Hobby is right on the money Cash for charity: Victor Frenkil has raised thousands of dollars for charity with the intricate monograms he has been making for half a century by folding currency.

February 23, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Gimme an R! An A! An H! RAH!

A football cheer? No, just Victor Frenkil's agile fingers folding a crisp new dollar bill into an intricate monogram.

For more than a half-century, the well-known Baltimore contractor has been a man of letters -- turning cash into keepsakes to raise money for his favorite charity, the Maryland chapter of the American Cancer Society.

He has given them to American and foreign politicians, including presidents since John F. Kennedy; to business and civic leaders; and to anyone willing to swap a charity donation for one of his creations.

"Jack Kennedy sent a personal check for $10 to the Cancer Society," said Mr. Frenkil, 87, whose BCI Contractors has done major construction in the United States and abroad for nearly 60 years, giving him political access and influence.

Mr. Frenkil stumbled across his hobby in 1940 when he was asked to introduce Republican presidential candidate Wendell H. Willkie to Baltimore-area bigwigs. As the candidate traveled, he gave out folded-paper W's as souvenirs.

"They intrigued me, so I decided to see if I could make them," the contractor said. "I figured that if you could do W's out of folded paper, you could do the other letters, too." After more than a year learning to do individual letters, he moved on to two and then three from one piece of paper.

He gets 100 new $1 bills at a time from the bank and hands out about 150 a month. "I get letters from people all over the country asking me to make initials for them," Mr. Frenkil said.

Along with the Cancer Society, the Rotary Club benefits each year from Mr. Frenkil's skill. He earns $500 for the club at its annual oyster roast, selling initials and such items as tie clips, birds and rings made from folded bills.

He offers roses with bills for the petals at $20 each. "I usually only sell a few of those, to guys who want to impress their girlfriends," he said, adding that they are the same men who ask him to make initials out of $100 bills -- for the same reason.

Mr. Frenkil, who still works every day from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in his Central Avenue office, estimates that he has folded "a minimum of $150,000" over the years.

During the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while Vietnam War protesters were skirmishing with police in the street and politicians were battling indoors for power, Mr. Frenkil sat quietly with friends in the Maryland delegation, working his fingers almost unconsciously and turning out one monetary monogram after another.

"It's very relaxing and distracting. I call it creative ingenuity. It keeps me from going to sleep during meetings," he said. "You have to visualize the whole thing in advance. You have to see it finished; you can't just think of one letter at a time."

Virginia Lambrow, Mr. Frenkil's longtime assistant, said, "I've watched him do this for a long time. I think he forms a template in his mind and then makes the bill fit it."

Mr. Frenkil said it can take a half-hour or all day to work out the plan and carry it out, depending on the letters. "The letter D is the most difficult letter to use because of its shape," he said.

"I have done four initials, but it's a rarity that I can do more than that," Mr. Frenkil said. Then he points to examples of "Jimmy, Johnny, Billy and Merry" to show there are exceptions.

Origami, the Japanese paper-folding art, has untold practitioners, but Mr. Frenkil said he knows of no one else who does what he does, folding bills into initials.

"Each one is a different challenge because the combination of initials is infinite. I have to plan it when I start, down to an eighth of an inch because of the size of a dollar bill and the different sizes of letters," said Mr. Frenkil, a left-hander whose father forced him into ambidexterity.

In his office is a triptych frame of items he has made in origami style using dollar bills, including flying and standing birds, an $11 bill, pinwheels, a peacock, trousers, a pinwheel and a sofa.

"I've never studied origami," he said. "I've just seen pictures of these things and then worked them out for myself."

U.S. currency, "on the toughest paper ever made," is perfect for his craft, he said.

Mr. Frenkil said he does not have arthritis or rheumatism and that his long fingers retain the strength and dexterity he needs for the hobby.

He begins by pleating a bill lengthwise in eighth-inch-wide folds until it becomes a long, narrow strip. He then unfolds it and applies his magic. His fingers knead the paper, folding and shaping, until, with a flourish, he presents the monogram.

Probably his most difficult challenge came in 1948, when a Californian wrote to ask whether he could fold a bill into a five-pointed star. Each angle had to be 72 degrees, and Mr. Frenkil experimented for months before working out the solution by geometry. It required 52 foldings, twice the usual number for a monogram.

He said he has shown his three grown children and their children the technique -- and he has illustrated it in a 1968 book, "Folding Money, Vol. 2" -- but that no family member has taken up the hobby seriously.

"I can teach them the technique, but they have to figure out each one, and most people don't have the time or the patience to do it," Mr. Frenkil said.

Occasionally, he invites someone to duplicate his work by sending two monograms, one to keep and the other to unfold to try to see how it's done. He said no one has met his challenge and that he expects to remain champion as long as his fingers will let him.

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