NORTH PLATTE — Michelle Naranjo knows exactly what her father would say if he were here now:
“Reach out to your neighbor. Love one another. Take care of each other during this scary time.”
Many will know Frank Naranjo as so much more than the first person in Lincoln County who died of the novel coronavirus disease that is burning across the globe like wildfire.
They will know him as a selfless man, an “urban cowboy” who had strong faith and everyone’s “Grandpa Frank.”
Frank Naranjo of North Platte died Monday at the age of 92. He was holding hands with Bertha, his wife of over 72 years, who was also hospitalized with COVID-19.
Even as the Naranjos’ children struggled with not being able to see their parents, Michelle and her brother, Daniel Naranjo, took comfort knowing that their parents were together and expressed gratitude toward the health care workers who cared for them.
“We cannot thank the nurses and doctors at Great Plains Health enough. It was so hard as family not being able to be there,” said Daniel, who runs All Faiths Funeral Home in Grand Island. “With my mom and dad in the same room, we knew there was an incredible amount of love from the nurses and doctors, and their attentiveness. My heroes now are those people who took care of my mom and dad during their time of need.”
According to Michelle, Bertha, 89, is now at home doing well and “getting stronger every day.”
“Her faith and her love for my dad is helping her get through this,” Michelle said.
The family is still unsure where the virus that hospitalized the couple came from, since the family members have all tested negative for COVID-19, according to Michelle, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Due to current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, there will be a private family service on April 12 at All Faiths Funeral Home, Grand Island, and a private burial April 13 at North Platte Cemetery. The service will be livestreamed and the family will schedule a reception later to celebrate and honor Frank’s life with more people.
Frank is also survived by his children Larry Naranjo, Tony Naranjo and Betty Naranjo.
‘It was always about everyone else’
Daniel remembers living in the house at the very west edge of North Platte. It backed up to Bailey Yard, with its constant flow of trains bringing a similarly constant flow of transients through their backyard.
“There was always transients sitting in our yard, eating a meal,” Daniel said. “It was almost like back in the day, my mom and dad’s home was marked house or something. They knew they could always stop there for some food when they were hungry, or water when they were thirsty.
“My parents had a passion for feeding and blessing the homeless.”
The Naranjos had a passion for caring about others, it seems, even in tough times.
While her dad was hospitalized, Michelle called, wanting to make sure he understood why the family couldn’t be in the room with him and Bertha, comforting them.
“He said, ‘Yeah, we know that we can’t get others sick,’” Michelle said. “He asked me to be careful.”
This was just par for the course for Frank, according to his children.
“It was always about everyone else,” Michelle said.
Well, except for on his birthday, which may as well have been “a national holiday.”
“He made sure you knew it was his birthday,” she said. “He loved being the center of attention,” but on every other day, it was about everyone else.
Even a week before Frank was hospitalized, he called Michelle.
“He called me and said, ‘I need you to go to the bank.’ I said, ‘Dad, why do you need me to go to the bank?’ He said, ‘You need to get cash, because (you) don’t trust the banks.’”
Having lived through the Great Depression, Frank wanted to make sure that his kids were safe and had money.
“I guess he’d shared it with quite a few people that they needed to get cash, and once again, I just kind of chuckled, because it’s my dad making sure everybody is going to be OK.”
An ‘urban cowboy’ and his faith
Frank’s life wasn’t easy, but he didn’t let that tarnish his “heart of gold” that was full of love and humor, according to Michelle.
One of 18 children, Frank grew up on a ranch in Trujillo, New Mexico. At 14, Frank left home and “started his journey of hard work and becoming the man God had planned for him.”
Before ending up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he met and married Bertha, Frank spent time working on ranches, breaking horses and herding sheep.
The couple married in 1947 and two years later moved to North Platte, where Frank worked 43 years for Union Pacific.
Things didn’t get easier in North Platte for the couple, though. Because they were Hispanic and Native American, “there were some restaurants that wouldn’t even serve my mom and dad,” Daniel shared. But Frank’s faith helped him weather those times.
“His journey was very difficult. It wasn’t always easy,” Daniel said. “He always told us that God always gave him opportunities to move forward.”
One of Michelle’s favorite stories took place in a rest stop. The family was driving to Colorado for a funeral and pulled off so everyone could use the facilities.
They waited for their dad.
Panicking, a family member went in, only to find Frank standing there, talking to another cowboy.
Frank was known for calling everyone his friend and never knowing a stranger.
“I always called him my urban cowboy, because he never got the horses out of his blood,” Daniel said. “He was involved in the Nebraskaland Days Shootout Gang for over 25 years.”
Later in life, Frank and Bertha lost two children. He suffered a heart attack. His faith and family supported him through it all.
“But he never let that stop him,” Michelle said. “He had a strong will to live.”
During their last conversation, his faith gave Michelle comfort.
“He said, ‘Michelle, you know we’re only on this earth for a little time, and then we will all go home,’” she said, her voice breaking.
Michelle remembers a shopping trip with her dad. She always begged him to “make it quick,” because otherwise they’d be in the store for at least a half hour, talking and visiting with everyone Frank met.
This time, Frank was talking with a baby in the aisle. The baby lifted his arms up, wanting to be held.
Frank looked at Michelle, uncertain, before picking the baby up.
When the baby’s mother saw Frank holding him, she burst out laughing.
“It’s really funny because he doesn’t go to anybody,” Michelle recalls the mother saying of the child. “There’s something about you ... it’s amazing.”
The children who were often at the Naranjos' house can attest to that.
Even to this day, according to Daniel, there are adults who still call the 92-year-old “Grandpa Frank” — whether or not they were related in any way.
“(My parents) had an unconditional love for everyone,” Daniel said. “Everyone was family to them.”
Michelle echoed that.
“He called every child his grandchild,” she said. “He got attached to every child.”
Bertha ran a day care in the house, and many children stayed at the family home throughout the years.
Every child that came to the house, Michelle said, was loved and inspired and taken care of by Frank and Bertha. As grown-ups, the children often came back to visit them — so much that the family joked about needing to install a revolving door for all the visitors.
“If every child out there had an opportunity to have a father who loved unconditionally” like Frank, Michelle said, “The world would be a better place.”