Trustee Frank Sunberg

'Light the candle rather than curse the darkness'

Frank Sunberg’s life – or at least the most challenging chapter in it – has been all about hope.

The ring that his children had made for his 60th birthday last July is etched with five crosses – a large one, for Sunberg, and smaller crosses in each quadrant, for children David, Jeff, Jennifer and Mark. Tikvah, the Hebrew word for hope, is inscribed.

An essay written by Mark accompanies the ring and starts guardedly: “Hope. Such a simple word, and yet.”

And yet, indeed.

Sunberg, his wife, Judy, and their children had only hope to grasp that summer day and many others like it. Sunberg had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. “It was pretty bad,” he said. “It looked bleak.

”But he wouldn’t give up hope. He had helped his wife through her own battle with multiple myeloma, a bone-marrow cancer, eight years earlier and believed that he, too, would survive.“

I told myself that I would accept whatever happens – and hope that it would be life, not death,” he said. “I would depend on aggressive treatment, strong family and the power of prayer, and I always would look ahead.”

He recalled the words of Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, who had told him about the philosophy of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel: “People who don’t believe in miracles aren’t realists.”

And so Sunberg pushed on, hoping for that miracle. “That was my mantra.”

Frank Sunberg never has been afraid to take on big challenges.

Born in St. Paul, his dad was a Lithuanian Jew who sold men’s and women’s clothing to stores and his mom was an Irish Catholic born on St. Patrick’s Day. He graduated from Cretin High School and enrolled for a year at St. Thomas. But he couldn’t afford St. Thomas and transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in political science and history.

Newly married, he worked as an insurance adjuster before moving to Chicago as a sales agent and then regional sales trainer for a company that sold health and beauty aids to retail chains. He later worked in advertising sales before returning to St. Paul in 1968 as vice president of sales and marketing for Peck Inc., which made seasonal products such as Christmas tags and decorations.

Among Sunberg’s hires was O.P. Portu, and they decided to strike out on their own in 1976 as manufacturers’ representatives specializing in the sale of seasonal products to mass merchandisers, food, drug and hardware chains. They founded Portu-Sunberg, and their first product was a coffee air pot distributed by Metro Marketing in Chicago.

“We’d go to Herberger’s in St. Cloud and make our pitch,” Sunberg said. “We’d ask, ‘How many do you want?’ We’d submit our orders to Metro Marketing, it would ship the air pots to Herberger’s and we’d get a commission.

” Portu-Sunberg focuses on holidays such as Halloween, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day as well as lines of school supplies and patio furniture, selling more than 5,000 products to Target, Menard’s and other chains in an 11-state area. Portu-Sunberg sales exceed $275 million a year.

In 1983, Sunberg co-founded Seasonal Specialties, which imports and sells seasonal products such as icicle lights and artificial Christmas trees from Asia and has annual sales of $125 million. Another Sunberg firm, Strategic Design, designs products such as reflective driveway and yard markers that guide snowplow drivers.

Sunberg retired from active management of his companies five years ago, although he still retains partial ownership in them. He had decided that after spending the first third of his life learning and the second third applying what he had learned that he would spend the final third “giving back to the community.” One way to do that has been greater involvement in education – he’s on the boards at St. Thomas and Cretin-Derham Hall – and one goal is to work to eliminate the kind of ethnic and religious prejudice he experienced as a youth.

“Education is one answer in the fight against prejudice,” he said. “I’m not naive enough to think it will go away in my lifetime, but it’s a start.” He sees progress especially in the attitudes of younger people, “who seem to be more objective and much more open-minded. With older people, progress is slower and more subtle.”

So there was Sunberg in February 2002, moving quietly and confidently through life, when he went to the doctor for treatment of what he thought was a hernia. The diagnosis was cancer, and many tumors had spread throughout his body.

“You basically say to yourself that there are things you can control and not control,” he said. “If you are a person of faith, which I am, you realize there is something beyond what you have here on earth. That really sustained me. You have to think positive.”

And, he laughed, “it helps to have a strong sleeping pill.”

His wife’s successful fight with cancer persuaded Sunberg that he, too, could survive because “she had this constant belief and encouragement – a you-can-do-it attitude.” She shrugs off her role and says it was only natural for her to be at his side.

“Frank was there every step of the way for me during my illness, and now it was payback time,” she said. “I knew he’d get through – he’s such a fighter. At first I was devastated, but I have such faith in God that I knew Frank would make it.”

Jim Conway, a friend and 1963 St. Thomas alumnus, said Sunberg inspired others with his attitude and his refusal to complain. “He always was one to light the candle rather than to curse the darkness,” Conway said.

Then, on Sept. 16, came the magical words from Sunberg’s doctor. The cancer was gone. The tumors were gone. His first thought was that he had won the lottery.

“It was a feeling of euphoria and happiness,” he said.

“We went over to Assumption Catholic Church in St. Paul and said a prayer of thanks. I saw Father John Malone and told him to take me off his prayer list. Then I called Father Michael O’Connell (at the Basilica of St. Mary) and Father Gene Tiffany (at All Saints) to do the same thing. Those were good phone calls to make.”

Sunberg’s experience has taught him that not only are prayers of thanks in order, but “deeds of thanks,” too. He is as committed as ever to spending that final third of his life giving back to the community and looking for ways to put down what he calls “the steppingstones that become the bricks that help build a stronger community.”

It boils down to the one word that sustained him. His son’s essay says it best: “And in the end, it is hope that wins over all, no matter the challenge, no matter the odds, no matter anything at all.”

Frank Sunberg and St. Thomas• Joined the board of trustees in 1999 and serves on its Executive, Institutional Advancement and Student Affairs committees. He also serves on the Evening MBA board of advisors.• Received the John F. Cade Award for outstanding achievement as an entrepreneur from the John M. Morrison Center for Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas in 1999.• Believes St. Thomas can do a better job of recruiting and retaining students of color, an increasingly important issue because of demographic changes and the need to serve those communities better.• Sees the role of a trustee to "guide and direct but not manage. A trustee also needs to be evangelical about St. Thomas because it's a good university with a beautiful campus, dedicated employees and students who go on to be successful."