Hartsbrook cofounder Dreier recalled for intellect, comedy, compassion

  • Olivia Stokes Dreier, Alexander Dreier’s widow, is seen at the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst, where she is executive director, on May 9. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alexander Dreier CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2019 6:43:15 PM

Alexander Dreier — a comic, poet, farmer, local psychotherapist and co-founder of the Hartsbrook School in Hadley who died June 23 — was recalled last week as a man with an imaginative sense of humor and an unparalleled wit.

Dreier, who was 70, passed away due to complications of Lewy Body Dementia, a disease similar to Parkinson’s, at his home in Belchertown. He was remembered by friends and family as a compassionate person who captivated others with acts of genuine kindness.

“He had a lively presence,” said Olivia Dreier, 68, his wife of 43 years. “He could make anybody laugh in pretty much any situation.”

Dreier was a scholar of anthroposophy, a philosophical school of thought that theorizes the existence of a spiritual world accessible to humans. He attended Antioch College in Ohio and then Emerson College in England with his wife, where he studied biodynamic farming.

Upon returning to the United States, Dreier helped run the organic farm at Gould Farm in Monterey, an independent therapeutic community for those with mental health challenges. When Dreier and his wife moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1982, he became involved in a small playgroup for his children that would eventually become the Hartsbrook School.

“We joined forces and helped start the school,” Olivia Dreier said.

Hartsbrook is a Waldorf School, a type of educational system based around anthroposophy. Along with serving on the school’s board of directors, Dreier and his wife committed half of their own farmland to build the school’s campus in Hadley. In 2012, the couple protected the remaining 33 acres of the farm with an Agricultural Preservation Restriction and donated it to the school for its land stewardship program.

Jan Baudendistel, 64, of Pelham, was a teacher at the Hartsbrook School who met Dreier in 1987. Baudendistel said Dreier had an immaculate understanding of the school’s educational philosophy.

“It was exceedingly inspiring to me as a new Waldorf teacher just to see the dynamism of the direction and the freshness that [he] brought,” Baudendistel said.

Heide Zajonc, another founding member of Hartsbrook, said Dreier maintained a commitment to the educational mission while serving as treasurer and later board president at the school.

“He always stood ready to help at nodal points in the school’s development,” Zajonc wrote in an email.

Dreier, who had enrolled in a doctoral program in counseling psychology at the Harvard School of Education, never finished his dissertation. Instead, he helped start Windhorse Integrative Mental Health in Northampton, a holistic support service for those with mental health challenges.

Many knew Dreier for his sense of humor and love for comedy. A founding member of the improv troupe The Villa Jidiots, Dreier and his friends would perform at venues across the Pioneer Valley.

“He was the perfect jester,” said Kelsey Flynn, 48, of Northampton, a member of The Villa Jidiots. “He could take what was the absurdity of something and point it out in a way that the people in power would also laugh at.”

One of the most memorable of his comedic bits was a recurring German character named “Herr Dreier,” where he would monologue and crack jokes in an accent.

“It would be hilarious and cohesive,” said Cathy McNally, 63, Northampton, another member of The Villa Jidiots. “He would lecture on esoteric subjects and people would love it.”

McNally said Dreier was infatuated with language — always trying to make up silly puns for a laugh. In fact, he was the one to coin the name “Villa Jidiots,” she said.

“He was kind of an alchemist with language — turning it into comedy,” McNally said.

At his core, Dreier was a talented poet. If comedy reflected his humor, then his poetry revealed his seriousness. Pat Schneider, 85, of Amherst, worked with Dreier on his writing while she was involved with Amherst Artists and Writers in the 1990s.

“His writing was … more than just funny,” Schneider said. “It could be strange in ways that were deeply moving.”

According to his friends and family, Dreier was deeply intellectual. He diagnosed his disease in 2011 before visiting any clinic by searching his symptoms on what he jokingly called “Dr. Google.” After confirming his ailment, Dreier was committed to learning everything about his disease.

Drier wrote a book of poetry in 2016 titled “The Brain is a Boundary: A Journey in Poems to the Borderlines of Lewy Body Dementia.” In it, he wrote poems based on his experiences with his disease.

“It was unfettered imagination let loose,” Olivia Dreier said.

His poetry and comedy were fundamentally intertwined, Flynn said.

“He was a really a poet at heart and the way it would come out in his comedy was so brilliant,” she said.

For the remaining year of Dreier’s life, a group of 10 neighbors volunteered to take turns helping care for him. Along with paid professional help, these volunteers would liven up the atmosphere and keep him company.

Edwina Cruise, 75, of Belchertown, a professor emerita of Russian at Mount Holyoke College, visited often during this time. Cruise said she would try to talk with him to keep him alert.

One particular moment, she recalled, was when she brought over “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” to read to Dreier. When she asked him which she should read, Dreier responded with, “Perhaps just not at this moment.”

“It was his extraordinary refusal and the politeness of it that totally astonished me,” she said. “I think of that moment so often because that’s the essence of [him].”

Dreier is survived by his wife and their two sons, Matthew, 40, and Lucas, 38.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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