On a particularly frigid evening a few years ago, Robert and Lillian Fraker came here to my house in Amherst for our usual festive dinner and a few hours of music making. Robert came through the door, eyes beaming. As we were sharing our first pour of red wine, he practically purred as he spoke of the glory of a deep cold night, the stars clear above and the snow glistening below.
Ah, memories. Where do we keep them? How many do we have? Thankfully, when I think of Robert, I know I’ll have quite a few of them. Perhaps more importantly, all the ones that rush to me, like that very first one above, leave me with the same warm feeling. This is, of course, exactly what Robert wanted to leave to us, his friends and family. A more erudite gentleman and compassionate soul you will never meet.
There’s no mistaking that Robert shared a few qualities with my dad, though their personalities certainly differed considerably. Robert, like my dad, was driven by a curious nature; and reading books was as satisfying and necessary as food. I grew up in a house where the house inside overflowed with bookcases, and my dad lined one wall of the garage with more bookcases, floor to ceiling. I learned early on that people who read, and read a lot, know things I want to know about. I tend to gravitate to folks like this, and they are often older than me.
Robert and Lillian are in the book and manuscript business. The first time I ventured out to their office with Robert one day, he couldn’t wait to show me several special manuscripts they had collected. These were things that would eventually end up in special collections or university libraries. A letter from a Lincoln contemporary, treatises on early American agricultural practices and poetry from lesser-known New England writers were all in his purview. His excitement was palpable and, with the green, lush countryside surrounding the house, you felt like Winnie Pooh was showing you his honey pots.
People don’t realize it, but this is the stuff of greatness. I can hear Lillian cackle at that, but it’s true. Like Robert’s old mandolin, the old songs he sang and the old tunes he played, all this history stuff matters. It just takes the right people to care about it enough to not let it slip away.
Which brings me to his passion that brought us together in the first place: music. As you might expect, Robert had a broad appreciation of music with respect to genres. But he was a devoted listener and practitioner of old-time and bluegrass music. I mean the real stuff, lonesome or hard-driving, danceable, gritty, raw and daring. And he loved to sing. He wrote songs and tunes, and some very good ones. I recorded one of his tunes, Louisville Suite. (As we like to say, “it’s a mighty fine number.”) I was honored that he liked some of my songs. It wasn’t long after I first met Robert and Lillian that we started to get together for informal music sessions. I was surprised to find they had learned the lyrics and parts to a number of my songs and were ready to sing them! That’s another example of joy that money can’t buy.
Robert loved the island of Crete, and he and Lillian traveled numerous times over the years. My own experience living in and traveling periodically to Italy and Betsy’s own work as an anthropologist in Italy was always of interest to Robert. When we would get together, there was generally a lot of talk, debriefing on our latest travels and current projects– and our experiences of having a deep connection with people and places outside our own country. It is clear to me that the gentle and engaging Robert that we all knew here at home was the same one known to his friends in Crete.
When I received word that Robert had passed away, I looked outside my window and saw the wind stirring the tree limbs and rustling the early buds now on display. Being around Robert Fraker was always reaffirmation that the best things in life are right in front of you, to nurture and be nurtured by and to be forever grateful for.
I’m heartbroken but ever so thankful to have had Robert in my life.