Donald K. Fry, known to friends as “Don Fry,” died Monday in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the age of 84. He had been declining from the effects of Lewy body dementia, which aggressively stole from him his physical energy and then his brilliant mind.
I got the news from his son Jason, a fine writer and teacher in his own right. He said that his father had died peacefully with his wife Joan nearby. They had been talking about two of their passions: dogs and cats.
Don was arguably the most well-traveled and, in that respect, most influential writing coach of the last 30 years. He has left a legacy of craft and care in newsrooms and schools all over America, but also across the globe in places like Denmark, South Africa, and Singapore.
A man who once dreamed of being an Air Force pilot — his vision set him back — was ready to take the next flight out of town, or out of the country, to encourage writers and to share ideas about the writing process, about what he called “radical clarity” in prose, and especially to encourage editors to work in closer collaboration with writers.
When Don and I began to imagine a book that would become “Coaching Writers: Reporters and Editors Working Together,” we first looked for other books that covered what he called “the human side of editing.” One ink-stained wretch offered: “I thought editing had no human side.”
It might seem that way if you had read earlier books on the editing craft. Some treated editing as if it required performing autopsies on cadavers. Examples of stories might come without bylines, as if the hopes, dreams, aspirations, virtues, and, yes, vices of the writer did not matter, or did not have to be taken into account.
Together we were determined to change that paradigm, and with the help and encouragement of many others, we kinda did.
By some measures, ours was an unlikely friendship. It began oddly enough. I had just graduated from college in June 1970, only to be set back by a severe case of mononucleosis. I should have delayed my graduate education for a while, but I was determined to press ahead. I would start courses at Stony Brook University on Long Island, but it would mean I would have to study for a month from home.
Don was the only one of four professors who took the time to send me the stuff I needed to get to work. When I thanked him in person for the class in early English poetry, I told him his assignments inspired me to get better. “Gee,” he said with a laugh I would hear a thousand times, “that stuff would make most students sick.”
So it began. Here are things that might interest you about Don, his work, and our friendship.
- He was an Eagle Scout. (I was a Cub Scout.)
- After graduating from Duke and after a stint in the Navy, Don went to grad school at Berkeley. There he would meet and marry Joan Baker, an archaeologist. Hers was a literary family. Don’s new father-in-law, Howard Baker, was an influential Shakespeare scholar; his mother-in-law, Dorothy Baker, was a novelist of the Jazz Age. Her novel “Young Man with a Horn” provided the story for Kirk Douglas’s first movie.
- Don’s only son, Jason Fry, has worked as a writer, editor, and sports blogger, but has attached himself as an author to the Star Wars opus and has written original space fiction under the title of “Jupiter Pirates.”
- Don was enormously popular with food journalists. I’ve heard from a number of them today who were effusive in their praise of him. He clearly understood their aspirations, helped them find noble examples, and coached them in both craft and confidence.
- He could build anything, or take it apart. From a kit, he built a sports car. For his scholarship and teaching on Old English and Norse poetry, he would build replicas of items found in famous ship burials — including a stringed instrument used by poets of the year 1,000.
- I followed Don into the teaching of English literature at the collegiate level. But when I drifted by accident into the world of journalism, he followed me to the Poynter Institute. Imagine for a moment being one of the most important literary scholars in your field who achieves escape velocity and makes his mark a second time in quite a different discipline. That was Don.
- When Pizza Hut had lunch buffets, Don and I wore it out. It was in that setting that we would discuss the journalism of the day, chat about what new thing we learned about storytelling. It was there we designed most of our programs, including the National Writers Workshops, where, over a decade, as many as 50,000 aspiring writers came to cities across the country to hang out with some of the best in the business.
- It was at Pizza Hut — the breadsticks were great! — that I challenged Don to help me define what people meant when they talked about the “voice of the writer.” It wasn’t long before he came up with a definition that I have used to this day: “Voice is the sum of all writing strategies that creates the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page or the screen.”
I realize that this tribute has more than a whiff of eulogy to it, so I have to follow my own rule: No one will believe a thing I say unless I am willing to show the crack in the wall, the stain on the ceiling.
Don was a notorious exaggerator. He would try to blow something up for dramatic effect, not concerned about the shrapnel. A silly example was his crusade to ban the dash from journalistic writing. “Avoid the dash!” became a mantra. What he really meant was “Learn how to use the damn dash,” or, “Hey, toss in a semicolon once in a while; it won’t kill ya.”
On one unfortunate occasion, he critiqued a student at a Poynter seminar for what he perceived was overuse of the tape recorder. He had been overinfluenced by recent cases in which the technology had failed a reporter. But his doctrinaire assertion had more than embarrassed the student, a fact he would have regretted had he known about it.
Don’s adventurous spirit led to tensions at Poynter, where leaders wanted to see more of him on the homefront. He was stubborn about what he wanted to do. That led to his departure, the most disappointing day in my many years at the institute.
His imperfections did not stop him from influencing countless journalists, including then newspaper columnist Mary Jo Melone of the St. Petersburg Times, whose message to me after the news of Don’s death can stand for the many others I have received.
“I cried when I told my writing students today that the man who had taught me to be a better writer had died. Don was such a wonderful man, with the ability to listen to this writer’s struggles and then guide her out of them and all the way home. This was when I was a columnist. He treated everything I said with the greatest seriousness and responded with both clarity and humor. He was brilliant — and the best.”
I remember my final conversation with Don early this year, and it will remain a lasting memory. To paraphrase my mom, who loved Don, you could tell that his strength was fading in a nursing home, where he could not receive visitors because of COVID-19, but he had “not yet lost his marbles.”
I told him two things that I thought would interest him, and they did.
I read to him from a new translation of the Old English epic poem “Beowulf.” Remember that Don had been one of the world’s best Beowulf scholars and had edited a famous collection of critical essays on the work.
This translation by Maria Dahvana Headley was the feminist punk rock version of the tale. Don laughed with delight at the imaginative liberties Headley took with the original text, as in this alliterative description of the main monster: “Grendel was the name of this woe-walker, Unlucky, f***ed by Fate.”
At about that time, I had seen a movie on Netflix called “The Dig.” Set in the English countryside just before World War II, it stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. It is a story I knew well from Don’s own telling of it 50 years ago. In a place called Sutton Hoo, a wealthy landowner Edith Pretty hires amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate some mounds that are on her property.
The result will be an excavation of one of the most valuable discoveries in English history: the ship burial of an unknown Anglo-Saxon king, filled with gold treasures and priceless artifacts that reveal a culture from a thousand years ago that was in no way shrouded in the Dark Ages. It was a culture of dreamers, and storytellers, and shapers. In the story, and in life, Edith Pretty, a widow, was dying of cancer, but not before she was able to lie next to her son near the ship burial and look up at the stars, connecting her life with a millennium of English history.
Don Fry was, for the most part, a rationalist with no religious affiliations or spiritual suspicions. But he liked this idea that I had offered him in my own reading of Beowulf. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, God the creator is described as the “Shaper” of the world. The King, named Hrothgar, is the “shaper” of the great hall, a seedbed of civilization. In that hall, a poet — a “scop” or shaper — creates the stories of warriors, dragons, treasures, monsters, kings and queens.
I know one thing for sure. Don shaped me.
Correction: Fry did a stint in the Navy.