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Frank E. Gilbert, Philadelphia lawyer and prosecutor in the U.S. Virgin Islands, dies at 83

Mr. Gilbert taught his two children the importance of connection to community and church, and the negative effect of slavery, segregation, and intolerance on African Americans.

Frank E. Gilbert
Frank E. GilbertRead moreCourtesy of the Gilbert Family

Frank Edward Gilbert, 83, of East Mount Airy, a lawyer, died Thursday, Sept. 17, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at Hillcrest Center, a nursing home in Wyncote.

Born to Helen Chase and Arthur Stanley Gilbert, Mr. Gilbert was reared in West Philadelphia. He graduated from St. Thomas More High School in 1953. His father, a construction supervisor at Curtis Publishing Co., constantly challenged him and his two sisters to improve themselves.

Mr. Gilbert’s great-grandfather Oliver Cromwell Kelly had taken the Gilbert name from a Quaker abolitionist in Lancaster to conceal his identity while fleeing slavery in 1848 on the Underground Railroad.

Kelly’s son Stanley, Mr. Gilbert’s grandfather, was an opera singer and later choirmaster and organist at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In keeping with the family’s musical streak, Mr. Gilbert played the cello.

He was awarded an academic scholarship to Villanova University, from which he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. While there, he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Psi chapter.

Like his mentor, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr., Mr. Gilbert opted for law school. Mr. Gilbert graduated from Villanova in 1960; Nix had earned his law degree earlier from the University of Pennsylvania. The families were longtime friends.

Two years later, he joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where he served as chief of the Fraud Unit and acting chief of the Major Trials Unit.

Nix arranged for Mr. Gilbert to go on a blind date with Diane Lola Davis, a Bell Telephone Co. of Pennsylvania employee. They were married in 1965 and moved to the Plaza apartments on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Because of segregation, they were grouped with other African American tenants.

“Frank and Diane lived on the floor with the Philadelphia Eagles players and their wives, which gave them fond and lasting memories, and an abundance of hilarious stories,” the family said in a statement.

In 1966, he was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney general for the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1968, Mr. Gilbert joined the Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he practiced civil litigation for corporate clients. From 1969 to 1972, he also lectured at Temple University’s law school.

The Gilberts raised a daughter and a son in East Mount Airy. “Frank was a loving and creative dad,” the family said in a statement. He made sure that his children understood family history, the importance of connection to community and church, and the negative effect of slavery, segregation, and intolerance on African Americans. He taught his offspring to fish, tour museums, savor politics, and attend Mass every Sunday.

In 1972, Mr. Gilbert was hired by the Insurance Co. of North America as assistant counsel, and in 1974 he joined the Philadelphia Defender Association as counsel for juvenile offenders.

A classic car enthusiast, his 1962 Volvo Rally Sport was the family’s primary mode of transportation until 1982.

“On any warm day in Philadelphia, Frank could be found zipping around, blasting calypso music in his convertible 1971 Porsche 914, which served as his primary car until retirement,” the family said.

In 1976, Mr. Gilbert was appointed to the Attorney General’s Office in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two years later, he was hired by the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office. The family returned to East Mount Airy, where he bought a twin home. Favorite pastimes were working on his house and gardening.

Mr. Gilbert followed his father in becoming a member of Ye Olde Philadelphia Club, a social club for African American men. He was the club’s president. In 2012, he was recognized for his many years of service.

He rejoined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 1980 and retired in 2006 as a senior trial assistant in the charging unit.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Stephanie Helen; a son, Michael Arthur Sr.; and seven grandchildren.

A viewing from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at St. Raymond of Penafort Church, 1350 E. Vernon Rd., will include a 9:30 a.m. Alpha Phi Alpha ceremony. A Mass is at 10 a.m. with interment in Ivy Hill Cemetery.

COVID-19 restrictions will be observed. A livestream link is available via