On May 20, 1928, 39-year-old Frank T. Johns was campaigning as the Socialist Labor Party’s nominee for President of the United States. Johns was facing Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith at the peak of the Roaring ‘20s, on the verge of the stock market crash and the Great Depression. This Portland native and former carpenter made Bend, OR, his first stop on a nationwide campaign trail. Sadly, it turned out to be his last political speech.
Johns was delivering what by all accounts was a rousing speech on the bank of the Deschutes River in what is now Drake Park. At the end of his speech, Johns fielded questions from the audience.
Suddenly, screams rang out.
A ten-year-old boy named Jack Rhodes had been fishing for trout along with several buddies. But he had fallen from a footbridge and into the water, clinging to the bridge while his friends desperately tried to get to him. Johns threw off his coat and dove into the icy river. He swam about 75 yards to reach the child, pulled him to the surface and began swimming him back toward shore. Unfortunately, the swift current proved too much. Neither Johns nor Rhodes made it out alive. Witnesses said both reappeared above the surface four or five times before disappearing completely. The child’s body was found two hours later by some men who had arrived with a canoe to help with the search; Johns’ body was found the next morning, near the spot where the rescuers had found Jack.
Johns was posthumously awarded a Carnegie Medal for Heroism. His widow and two daughters received an annual stipend of $1,000 a year, and Frank was honored with a large plaque in Drake Park. As one history blog wrote, “[It was] a gesture and a sacrifice that both transcended the unforgiving American political climate of the time, and encapsulated Frank Johns’ personal commitment to humanity in peril.”