JoAnn Lee Frank is the tiniest thing. She's about two inches shy of 5 feet and weighs 85 pounds with her keys in her pocket. She has a friendly, soft voice and a live-and-let-live way of dealing with difficulties. She works for an accounting firm.
But shy mouse JoAnn is not. She may be the most opinionated person in all of Tampa Bay. Her name has dominated the St. Petersburg Times' letters to the editor pages for 22 years. She typically writes up to three a day. One day she wrote seven. She bombards the editors of the letters page with opinions on virtually any subject she soaks up from the Times, National Public Radio and Newsweek magazine, her three news sources. She doesn't watch TV.
She opines on the economy, on doughnuts and calories, on her favorite cartoon characters, on texting while driving, on health care and, most recently, on Spam served aboard cruise ships. Generally, one or two of her letters get published per month. Her last published epistle was Nov. 14. It had to do with tennis courts closing early and bars staying open late. After 22 years, her letters fill three albums.
Her liberal bias aggravates conservative readers to no end, compelling one to fire back in 2005 that he couldn't take her letters anymore: "Stop our subscription to your rag immediately and refund the balance on our account."
Eric Lacker, formerly editor of the Times letters page, fielded thousands of JoAnn's letters but never met her. Over the years, he formed an image of her in his mind — a gray-haired elder in a recliner, perhaps wearing a shawl, perhaps watching Jeopardy! between letters.
But a couple of years ago, he finally saw a photo of her. She had platinum bangs down to her eyes. She posed in tight jeans, a tank top and thick silver earrings.
"I was taken aback," Lacker said.
She describes herself as baby-boom vintage, born "somewhere between 1946 and 1964." She's partial to silver Harley-Davidson belt buckles. She also likes skull jewelry and in her letters has quoted Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick."
"She may be a little old lady," Lacker said, "but she's a hip little old lady."
• • •
JoAnn Lee Frank quietly minded her own business until 1988, when she read something in the paper that really got under her skin. It was a story about a lawsuit against a tobacco company filed by a lifelong cigarette smoker. What nerve, she thought, blaming one's own bad habit on someone else.
That was letter No. 1.
The same year, she began writing letters to Newsweek. For the next eight years, Newsweek rejected every letter she sent. Each time the magazine sent her a postcard thanking her for trying. She saved every one. Finally, in 1996, Newsweek shocked her by actually publishing one of her letters. Last year, it published five.
In the beginning, the Times' Clearwater edition ran practically every letter she wrote. Critics took notice of her prolificacy. What was her deal, they wanted to know. Was she on the Times payroll? The criticism got ugly when the Times began publishing anonymous comments online. They mocked an essay she wrote about caring for her sick mother. An especially threatening letter came directly to her home.
She kept on.
• • •
Twenty-two years ago, when JoAnn Lee Frank joined the public conversation, civic participation was different. Back then people still wrote letters in their own hand on their personal stationery and mailed them with stamps. The process required deliberation. People didn't fire anonymous comments from the hip and blast them into the electronic ether.
JoAnn switched to e-mailing her letters in 2000, but has never blogged and has never written an opinion on anything without putting her name on it.
There's a thrill, she says, in getting published, in expressing thoughts in print and seeing them acknowledged.
If they don't make print, she says, "at least I gave the editor a laugh."
One of her biggest thrills: She wrote a letter about her friend's 9-year-old pet chihuahua, Spanky, who liked to stare at women's cleavage.
It was not published as a letter to the editor. It was published in the "Doggone Funny" corner of the Sunday Marmaduke comic strip.
She won a Marmaduke pen for it.
"I was like, 'Holy Cow!' "
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.