×

Jim Kenyon: A farewell to Jack Fraser

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A flag flies between trucks from the Norwich and Hanover Fire Departments for the casket of Jack Fraser to pass under before his funeral service at the Norwich Congregational Church in Norwich, Vt., on Monday, April 29, 2019. Fraser worked for the Norwich Fire Department for a total of 51 years, 12 of them as Fire Chief. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Photographed on June 18, 2009, Jack Fraser retired on May 31 after 37 years working at Dan & Whit's general store in Norwich, Vt. Fraser, who took over the store with his brother George from their father Dan and business partner Whitney Hicks in 1992, would still come to work one night a week to stay involved with the store and pass on his knowledge and experience. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Members of the Norwich Fire Department salute as the casket of Jack Fraser is carried into his funeral service at the Norwich Congregational Church in Norwich, Vt., on Monday, April 29, 2019. Fraser worked for the Norwich Fire Department for a total of 51 years, 12 of them as Fire Chief. "I worked at Dan & Whit's when I was in high school, so I knew Jack a long, long time," said Fire Capt. Peter Griggs, left. "Tough loss." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A sign announces the temporary closure of Dan & Whit’s General Store for the funeral service of co-owner Jack Fraser in Norwich, Vt., on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, April 30, 2019

At 11 o’clock on Monday morning, 12-year-old Jack Bagley marched down the center aisle of the Norwich Congregational Church with his grandfather’s fire helmet in his outstretched arms.

He was flanked by old-time Norwich residents who had filed into the 200-year-old church in the center of town until nearly every pew was filled and the balcony’s wood benches had absorbed the overflow. Dressed in crisp white shirts, dark trousers and ties, more than a dozen men and women of the volunteer Norwich Fire Department lined the church’s outer walls.

They had come, the Rev. Mary Brownlow said, to honor Howard “Jack” Fraser’s “deep roots to his community and deep connections with so many people in town.”

Fraser died on April 22 following a lengthy illness. He was 81.

Until his retirement in 2009, Fraser could be found most days at Dan & Whit’s General Store, the family business — and Norwich institution — that he ran for decades with his younger brother, George.

Jack Fraser handled the store’s nuts and bolts, literally. From his workbench near the back of the store, Fraser was customers’ go-to source for anything hardware.

But he could put down his shopkeeper’s apron in a flash, if duty called. Fraser joined the town’s volunteer fire department as a teenager and put in more than 50 years — the last 11 years as chief — before retiring in 2006.

“That’s 50 years of responding to emergencies in the middle of the night, or in terrible weather, or during inconvenient times impacting work and family,” Deputy Chief Matt Swett said. “That’s 50 years of putting himself at risk to help others.”

Fraser “helped to fundamentally change” the department, Swett said. He expanded firefighters’ training and pushed to modernize equipment, including replacing three fire trucks with newer models. Fraser made firefighting “much safer for us and the town,” Swett said.

At Monday’s memorial service, Fraser’s son-in-law Bryan Bagley talked about visiting Norwich when he and Fraser’s daughter Wendy, both in the military, were stationed outside of Boston. While driving the town’s back roads, Bagley noticed that people didn’t seem particularly friendly. He chalked up the scowls to his car’s Massachusetts license plate.

One day, however, he borrowed his father-in-law’s red Ford pickup — with its green Vermont license plate. The drivers of oncoming vehicles perked up in their seats to give a hearty wave. But when they saw that it wasn’t Fraser behind the wheel, they looked almost disappointed.

“It was then that I understood how much Jack meant to his community,” Bagley said. “I knew it wasn’t the license plate, it was the man.”

Fraser earned the respect of his Norwich neighbors — and far beyond — early on. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1960, Fraser went on active duty with the Army for a dozen years. As an Army Ranger, an elite special operations force, Fraser was trekking through the mountains of Vietnam on monthlong reconnaissance missions long before U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia became well publicized.

Fraser served two tours of Vietnam, earning a bronze star for all-around bravery.

“They don’t hand out those lightly,” said Jim Harlow, commander of Norwich’s American Legion Post 8. Fraser served an additional 18 years in the Army Reserve, retiring at the rank of colonel in 1990.

George Fraser, four years younger than his brother, also served two tours in Vietnam as a fixed-wing and helicopter pilot after graduating from UVM. The Frasers’ brother Richard served in the military as well. “Thankfully, we all came home, each of us a little different,” wrote Richard Fraser in a piece read by his son Jeff at Monday’s service.

In the early 1970s, Jack and George assumed daily operations of Dan & Whit’s.

“We will remember Jack as always helpful, always patient, and always finding a sense of humor even about things that bothered him,” Norwich resident Rita Severinghaus wrote in Ricker Funeral Home’s online guestbook. “John, my husband, would often wander to the back of the store, knowing he did not need anything there. It was always a pleasure to find Jack at his workstation and chat for a few minutes.”

Fraser’s obituary mentioned that in his “spare time,” he “loved to be in the woods — cutting down trees, operating his sawmill, making maple syrup and tending to his garden. A perfect day included felling trees with son-in-law Doug Henry, driving his John Deere tractor with his grandson and eating maple cookies.”

After the death of his wife, Sylvia, Fraser remarried in 2005. Fraser and Jean Cutler had dated at UVM, but the relationship ended before he headed off to the Army and a pending war.

In January 2005, Fraser contacted UVM’s alumni relations office in hopes of tracking down Cutler. (Fraser’s family joked that he was apparently unaware that email could be used for the same purpose.) It took a few weeks, but Fraser and Cutler, who had married but later raised her two children as a single mother, were able to connect.

They married about nine months later. Fraser preferred to stay close to home, but Jean persuaded him to fly out west to visit family. After which, he declared, “I will never get on another plane.”

Family members who had moved away learned to come to him. Every summer, Wendy and Bryan Bagley made the trip from their home in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was a time for Fraser and his grandson — and namesake — Jack to bond while doing the little things together.

At an early age, Jack, now a sixth-grader, said his grandfather “let me drive his tractor” and tag along while he worked in the vegetable garden.

In his lifetime, Jack Fraser found ways to serve his country, his community and his family. It’s hard to imagine doing any better than that.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.