PHILADELPHIA -- Frank Gasparro made more money than any man in history, but now all his money is in everyone else's pocket.
There are 50 billion pennies (that's 500 million dollars) with Frank Gasparro's name on them, and he can't have one red cent.
He designed the famous Lincoln Memorial penny and the flopped Susan B. Anthony dollar (proving himself penny-wise and dollar-foolish).
His initials also adorn the John F. Kennedy half-dollar, the Eisenhower dollar, and coinage from Cuba to the Philippines.
"I've been called the world's richest artist," says Gasparro, who enjoys coining phrases about his coinage. "But I can't take any of it home."
All of this might cause another man to lose his cents -- but Gasparro stays happy finding lost pennies, compulsively picking up pennies from highways and subway cars and mud puddles, because, well, they bear his name.
"Pennies are like lost souls," he says. "I try to save my lost souls."
For his achievements in the mintage arts, Gasparro, former chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, medalist, sculptor and teacher, was honored yesterday by the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, the South Philadelphia art school where he has taught sculpture for 35 years and once studied as a boy. He will receive the school's first Founder's Award medal, which, happily, he designed himself.
Frank Gasparro is a household name to numismatists. He designed the back side of the Lincoln Memorial cent in 1959, and a U.S. record 50 billion pennies with Gasparro's imprimatur have been minted since. You can find his initials, "FG," in the lower right-hand corner of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
He designed the best-selling medal in U.S. Mint history -- the John Wayne Medal. He designed the 1980 Summer Olympics team medal (the only medal those boycotting U.S. Olympians ever received). He designed the inaugural medals for presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.
President Johnson appointed him the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint -- the "mother mint," Gasparro calls it, at Fifth and Arch in Philadelphia -- in 1965, a post he held until retirement in 1981.
But the coin Gasparro may be most remembered for is the lowly penny.
Gasparro's path to numismatic fame began in South Philadelphia, where he grew up a musician's son, the grandson of Italian immigrants. As a boy he studied portraiture at the Graphic Sketch Club, a block away from his home, under his mentor Giuseppe Donato, who had been the foreman of Auguste Rodin's studio in Paris early in the century. It was a heady time at the free community arts school; Gasparro remembers that the great architect Louis Kahn was just a boy from Northern Liberties then, passing through the school before him. Encouraged by Donato and school founder Samuel Fleisher, Gasparro attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, graduating during the Depression. In 1937, he began his career at the U.S. Mint.