A Life: Frances Nye, 1923-2013; ‘She Was a Sharp-Tongued Shrink Who Preached Peace and Justice’
Fran Nye on the Green in Norwich with her husband, Bob, who died in 2012, during Norwich's 250th celebration in 2011. (Family photograph)
Fran Nye, of Norwich, in her office during the 1970s. Nye was a psychiatrist at the VA Medical Center who worked with Vietnam veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Courtesy photograph)
Norwich — Fran Nye apparently didn’t put much stock in the slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ She was capable and comfortable thinking — and acting — on both levels.
From helping establish the library in Norwich’s elementary school to visiting remote regions of war-torn Nicaragua on grassroots peacekeeping missions, Nye was a strong voice for a variety of social causes in the Upper Valley and beyond.
She died Nov. 23, 2013, from conditions associated with chronic heart and lung disease. Nye was 90.
“She was direct; always engaging, inquisitive and hospitable. Just not so much to the rich and powerful,” said her son Chris, of Fairbanks, Alaska, at a Dec. 15 memorial service for his mother at Norwich Congregational Church.
Nye was a woman ahead of her time, graduating from Cornell Medical School in 1947 at age 23.
“She became a doctor at a time when only 4 percent of doctors were women,” said Chris Nye.
She met her future husband, Bob, while both were medical interns in Rochester, N.Y. In 1956, Bob Nye was recruited to join the faculty at what was then Dartmouth Medical School. Upon arriving in the Upper Valley, the couple and three sons, David, Chris and Peter, moved into a rambling two-story house with a barn, across the street from Norwich’s elementary school and next door to the Congregational church.
“Norwich was a different place then,” recalled Peter Gosselin, who grew up with the Nyes’ sons. At Fran Nye’s memorial service, he mentioned a dilapidated house with peeling paint where the town’s post office now stands.
“It was not the only house in the village that looked that way,” said Gosselin.
Now one of the state’s wealthiest communities, it’s hard to imagine that Norwich’s elementary school didn’t have a library in 1960. Nye was one of the library’s “founding mothers,” setting up a portable cart in the principal’s office. The Norwich Women’s Club raised money to buy new books to fill the cart.
Later, when the library moved into a converted classroom, Bob Nye built the shelves that still holds the library’s nonfiction collection. It was a fitting tribute to his wife, who was a voracious reader of politics, history and religion.
“She didn’t read novels,” said Chris Nye. “She didn’t understand why she would want to spend her time reading books that weren’t quite true.”
In 1972, she joined the psychiatry staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction. She worked with Vietnam War veterans who had to “live with the aftermath of being sent to an outrageous war,” she wrote years later in a letter to the Valley News’ Forum.
As a psychiatrist, she talked often with Vietnam veterans about the war experiences that were the root of their nightmares and flashbacks.
“I found myself telling these haunted men that they did what they had been trained to do, and that as a citizen of a democracy whose government had gotten us embroiled in a foreign conflict that was none of our business, I needed to share their shame and guilt,” she wrote in May 2001.
“She really got radicalized in the Vietnam War-era,” said her son Peter, of Berkeley, Calif.
Forty years later, Nye was still a bit of a rabble-rouser. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, she joined an anti-war protest held on Ledyard Bridge, the span that connects Norwich and Hanover. She took a bus to Washington, D.C., to participate in a much larger protest.
Over the years, she’d had plenty of practice in the anti-war movement. In 1984, Nye and her husband traveled to Nicaragua with a contingent from Witness for Peace, a national grassroots network of nonviolent activists. The group, founded in 1983 as the Contra War raged in Nicaragua, sent U.S. citizens to “accompany the Nicaraguan people in war zones and to document the ‘human face’ of the (U.S. government’s) military policy” in the Latin American country, according to its website.
Nye returned from the trip, her first of several to Nicaragua, more convinced than ever that Americans needed to speak out when they disagreed with their government’s policies, both home and abroad. A sign proclaiming “War is Not the Answer” continues to hang from the front porch of the Nyes’ home in downtown Norwich.
“She was a sharp-tongued shrink who preached peace and justice,” said Gosselin, a senior healthcare analyst with Bloomberg Government, a web-based information service, and a former chief economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
It was fitting that Nye lived next door to a church. Her home was a sanctuary where people could go for “healing, wisdom and transformation,” said James Todhunter, a former pastor at Norwich Congregational Church.
“She made her house almost as much a meeting place as the town hall,” said Gosselin. At mealtime, she could “always squeeze one more person at the dining room table.”
The Nyes opened their home to high school and college students in need of a place to sleep or just hang out.
“Sometimes, it was these kids’ first real, stable family,” said Gosselin.
At the memorial service, a woman talked about growing up in Norwich and having the Nyes for neighbors. The Nyes raised chickens and as a girl she sold their eggs at a stand on Main Street, in full view of tourists making their way through town. Fran Nye gave her a pet chicken to hold.
“New Yorkers would come a long and take my picture,” she said.
Nye kept the cash made from the egg-selling enterprise in a jar on a shelf in her kitchen. Once, when no one was around, the girl took the money from the jar to buy candy at Dan & Whit’s General Store. When the cash was discovered missing, the girl waited for Nye to confront her.
“She never said anything,” the woman recalled. “I was so grateful for her silence.”
The Nyes, married for 64 years, were Sunday morning regulars at Norwich Congregational. Their pew was near the front, a few rows from the organ.
After a service had ended, organist Tacy Colaiacomo made it a point to say hello. But Fran Nye couldn’t chat for long.
“I gotta go,” she’d say. “I have to make Bob his omelet.”
Colaiacomo later learned that “she made him an omelet every Sunday after church.”
Fran Nye had been in declining health for a while before her husband’s death in October 2012, but she didn’t let on.
Said Gosselin, “She made sure she didn’t die before Bob, and leave him alone.”
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.