Dr. Frank Powell’s wife and sons learned the 92-year-old Fresno man received the Bronze Star during World War II while sorting through his possessions a few weeks ago. He acknowledged the prestigious military medal without explaining what he did to earn it.
That was typical of Powell. He spoke sparingly, family and friends said, but when he did, people listened.
Powell, who died Saturday of cancer, is remembered as a man of integrity and insight who improved Fresno as a prominent psychologist, Fresno State professor, veteran, Peace Corps leader and businessman who was behind the scenes of numerous organizations.
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He’s also remembered for using some unconventional methods in his private psychology practice, opened in 1962. Much of his work focused on hypnotherapy, said his son, Jevon Powell, also a psychologist.
Powell taught one patient – who suffered from chronic, debilitating pain in one leg after a car accident – to hypnotize himself into visualizing detaching his leg and setting it into a corner of the room to help alleviate his pain.
“It’s real, it works,” Jevon said of hypnosis, although he doesn’t use it in his own private practice. “The thing to remember about hypnotherapy is you can’t make anyone do under hypnosis what they wouldn’t do under ordinary circumstances.”
Powell served in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan during WWII, rising to the rank of master sergeant in the U.S. Army, then served as a psychologist in the Army Reserve for nearly 20 years. He resigned as a lieutenant colonel as the Vietnam War began because he disagreed with the United States’ decision to enter that conflict.
“You don’t just resign an officer’s commission,” Jevon said. “You lose all of that pension money. You lose the honorable discharge. And so for him to basically give up – I can’t call it a career, but to give up his 20 years in the Army – with just a few months to go (until he could retire) on the basis of principles that he believed in, this again to me is an example of his strength of character.”
Powell then became a Peace Corps leader when Fresno State, where he worked a professor of psychology, requested he serve as a Peace Corps training director at the university.
“He also really enjoyed that it brought him into contact with young, idealistic people – so much so that we had Peace Corps hippies hanging around our house all the time growing up,” Jevon recalled with a laugh, “and here’s my dad, the elder statesman, or that’s how I saw him – the suit-and-tie kind of guy.”
John McGregor, a Fresno attorney, said his friend “wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it.”
“He was a person who commanded respect – he never demanded it,” McGregor said. “He simply commanded it by who he was.”
At Fresno State, Powell was also president of the Academic Senate, and chair of the university’s Board of Publications, Personnel Committee, and Board on Retention and Promotion, along with serving on a statewide California State University Academic Senate.
“I know he had the ear of the president (of Fresno State),” said friend Dr. Thomas Granata, a psychologist and adjunct faculty member at the university, “and would be called on for advising about policy and that sort of thing.”
Powell met his wife of nearly 57 years when he joined the Fresno State faculty in 1955. Alice Powell was then the university’s dean of women, a now-gone position responsible for student affairs for female students.
Powell is recognized as an influential pioneer among psychologists. He was a gubernatorial appointee to the State Board of Psychology for nine years, ending in 1993. He was one of the first non-medical doctors to locally perform court-ordered psychiatric evaluations of people charged with crimes, and was among the first group of 500 California psychologists to receive a state certification. He was among only a few psychologists in the area when he opened his Fresno practice.
Jevon said his father had a reputation as an excellent diagnostician.
“The joke was Frank could walk through a waiting room and just glance around at the people sitting around waiting to be seen and he could diagnose everyone,” his son said.
Powell helped people with intellectual disabilities as a founding member of Kelso Village in Fresno, and as chair of a committee that developed and opened the Central Valley Regional Center, along with serving on a board of directors for a Fresno association that helped people with intellectual disabilities.
Powell additionally served on boards for health planning that ranged from Kern to Merced counties, was president of the board of directors for Cedar Vista Psychiatric Hospital, was a consultant at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital, and served on a multidisciplinary committee for Saint Agnes Medical Center. He also volunteered as an adjunct faculty member of the California College for Judicial Education and Research.
“He was president of everything but he didn’t care about getting credit for anything,” McGregor said. “He was incredible at incentivizing others to do incredible things, and he would give others the credit, even though it was his idea. That was part of the secret to his success.”
Powell came out of retirement at age 80 to serve on the board of directors for the Educational Employees Credit Union. He became chair and vice chair.
His youngest son, Greg Powell, an assistant U.S. trustee with the U.S. Department of Justice in Fresno, said of his father’s decision to take that position late in life, “There was a very active mind there that had a lot to contribute. … I think he saw it as a way to serve the community.”
Greg described his dad as a man of character with a wonderful sense of humor who loved to read.
Said Alice Powell, “I miss his strength; I miss his wit.”
Dr. Frank V. Powell
Born: Jan. 27, 1926
Died: Nov. 24, 2018
Occupation: Retired psychologist
Survivors: Wife Alice Powell; son Jevon and his wife, Darcy; son Gregory and his wife, Meredith; and grandsons, Eli, Spencer and Max.
Celebration of life: mid-January, location to be determined, email firstname.lastname@example.org.