Frank Abagnale…you likely don’t recognize the name. He was made famous a few years back in the Steven Spielberg movie, “Catch Me If You Can.” Leonardo DiCaprio played the elusive imposter in a movie of Abagnale’s life as the con man who played a Pan Am airline pilot, a lawyer, a pediatrician, and a real estate investor.
I recently attended an event where Abagnale was the featured speaker before a crowd of over a thousand, enraptured listeners. Admittedly his exploits are fascinating. The lessons he learned along the way are the real story of his life.
He spoke with the rapid-fire speech typical of his New York heritage. His story begins with being called out of his Jesuit private school, driven to New York Family Court by one of the brothers, being uncermoniously dumped on the front steps, with instructions that his parents would be meeting him in the lobby.
Upon entering the labrynithic hall, his parents were nowhere to be found, but a court officer found him, and guided him into a courtroom. Faced down by an unflinching, uncaring judge, he was told for the first time his parent were divorcing, and 16 year old Frank Abagnale was to decide, on the spot, which parent he wanted to live with.
Overcome by the emotions expected from such a shocking experience, he took the only logical avenue he could face, turned and ran from the courtroom, never to see his mother again, and to see his father only after his eventual arrest in the U.S.
Abagnale’s presentation was matter of fact and nonjudgmental. He did not apologize for what he did, but presented it as it happened, without sugar coating or glamour.
He began working at small time stockboy positions, quickly realizing that he couldn’t live on what a 16 year old boy could earn. But with a stroke of his talented pen on his driver’s license, he was instantly 10 years older, subject to earning more, and found it easier to cash payroll checks.
An idea was born.
Abagnale quickly moved up to forging checks drawn on the Hawaii fed, allowing up to two weeks time before his victim banks realized they’d been had. With time, he moved to Chicago, found New York checks were more difficult to cash there, and saw the opportunity to travel the world under the guise of a Pan Am pilot. With fake uniform and an I.D. created from a blank form and the decals from a two-dollar hobby store model airplane kit, he explored the world at the expense of then world’s largest airline.
He traveled by flying in the extra jump seat in every airline’s cockpit. At one point, Pan Am executives estimated that he cost them several million dollars in fees and bogus checks written against other airlines and rental companies.
Abagnale went on as to how he decided it was time to change careers, moving to one of Miami’s premier single residences, his cover story for the expensive clothes and time off? He was a pediatrician looking for real estate investments in Florida.
The exploits of Abagnale are fascinating, and worth the price of admission. It becomes a more gripping story when he explains his exploits only spanned four years, from when he was 16 to when he was arrested in France for check forgery at 21.
It’s the takeaways from Abagnale life, and his perspectives, that touched me.
1) All the exploits were during the teenage years when he didn’t know the fear of possibly being caught. It was a game to him, and with typical teenage risk taking, he enjoyed the prize without thinking of the consequences.
2) He said he was not brilliant, he was not lucky, he was not particularly smart. Whenever he took on a new role, he spent months in the public libraries studying his subject. He impressed fellow doctors with tidbits he had read in the medical journals the night before. He passed the Louisiana bar exam by studying the prep books for two months straight.
3) After serving 4 years of a 12 year sentence in the U.S., when approached by the FBI to consult for them on forgery and identity theft while finishing out his sentence, he was smart enough to jump at the chance. He is still working for them today, 37 years later.
4) “A 16 year old is still a child, and needs to be treated as such. He is not an adult, is unable to make adult decisions, and needs to be loved by a two-parent family.”
5) “There are very few ‘Men’ in the world. A ‘Man’ is faithful to his wife, loves his family, and is a pillar and role model to his children.”
6) Abagnale says that he was saved by the love of a good woman and the three children she bore him. He violated all the rules of an undercover investigation by introducing himself to her while on a job. They’ve been together ever since.
And the one I loved the best is this, a message specifically addressed to the youth in the audience.
“Life is not short, as so many believe, life is long. Longetivity is increasing every day, with the very real possibility that young people today will live to be 100. Do not do any wrong today. It may not bother you this week, or this year, but sometime, perhaps only when you are 30 or 40, you will awaken to sorrow for the pain you caused others. That pain will never go away.”
With the regrets of my past, I know truer words were never spoken.
But that’s just me…