Francis Millspaugh “Frank” Wheat, prominent Los Angeles securities lawyer, member of the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and environmentalist who wrote a well-received 1999 book, “California Desert Miracle,” chronicling the 27-year fight to preserve the Mojave Desert, has died. He was 79.
Wheat died Friday of cancer in Los Angeles, according to his Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law partner and friend Robert S. Warren.
Another Los Angeles lawyer who served in Washington, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, told The Times in 1987 that Wheat “has a unique dedication to public affairs,” noting, “Wheat does not just lend his name to causes. He puts his shoulder to the wheel and pushes, pushes, pushes.”
A Gibson, Dunn colleague once put it more bluntly: “He will run into a brick wall until it falls over.”
In addition to serving from 1964 to 1969 on the SEC, Wheat was a founding member and co-chairman of the California Commission on Campaign Financing and an early member of the California Citizens Budget Commission.
Long a desert devotee, he helped work for passage of the California Desert Protection Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. It preserved much of the Mojave as wilderness and added to the size of Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.
Wheat detailed the work of leaders in that battle in “California Desert Miracle,” complete with chronology, index, maps, photographs, editorial cartoons and T-shirt reproductions. Critics said it could be considered a textbook in political science and lobbying, as well as conservation.
The book’s many anecdotes about the tangled political battles between environmentalists and proponents of mining and motorcycle riding included one about a plane flight of five baby desert tortoises (a threatened species) to Capitol Hill despite airline restrictions against “pets.” A $200 fine was paid (later refunded) and the tortoises crawled over the desks of Congress members to influence the razor-thin vote.
Sierra Club President Carl Pope last year said of the book, “Wheat has taken a seemingly simple story and translated it into a ballad of democracy vibrant enough to stir Walt Whitman’s blood.”
USC history professor Doyce D. Nunis Jr., who predicted that Wheat’s book would become a classic in desert literature, said: “The narrative sparkles from the outset. It’s a book that not only informs, it entertains.”
Wheat, a corporate lawyer with a penchant for dinosaur-emblazoned ties, counted among his wealthy clients defense contractor Textron, Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner and several brokerage firms. But he loved to champion underdogs as well.
Describing himself for The Times as “a middle-of-the-road Democrat,” he worked for the ill-fated California handgun control initiative trounced by voters in 1982. And he became a major force in pro bono legal agencies.
Wheat was a founding director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which in 1987 created a fellowship in his name to train young lawyers in public interest litigation.
“I think in a general sense, lawyers should move into any vacuum that seems to be developing,” he told The Times then. “I think that one of the things that sets this country apart is the fact that there is a wonderful legal tradition going all the way back to [Alexis] de Tocqueville [the 19th century analyst of the emerging U.S.], who said that lawyers in the country would sniff out tyranny on every breeze.”
Wheat was a founder and, from 1992 to 1994, president of the Alliance for Children’s Rights to provide free legal services to poor children and those who care for them, even when they didn’t need to go to court.
“For every case that requires a legal brief,” he told The Times proudly in 1995, three years after he helped set up the group, “we’ll have a dozen cases where we can give them the advice that will take care of the problem.”
Wheat, who served as a president and trustee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., received its Shattuck Price Award in 1985 for dedication to the improvement of the legal profession. In 1989 he was presented the Maynard Toll Award by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
He was a member of the advisory council of the Financial Accounting Standards Board and of the National Assn. of Securities Dealers board. He was also on the board of governors of Town Hall of California and a trustee and president of the Neighborhood Church of Pasadena.
When none of those pursuits demanded his attention, Wheat turned to environmental circles, where he was a trustee of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the California Desert Protective League, the Desert Protective Council and the Anza Borrego Foundation. As a trustee of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Wheat broadened its funding of science and education to include more environmental issues.
In addition to his book, Wheat wrote several articles on securities law for legal publications and opinion pieces on the environment for The Times and other publications.
Born in Los Angeles, he graduated from Pomona College, where he later served as president of the alumni association and, for three decades, on the Board of Trustees. He earned his law degree with honors from Harvard and served as a lieutenant aboard a Navy destroyer during World War II.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Nancy Loring, of San Marino and Borrego Springs; and three sons, Douglas Loring Wheat, Carl Irving Wheat and Gordon Warner Wheat.
Services are scheduled for 4 p.m. Friday at the Neighborhood Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund or the Sierra Club’s Desert Committee.