federal vaults for years until the U.S. Postal Service began using them in stamp machines. Now it is the mint's most successful dollar coin.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 4, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Gasparro obituary--An obituary Wednesday on former U.S. Mint chief engraver Frank Gasparro incorrectly spelled the name of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. Gasparro died Saturday in Havertown, Pa., at age 92.

Gasparro was appointed chief engraver by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and held the position until he retired in 1981. He was the 10th chief engraver in the 209-year history of the mint.

His designs also grace the John F. Kennedy half-dollar and the Dwight Eisenhower dollar, as well as presidential medals for every president from Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter. He designed the mint's bestselling John Wayne commemorative medal, team medals for the 1980 Summer Olympics, commemorative coins for the 1996 Atlanta Centennial Olympics and coins for foreign governments.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Gasparro dropped out of South Philadelphia High School at 16 to help support his family. Eventually he convinced his father to let him enroll in classes at the Graphic Sketch Club, which later became the Samuel S. Fleischer Art Memorial, the city's oldest free art school.

He became an apprentice of Giuseppe Donato, an art teacher who had been foreman of Auguste Rodin's Paris studio. Donato and Fleischer later sponsored him at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

After working for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression and then as a freelance artist, he was hired by the mint in 1942.

In 1959, the mint was seeking to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth with a new design to replace the sheaf of wheat that had been on the reverse side of the coin for 50 years. Gasparro, then a junior engraver, was inspired by the classical Greeks when he chose a head-on view of the Lincoln Memorial. His design beat those of 21 other artists.

His original design had the words "Lincoln Memorial" and 13 stars around the outer edge, but those features were nixed by his superiors. They also wanted him to remove the tiny statue of Lincoln from between the sixth and seventh columns, but Gasparro prevailed, arguing that without it the monument would "look like a library."

Neither did his bosses like his initials, which they said would be mistaken for a smudge of dirt. The tiny "FG" is barely visible to the naked eye, on the bottom right edge of the memorial.

Although the penny has been threatened with obsolescence, Gasparro voiced confidence that it will never be retired. He called it "my no-fault coin. Nobody has any problem with it."

The Anthony dollar was a different story, seemingly plagued from the start.

Gasparro went to the offices of the old Philadelphia Bulletin and found two pictures of the early feminist--one when she was 28 and the other when she was 84. His first sketch showed the younger Anthony, but feminist groups said it made her too pretty. Susan B. Anthony III, grandniece of the famous suffragist, complained that another attempt by Gasparro made her ancestor look too old.

The final drawing was Gasparro's interpretation of a middle-aged Anthony. He was sure it would be panned as well. But this last rendering of a stern, determined Anthony was a hit with mint officials and others. It was approved, making Gasparro the only living person to have sculpted both the front and back sides of a general-circulation U.S. coin.

The public, however, hated the new dollar coin. It wasn't as convenient as the dollar bill, and it was easily mistaken for a quarter. By the late 1980s, some 400 million of the Anthony dollars were locked away in federal vaults because no one wanted them.

Its failure, Gasparro acknowledged to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "hurts my feelings."

"He got a little bad press from the fact he designed the Susan B. Anthony dollar," said Ed Rochette, executive director of the American Numismatic Assn. "But that wasn't his fault. The design didn't have anything to do with the lack of circulation. The reason that coin didn't circulate is we didn't withdraw the dollar bill. And people hate change."

Ironically, Gasparro was most proud of a design that was never minted--a "Flowing Hair Liberty," his interpretation of the liberty goddess who appeared on the first U.S. penny, in 1793.

The Flowing Hair Liberty was his original design for what became the Anthony dollar.

Gasparro taught at the Fleischer Art Memorial for 47 years, holding his last class just three weeks ago. "He was in frail health, but determined to teach," said Fleischer director Thora Jacobson.

Gasparro is survived by his wife, Julia; a daughter, Christina J. Hansen; and three brothers.

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