Fritz Williams, A Remembrance

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by Karen Elliott

Recently I saw an article about a study which showed that the best way to teach ideas and have them remembered was with the use of stories. Typically I’d want to see the design of the study before reading further. But this time I barely read past the opening paragraph because I already knew that it was correct – I had learned that from a master at using the art of storytelling to teach. I had seen Fritz Williams in action for years and knew just how well story can be used to teach people of all ages, whether they realized they were being taught or not.

Fritz Williams grew up in a home that we all wanted to have grown up in – at least when it came to his mother. She figured in many of the stories “for the children and the child in us all” he told on Sunday mornings for many years at The Baltimore Ethical Society. Sometimes Fritz’s stories were fairly bare bones – accompanied by simple illustrations he had drawn, but still drawing us into his childhood home, allowing us to look over his shoulder as he dropped his mother’s good knife through a hole in the kitchen wall or spilled Mercurochrome onto the lace doily his grandmother had made. His mother embodied the kind of values that we teach in our Ethical Education programs for young people – how to be kind and fair and treat everyone with respect.

Over time, Fritz was gifted with better drawing materials and made good use of them. And for certain stories, his wife Belva made him props to help (along with the different tones of voice he used) differentiate the many characters and places in some of his stories. But he didn’t move directly from his childhood in Palmerton, PA to becoming the man that Arthur Dobrin, Leader Emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, called the Ethical Movement’s own Mr. Rogers.

Fritz started out as an Episcopal parish priest and a student of the Bible and its history. He received a Masters of Divinity from the Philadelphia Lutheran Theological Seminary and a ThM in Bible and Biblical Languages from Princeton Theological Seminary. Like many who come to Ethical Culture, he was a lifelong learner and always questioning. His questioning led him to become an atheist, as described in his booklet “A Conversion Story”. He considered becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, but then found a better fit for himself in Ethical Culture.

Fritz was a story-teller in many ways. He was a writer and producer for public television. The series Peacework was used in a campaign against family violence in Pennsylvania. The Parenting Puzzle and Gunsense were Emmy-winning productions for Detroit Public Television. He also worked on The Pennsylvania Germans, which was broadcast in Germany as well as across the U.S. He also oversaw the professionally produced production of a DVD of his stories for the children. Fritz contributed articles to Central PA Magazine, affiliated with the public television in Pennsylvania, and also wrote the “Investing for Life Youth Hand-book” part of the Better Investing Educational Series, published in 2003. He wrote a series of five booklets, edited by BES member Rosemary Klein, based on some of his most popular platform talks.

In retirement Fritz began writing poetry as well as prose and had his poems published in anthologies. He was named Perry County Poet Laureate in 2011. In 2016 he put together the book “Joe, Beer, Bologna & Me: a medley of short stories” and was working on more writing projects at the time of his death. According to Hugh Taft-Morales, Leader of the Baltimore Ethical Society and the Philadelphia Ethical Society, “He was excited about the potential that he could get some of his stories (for adults, not for kids) published. … What I found most interesting is that while I thought they were fiction, I wasn’t 100% sure – they seemed very real and a part of his life.”

Most important to those of us at BES, Fritz was Leader of the Baltimore Ethical Society during the late 80s and again from the late 90’s until he retired in 2008 as Leader Emeritus. Not only was he a master storyteller for all ages, he used story as a way to illuminate diverse topics. One year he did a series of talks on “The Good Life” – each illuminating one aspect of what he considered a good life, and each including examples of people Fritz knew. His definition of the good life had nothing to do with the typical American dream of fancy cars and large houses. Fritz looked more to things such as making a difference in the community, reading and learning, loving and being loved, and feeling comfortable to be oneself even if one might be considered eccentric. That series had so much to think about in it, that the week after each talk those attending would again examine the same facet of the good life in an interactive program to allow for extended discussion.

BES member Stephen Meskin said of Fritz’s talks “[they] usually had the overall structure of a hill. An initial introduction, usually accompanied by a story, suggesting the subject of the talk. Then he would guide us up the hill pointing out deeper issues along the way and some solutions if any. And then he would bring us down the hill, giving us new perspectives and potential solutions based on what he had presented earlier and then finally, we would get back where we started, often applying his observations to his original story.”

Fritz was also active in the National Leaders Council of the American Ethical Union. Both on his retirement and upon hearing of his death, Ethical Leaders paid tribute to his skills both as a Leader and as an individual. Kate Lovelady, Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, responded to news of his death, “Fritz was such a lovely person, with such a wonderful sense of humor and caring. And he was such a good writer. His platform on his ‘conversion story’ is still one of my favorite expressions of a humanist spiritual journey.”

Michael Franch, former Leader here in Baltimore and current Assistant Minister at First Unitarian, lamented the possible loss of Fritz’s presence at NLC meeting after his retirement. “[Fritz is] a deep listener and a contributor of deep things. It would be a shame to lose that, to say nothing of your harmonicas, recorders, and vast musical range.” Several people also remembered Fritz as being a dedicated long distance runner. He once told me regretfully that he had never been able to do sitting meditation, but his runs provided him with that meditative focus.

Fritz, along with his wife Belva, often contributed music to BES’ meetings and after his retirement they continued to play. BES members Em Sabatiuk and Don Helm fondly remembered times spent together after Fritz’s retirement when, says Don, “he and Belva would come to Em’s for a potluck dinner … There he would play his harmonica, accompanied by Belva on her harp, for an audience of between three and seven — followed by convivial discussions and sometimes by earnest theological or philosophical debates.”

While acting as Leader in Baltimore, and afterwards as well, Fritz spent more time than he was asked to by the Board as a counselor and a father figure of sorts to members and friends of the Society. Long-time BES member Gordon Stills talked about this side of Fritz at his retirement “Here was a kind and gentle man who spoke meaningfully about the ways of life. He was supportive in all things sensible, tolerant of some insensible things, and ready to discuss the possibilities-impossibilities of proposals. Here was a man full of encouragement and support.”

Any remembrance of Fritz would be incomplete without some of his own words. This comes from the anthology Poems of Peace and Renewal, edited by former BES member Carol Mays.

Nightfall

Pine sweet and cool as moss
Night comes creeping from the woods,
Hesitates at the lake’s edge
And the sky line;
In the fading luminescence
The senses grow keen
To the fish leap splash, water lap,
Lullaby hush of the leaf;
In that pilgrim time between times
The mind grasps the mystery of transition,
The soul is serene.

Six of Fritz’s always well-received talks have been printed as individual pamphlets, available from the Society at $2 each or 6 for $10.

The pamphlets available are:

  • A Conversion Story
  • Difficult People
  • Everyday Courage
  • Island of Goodness
  • The Sacrifice of Issac
  • A Religion for the 21st Century

Hear Fritz Williams’ talk: A Hunger for Goodness (12 MB MP3).

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