Donald Klein Fry Jr., 1937-2021
My Dad died today. I want you to know a little about him.
My Dad died today. The end was mercifully gentle, after a year with dementia that was increasingly cruel, and I don’t know how to navigate feeling simultaneously devastated and relieved.
My Dad was a lot of things during his life: a Navy officer, a professor, a writing coach, an artist. And at every stage, he was an unconventional thinker and a serial pursuer of obsessive interests. He made himself into an expert about a set of unlikely subjects for which he was the lone point of overlap: Old English, Beowulf, early printing, landscape painting, Winslow Homer, World War II bombers, woodworking, Vermeer, gonzo folk art. He could build or fix most anything and flawlessly explain how to do it. And he never stopped being the Eagle scout he’d been as a kid in North Carolina — to the consternation of countless TSA agents, my Dad never traveled without a pocket knife (or five) or a flashlight (or three). You know, just in case.
Above all, he was a teacher. His slide into dementia really accelerated in the fall of 2020, just after he’d been a guest lecturer for a final class at the University of Virginia. It took me a while to realize that wasn’t a coincidence: He’d held it together, at a cost he hid from everyone, because teaching was when he was his best self. He was proudest of his students, and there were so many of them he loved to talk about, whether he’d taught them at Virginia or Stony Brook or at the Poynter Institute after he decided to switch careers in his mid-40s, making the startling transition from tenured English professor to journalism coach.
That was brave, and I like to think I got some of that bravery from him, along with some of his ability to think, to teach, and to fall prey to new obsessions. (Oh yeah, definitely that last part.) And I got some of his bad qualities too: an icy high-handedness when crossed, a willingness to tell others how things ought to work, pique at not being the center of attention.
There’s one story about my Dad that will always make me simultaneously shake my head and smile. He was part of a group from Poynter that went to South Africa while it was making the uneasy transition out of apartheid, charged with nothing less than helping enshrine a free press in the new constitution and train new generations of students.
My Dad loved those students and deeply admired the reporting they’d done under apartheid, some of which had put their lives in danger. Caught up in the spirit of those heady days, he decided what South Africa needed was … a new national anthem. So he wrote one and proudly handed it over to our hosts.
My Dad’s experience with writing national anthems? Zero. No one had asked him to do that, or was likely to. And the song he’d written … well, it was about gathering at the waterhole. It was reductive about a history that was long and complex and painful, and it came with more than a whiff of colonialism. As he presented it, I cringed and hoped this wouldn’t go badly.
(Our hosts were kind and polite. I presume someone else was eventually drafted to pen an anthem.)
But here’s the thing: the song my Dad wrote, while wrong in some key ways he was oblivious about, was right in lots of other ways. It was pretty damn good, and not just by the standards of “first-time national anthem writer.” It was generous of spirit, smartly constructed, and a stirring plea for unity.
There aren’t very many people who’d presume to write a national anthem without an invitation. And there aren’t very many people whose first try at one would be that good. My Dad? He was both kinds of people.