Kennebunkport Renaissance man honored at 105
It would be difficult – indeed, impossible – to dispute Peter Whalon’s description of his friend Frank Handlen as a “Renaissance man.”
During his 105 years, Handlen was a gifted shipyard worker, carpenter and artist who donated dozens of his paintings to organizations in Kennebunkport and surrounding areas for auction to raise funds. Oh, and there’s this 40-foot sailboat that he built in his backyard. And his sculpture of a fisherman and his wife, commemorating the town’s first inhabitants, which can be found in the village square of Kennebunkport.
On Friday, the Kennebunkport Historical Society honored Handlen with an hour-long talk from Whalon, a past president of the historical society, about his friend, followed by a reception and birthday cake. Handlen walked in on his own – he had a walker, but seemed to do little to no work at all – and made a few remarks on his own after Whalon recounted a remarkable life.
Handlen was born on September 26, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York, but there is an intriguing story to even this mundane fact. Whalon said the 26th was the date of Handlen’s birth certificate, although Handlen’s mother always insisted he was born on the 27th.
The Handlens moved to New Jersey, where a family friend told Handlen after graduating from high school that Maine was a land of opportunity, especially for an artist.
So at 18 he came north to Biddeford Pool, worked in a shipyard, and continued to paint – seascapes and boats at anchor were favorite subjects – to the side. During World War II he was not drafted as he was 25, married and had two children, but he did contribute to the war effort by helping to assemble machine guns.
He moved to Kennebunkport in 1970, where he indulged his passion for shipbuilding by hand-building a 40-foot sailboat, often using tools he himself made, in his garden. After four years of construction, the launch was apparently quite a city event, with the boat being trucked through Dock Square to be christened and launched in the Kennebunk River.
Without any assurance that it would not sink immediately, Handlen “seriously considered launching it at night, without a moon,” Whalon said, but the Salt Wind remained afloat and frequently carried Handlen and his second wife offshore. coasts of New England and as far as the Bahamas.
But art has always been at the center of Handlen’s life, Whalon said, and at one point his work caught the attention of Charles Cawley, founder of MBNA, a rapidly growing credit card issuer.
Cawley bought a few of Handlen’s paintings – then a few more, and more after that, Whalon said.
â€œCawley was like an ATM for Frank,â€ Whalon said.
Handlen listened and chuckled as Whalon recounted his stories, then stood to add some personal remarks. And, he told the fifty or so people present at the historical society gathering that he still paints daily – but, “honestly, I had to give up tap dancing.”
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