A month ago, Frank Swanson was a checker, pretty much a lifer, at Wal-Mart in West Plains, Mo.
He’s 52, disabled and long known for smiles and hugs. Shoppers loved him. They would purposely get in his line because they wanted to visit with Frank.
But then came April 2, the day of the gallon jug of Red Diamond Sweet Tea and the end of Frank the checkout guy.
Turned out all those hugs and a keen memory for grocery prices made for a volatile cocktail. At least in the way the big-box corporate world played out in this small Ozarks town.
Frank got fired that day. Since then, 800 or so people have attended a rally for him in the store’s parking lot, his name has bounced around social media all over the world, somebody held up a sign with Frank’s name at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, and Jimmy Fallon gave him a shoutout on “The Tonight Show.”
Frank’s termination could be headed to court, and Wal-Mart had to issue a statement explaining to West Plains what happened to the town’s favorite checker.
All this because a woman in Frank’s line that day wanted to buy a gallon of the sweet tea. She told Frank a store in a neighboring town had a sale price that Wal-Mart was supposed to match.
She didn’t have the ad, as required, but she didn’t need it with Frank. He’d always made it a point to keep up with prices at other stores, so he let her have it at the sale price.
That got Frank called in and fired after nearly 20 years.
“The bosses said I made up an imaginary price,” he said Thursday.
Frank went to Willow Springs and got an issue of a local paper that showed he was right about the price of tea.
For the record, the other store had the tea on special for $1.98. Wal-Mart’s price: $2.78.
Frank has always had a knack for remembering things. Like the day as a boy when he fell out the back of his grandpa’s pickup after cutting a load of firewood. He suffered paralysis and brain damage.
“Sometimes grandpa would go slow, and sometimes he would go fast,” Frank said.
He said he had stopped hugging customers after he was told to do so. But then people asked if they could hug him.
Wal-Mart issued this statement about Frank:
“Letting an associate go is never easy. It is important to note that we have a progressive discipline policy where performance issues move an associate to the next step. For this associate, point-of-sale policies had not been followed in some instances. A recent violation of those policies moved the associate to the final step of our discipline process, resulting in his dismissal.”
That didn’t satisfy Frank’s fans. They started a Facebook page called “Hugs for Frank” that encouraged people to flood Wal-Mart headquarters in nearby Bentonville, Ark., with complaints.
Various accounts had people talking about how Frank cheered their days. One story told how Frank was known to reach into his own pocket to help somebody who came up short.
“They were lucky to have you, Frank,” a woman wrote. “More people should be like you, but sadly, it’s all about the almighty dollar instead of the people. I wish you the very best!! (( HUGS )))
Another: “Hugs for Frank and he needs his job back and the Walmart head bosses need to be fired. He needs his job back and Sam Walmart (Walton) wouldn’t of fired him.”
Frank didn’t want ugliness. He told people that the workers at Wal-Mart — bosses, too — were his friends, and he didn’t want to hear anything mean about them. He has even shopped there since.
So the town threw a party for him. Music, food and, of course, a lot of hugs. Frank signed T-shirts.
On a YouTube video of the event, his brother said most people’s legacies aren’t known until they die.
“Frank can see his today,” Drexel Swanson said.
Customers came from all over. There’s just something about a guy who knew to never put ice cream and sugar in the same bag.
“Makes the sugar hard,” Frank said.
Springfield lawyer Benjamin Stringer said Frank intends to challenge his termination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against or firing employees because of disabilities.
Frank must first file a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which will conduct an investigation into Frank’s allegations. Then, if issued a “right-to-sue” letter, Frank intends to pursue the matter vigorously, Stringer said.
“Frank was singled out and fired without cause,” Stringer said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Frank has a new job at Ramey supermarket, a couple of miles away. He doesn’t make as much there, but he’s happy. His new bosses like him to be up front to greet people when they come through the door.
So while West Plains may claim Dick Van Dyke, Porter Wagoner and baseball pitcher Preacher Roe, right now the big name in town is Frank Swanson.
“Everybody’s been picking on me about being famous,” he said shyly.
One of the many recent comments written about him said: “Went to Ramey’s twice today, and yep got me a hug from Frank. He has made everyone smile. I think he got more hugs this past month than he ever had. lol.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182