Guest columnist John Stifler: Saying goodbye to longtime journalist Fred Contrada

  • Frank Contrada. SUBMITTED PHOTO—

Published: 11/9/2018 8:01:12 AM

​​​​​​​By JOHN STIFLER  

 

One of the best things that ever happened to the Daily Hampshire Gazette is that for 30 years the Springfield Republican, the competition, had Fred Contrada as one of its reporters. Fred was serious and intense in his pursuit of news stories, holding to a professional standard that intimidated novice reporters and earned respect from his peers. I know many former Gazette reporters whom he kept on their toes. The best ones knew they were in good company with him.

Fred died last Tuesday, after a two-year struggle with progressive supranuclear palsy. I have lost a remarkable friend, and the Valley has lost one of its most original writers.

Fred’s life as a writer was an adventure inspired by a combination of nerve and common sense. Nerve? One night at Holy Cross, where he was in college, he and some fellow devotees of Salvador Dali, who knew that the great Spanish surrealist was currently in New York, phoned Dali and asked to meet him. “You come on Thursday” was Dali’s reply. When they drove to New York and arrived at Dali’s hotel room, he served them sherry.

Fred’s subsequent adventures were American classics. Hitching to New Orleans and hanging out in juke joints. Picking fruit in Oregon orchards. Writing for alternative press. Hiking on glaciers in the Northern Cascades. Climbing in the Andes. And raising a family in Florence, Massachusetts.

His family invited me to write a few words to him, the last things I had a chance to say to him. Here’s most of it:

Fred, for years I have followed your journeys. I’ve read your newspaper columns, I have read half a dozen of your novel manuscripts — very different from your newspaper writing — and I have spent time with the characters who inhabit places you have seen or imagined. Dorchester Avenue in Boston, where you went to Boston College High School, comes to mind. So does San Francisco, where you found your place in that great literary beat. Jack Kerouac would buy you a beer and think it was money well spent.

Locally, you’ve covered some of the least pleasant stories that went to print. The pedophile rapist, the opioid addicts. You could always handle a grubby job, and you never made the mistake of thinking it was fun to do so. As a refreshing balance, you wrote columns about Italian food, Portuguese fado songs, backpacking.

Now you have gone on another adventure. I don’t know how clear the sky ahead of you seems. Is it blue, with unlimited visibility? Is it nighttime, with only a flashlight with old batteries to light the way? Are you hiking through an early afternoon snowfall that is turning into a whiteout? Whatever it is, I sense you moving forward and taking the rest of us along with you, our imaginations enriched by your steady voice.

Never mind if, this time, you are not actually speaking aloud, and never mind if you are not directing your experience into keys at your fingertips. This time, if you don’t say anything we are still with you. We can imagine another Fred story, right now, imagine how you might be telling it.

Your low-key way of speaking was an asset in your journalistic trade. No hype in it, ever. Lots of curiosity, ample skepticism, high work ethic and an ability to imagine alternatives to standard theories about writing, and about the world. Add up those qualities and you’ve got a person of exceptional substance. Many more elements made you up; everyone who knew you knows there were too many to count.

To count. I think of someone counting peaches in a basket somewhere in Oregon, or trying to count salmon swimming up a fish ladder. You’ve spent a lot of time in fresh water hereabouts; are you turning around and heading toward the ocean now?

Fred, I realize the foregoing gets perhaps a touch too metaphorical at moments. Forgive me. I think you know that all I’m really trying to say is how much so many people have appreciated you, and how well deserved is the admiration that readers have felt for your stories.

You are on a journey now in which you are ahead of me and where you will discover some new territory before I get to it. If there’s anything you can tell any of us about what it looks like up ahead, go ahead and let us know; if you don’t say anything, we’ll know you figure there’s nothing you need to explain.

John Stifler is an occasional Gazette columnist and a former UMass writing teacher who lives in Florence. Stifler and longtime TV newsman Ray Hershel will remember Fred Contrada Friday morning between 6-9 on WHMP with Bob Flaherty.


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