By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
There are few numismatic artists of the mid-20th century as prolific as Frank Gasparro, a man whose coin designs are known to hundreds of millions of Americans, even if his name isn’t familiar to all. He created some of the most widely familiar coin designs ever minted. His artistic portfolio includes the reverses for the Lincoln Memorial cent and the Kennedy half dollar as well as the obverses and reverses for both the Eisenhower dollar and the Susan B. Anthony dollar.
Gasparro was born in Philadelphia on August 26, 1909, just weeks after the Lincoln cent – the coin for which he later provided a reverse design – was first released. His father, a talented musician, had hoped young Frank would follow in his musical footsteps. But he appeased his son’s artistic desires and helped him earn an apprenticeship under Giuseppe Donato, who once worked for the celebrated French artist Auguste Rodin. Gasparro the budding artist graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1927 and later attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, traveling abroad to hone his artistic talents.
Lincoln Memorial Cent
After spending years perfecting his craft, Gasparro was hired at the United States Mint in December 1942 during the tenure of Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, perhaps best known by coin collectors as the designer of the Roosevelt dime and the Franklin half dollar. It would be more than 15 years before Gasparro’s first major numismatic assignment: redesigning the reverse of the Lincoln cent. His motif of the Lincoln Memorial, a popular landmark in Washington, D.C., first appeared on the Lincoln cent in 1959, or 50 years after the coin’s debut. Gasparro’s design replaced the coin’s original Wheat Ears motif by Victor David Brenner, who also created the coin’s enduring obverse depiction of Abraham Lincoln in 1909.
Production of the Lincoln Memorial cent continued for some 50 years, with more than 100 billion pieces struck before the design was retired in 2008.
Going into the 1960s, Gasparro’s numismatic career was to bloom further still. Just weeks after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, Congress approved a complete redesign of the Franklin half dollar to honor the fallen commander-in-chief. Gasparro and then-Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts ventured on a collaborative project to create a fitting tribute to Kennedy’s memory by designing the Kennedy half dollar.
Kennedy Half Dollar
The two had previously created the John F. Kennedy Presidential Series Medal, a piece that provided much of the artistic inspiration for the half dollar they embarked on together. Roberts retouched the obverse bust of Kennedy he designed for the medal two years earlier. Meanwhile, Gasparro adapted a design of the Presidential Seal that he implemented on the same Presidential Series Medal and the 1962 President John F. Kennedy Appreciation Medal, making it the central element on the reverse of the new half dollar. The Kennedy half dollar became an immediate sensation upon its public release on March 24, 1964.
The dawn of the 1970s saw Gasparro become the sole sculptor-engraver of a circulating coin for the first time with the advent of the Eisenhower dollar. His depiction of military general and President Dwight D. Eisenhower anchors the obverse of the coin. Gasparro’s reverse motif for the Eisenhower dollar is directly inspired by the Apollo 11 insignia; it was originally designed by astronaut Michael Collins, who was aboard the Apollo 11 lunar mission that brought him and crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon in July 1969.
While the Eisenhower dollar did not circulate widely as hoped, it became a workhorse in the Nevada casino circuit and has since become popular with collectors of modern United States coinage, too.
Susan B. Anthony Dollar
Gasparro’s last major circulating coin project was the Susan B. Anthony dollar, and while it’s the coin he often called his “greatest achievement”, unfortunately, it was the least successful coin from a commercial standpoint.
When the first calls came in 1977 for a small-size dollar coin, Gasparro began crafting prototypes for the new coin using imagery of a young Miss Liberty with flowing hair for the obverse and a soaring depiction of a flying eagle for the reverse. However, various groups rallied for the new coin to honor women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony.
Gasparro created several models for the Susan B. Anthony dollar before he and Anthony’s descendants decided on a coin featuring the iconic late 19th- and early 20th-century women’s leader in her 50s at the peak of her career. Gasparro had hoped to retain his flying eagle reverse for the coin, but last-minute decisions led to the continuation of the Apollo 11 insignia originally seen on the Eisenhower dollar.
The Susan B. Anthony dollar was anticipated to be a great success upon its release in 1979, but the public too easily confused the small-size copper-nickel dollar coin with the quarter. Despite massive marketing campaigns by the United States Mint to educate the public on the benefits of the small-size dollar–including long-term cost savings over making paper $1 bills–the coin was never widely embraced. The Mint drew curtains on the coin 1981, the same year Gasparro retired.
The gifted engraver went on to design many public and private medals as well as other numismatic works in his later years. Gasparro created presidential medals representing all U.S. commanders-in-chief from Lyndon B. Johnson to Ronald Reagan; medals honoring the likes of Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur; and the Congressional Gold Medal for actor John Wayne. He also became an art instructor at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, teaching at the Philadelphia institution for many years.
Gasparro lived to see the one-year reprisal of his Susan B. Anthony dollar in 1999. He passed away at the age of 92 on September 29, 2001 in Havertown, Pennsylvania.