Frank Abagnale gets emails every day telling him he’s a genius. That he’s brilliant. That what he did as a teenager and a young adult, adventures that became the subject of the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” show gifts the average person simply does not possess.
But Abagnale will be the first to say they are wrong.
“Had I been brilliant or a genius, would I have needed to break the law to survive?,” said Abagnale in an emotional keynote address Wednesday at FedTalks 2013. “What I did was immoral, illegal, unethical and a burden I live with.”
Abagnale’s story has been told many times in many ways – first as a book, then the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, and even a Tony-winning Broadway musical – chronicling his time as a con man following his parents’ divorce, pretending to be a Pan-Am pilot and traveling the world writing fraudulent checks.
He was eventually caught.
“I always knew I’d be caught,” Abagnale told the audience – serving time in prisons in France and Sweden, before being extradited to the United States. It was back home when, as part of his parole, he began helping the FBI catch criminals similar to himself.
“I owe my country 800 times what I could ever give them,” said Abagnale, who continues to work with the FBI more than 26 years after the terms of his release dictated. “I’m lucky to be in a place where you can get a second chance.”
He never received any money for the book or movie as part of his agreement with the federal government and has turned down three presidential pardons. His reasoning: “A piece of paper cannot forgive me for the things that I did.”
Abagnale now lives in Charleston, S.C., with his wife with whom he has three sons. Despite his storied adventures and time helping the federal government catch criminals, his lasting message was to the men in the audience – that being a good husband and raising a child is the greatest achievement of all.
“The measure of a man is not on achievements or skills or degrees, but someone who is there for his children,” said Abagnale, who told the story of his father who each night kissed his four children before they fell asleep and told each he loved them.
“He never missed a night,” Abagnale said, “and even if I fell asleep before he came in I know he did while I was asleep … Children need their mother and their father. Never underestimate the power divorce can have on children as they now have a burden they must carry the rest of their life.”
He also thanked his wife for his turnaround: “I could tell you that prison reformed me, but it was the love of my wife,” a woman he met while working undercover for the FBI.
“God gave me a wife and she gave me three beautiful children,” Abagnale said. “It was she and she alone that saved me. It was because of the love of a woman and the respect I have for her that makes my life great. We were able to raise our children, which is the most important thing because – the parents out there know – the last thing you think about before you go sleep is your children. That’s the most important thing.”