Robin Williams Still Making Me Laugh

I wish we could have had a Robin Williams Week (like Shark Week only funny) before he died, when we could have watched his old clips and laughed out loud. Instead it took his death to appreciate what a truly talented person he was. I also remembered I have a lot in common with him. We are both politically liberal, Californians, cyclists and huge bike racing fans. 

Of course his fame made it possible to ride in the team car behind Lance Armstrong when he was tearing up the Tour de France.  (He subsequently expressed his disappointment in Lance and still loves cycling.)

I am enjoying old interviews with Robin Williams because 1) he talks about cycling, 2) he shares my disdain for France. (My recent adventure has confirmed that I have had enough of France and French attitudes for a lifetime.) For example, on Fresh Air they replayed a 2006 interview between Terry Gross and Robin Williams and this line almost took me off the road, "When I speak French in Paris they say to me 'Stop speaking French. No. Speak englais.' Then they give their baby a cigarette."

He really lets loose on The Daily Show. Check out the second interview where he riffs on the French for much longer. 

And go ahead and laugh out loud. It is the best way to honor Robin Williams.

Uncle Frank's Sacrifice

Yesterday I learned quite a bit more about my Uncle Frank. Mom and I drove over to Santa Rosa and met up with her cousin Marilyn and find out more about Frank E. Denham's history and gathered additional photos. Frank E Denham circa sometime around 1915.

I am not a genealogy nerd. My aunt Betty does some research about the family and I am always happy to listen. However, I do not derive much of my identify from my ancestors. Nonetheless, I have found my Great Grandpa Albert Denham quite interesting. He came out to California in the late 1800s from the Missouri Territory. Then went back to Oklahoma for the land rush and then returned to the Fulton area near Santa Rosa, California in 1900. Family lore is that he said, "No land is worth shooting a man over." (Implying this was the only way you could hang on to land in the Rush.) He was very conservative father to his daughters viewing both high school and dances as two great morally corrupting influences.  Come to think of it, his wife Nancy Elizabeth (Lizzie) must have had some gumption too as she traveled with him through these adventures having children along the way. At least there was a railroad by 1869.

Frank was Albert's only son and looks like him in many ways. He was being groomed for working the family farm alongside his dad. Been reading about Germany's machinations to distract the US from joining the Allies by ginning up conflicts with Mexico and Japan or both together. Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmerman Telegram is a non-fiction that reads like a great spy novel. The British come off looking competent, the Wilson administration not so much. This explains why after Uncle Frank was drafted he was first sent to Mexico and then to Britain and ultimately to the front in France.

I learned from staff at the Oddfellows/Santa Rosa Cemetery that Frank was not buried until July 1921, a full three years after his death in France. They surmise that he was buried in a temporary mass grave until they could eventually ship him home. He was the first of the fallen sons of Santa Rosa to be returned. The article in the Press Democrat mentioned city flags would fly at half-mast, businesses would close and full military honors would be presented at his funeral. I hope it brought some comfort to his parents and sisters at the time.

Part of me really wishes he had lived and imagines how our family history might have changed. Then again, knowing my grandparents tumultuous at times relationship, my Mom might not have been born and so on. So best to trust in Providence.

Visiting his grave also gave me more information to aid in identifying where he might have fallen in battle.

Frank's gravestone in Oddfellow's cemetary in Santa Rosa CA

Searching for Uncle Frank

We know what happened to Uncle Frank. He died in battle somewhere in France July 29, 2018. Army Private Frank E. Denham

I always knew I had a great Uncle Frank (my grandmother Olson's brother) who died in World War I. It was a great family tragedy as he was the only boy in the family at time when parent's hopes and dreams for the future were focused on the son. I never knew my great-grandparents but I was told that they never emotionally recovered from Frank's death.

Always anti-war, growing up with school friends obsessed with Vietnam POW bracelets and anti-war protests in the news, my pacifism was clinched when my grandmother told me how her beautiful horse was sold to the cavalry during the war. As a horse-crazy youngster, I could not imagine a greater tragedy. She did not speak of her greater loss--her brother who nicknamed her "Jack" because he wanted a brother.

In school and University it seemed that the first World War was always quickly passed over to spend more time on World War II. As I prepared for the Tour de France adventure and looked at the route, I realized we will pass through many of the battle sites from the War to End All Wars.

I also realized that my knowledge of WWI and specifically my Uncle Frank's part in the conflict was embarrassingly slack . So I have begun a project to rectify this ignorance on my part. First I enlisted the aid of my mother and brother to help find any information we can about Uncle Frank.  I also asked my brother (the history professor) to give me some reading assignments. is very helpful with documents. This is the information I have been able to piece together so far from various sources:

Frank Estel Denham

Born October 6, 1891 in Norman,Oklahoma

to parents Lizzie Denison and Albert Denham (both born in Carroll County, MO)

Sisters Bertha, Ada, Hazel (my Grandmother)

Blue eyes, medium height, slender build (Handsome and popular)

Farmer. Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, CA

Registered in Army October 2, 1917 and assigned to Camp Kearney, CA

Private, U.S. Army (Photo in uniform) Company D 159, Infantry

Killed in action July 29 (circumstances unknown). World War I

Buried in Oddfellows Cemetery, Santa Rosa, CA.

From Press Democrat October 13, 1918: The young man served with Company E on the Mexican border and was sent to Camp Lewis in one of the early draft calls last fall from where he was forwarded to Camp Kearney and assigned to his old regiment, which had then become the 159th U.S. Infantry. He went overseas the last of June, as the family received a brief letter, dated July 12, from England, telling of his arrival safely. Nothing more was heard until the telegram of ...The fact that the 159th Regiment did not arrive in England until July 12, and was in action July 29, shows it was brigaded with the British for training and would seem to account for the delay in getting news of the casualty through to the parents as the reports would have to pass through English headquarters, be transmitted to the American headquarters and then forwarded to Washington, all causing delay in face of the heavy demands in clerical help as the result of such heavy fighting on all fronts for weeks past.

My mom, Karen Olson Tognotti, remembers her mother Hazel telling her that she learned about Frank’s death and had to drive the car into Santa Rosa to tell her sister Ada the news. Some men were working on a bridge and she stopped and told them that Frank was killed. They all stopped work and cried.


My goal is to learn where he most likely fell in battle and pay my respects while I am in France. Please share if you have any tips on how to find this information about where Company D, 159th Battalion might have been assigned in the end of July 2018.


Meanwhile I have read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It is incredibly moving. I am not surprised it was never assigned in school since it by "our enemy" a German, and yet that is why it should be required reading. Everyone suffered in the war. Poison gas was used by both sides. It was all so pointless.

Professor Dean Pieper’s suggestions for understanding WWI:

"The BBC has a centenary remembrance on World War I.

There are two novels that would be great Ernest Hemingway's  A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quite on the Western Front.

John Keegan's The First World War and Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August are two non-fiction reads that are worth the time.



What Price Glory 1926

The Lost Patrol 1934

Sergeant York 1941

A Farewell to Arms 1957

Paths to Glory 1957

Gallipoli 1981

The Trench 1999

There are many more films but this gives you a retrospective of some of the better ones."

Please share if you have any WWI books, films or other resources to help my understanding of this war.