The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

A celebration of friendship, Robert Frost and American poetry

The 11th annual celebration of American poetry gave attendees a taste of all things Robert Frost
Photo by Elyse Braun
Miss Chris spoke about her recollection of the friendship between her late husband and Robert Frost.

The Frederick and Joan Christopherson Schmidt Robert Frost Celebration of American Poetry was held in Flesch Family Welcome Center on Thursday, April 11. This is an annual event in its eleventh year at UW-Eau Claire. 

The event centers around a collection donated to the McIntyre Library Special Collections and Archives that contains everything from books to holiday cards and letters that are all correlated in one particular way: through Robert Frost. Particularly, through a friendship a former Wisconsin resident had with Frost himself.

The collection was donated to the university by Joan Christopherson Smith, known by most as “Miss Chris,” a name she got after her two stints on Wisconsin Public Television with children’s shows “Let’s Talk It Over with Miss Chris” and “Fairy Tales from Around the World” in the 1950s and ‘60s. She later taught in schools for the majority of her remaining career.

Miss Chris met her husband, Frederick “Fritz” Schmidt, in Milwaukee teaching art to children. Schmidt was a close friend of renowned American poet Robert Frost. The pair met at Dartmouth College in the 1940s, Schmidt a student and avid collector of Frost’s work and Frost a Tickner Fellow working at the university. Frost taught between 1943 and 1949.

A number of Fritz’s materials donated to McIntyre Library Archives were on display, some having been inscribed by Robert Frost himself. (Photo by Elyse Braun)

“Fritz was a very shy seventeen-year old at Dartmouth,” Miss Chris said. “One day the librarian said, ‘Hey Fritz, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ It was Robert Frost.”

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Greg Kocken, head of Special Collections and Archives, said the collection stems from the long friendship between Frost and Schmidt.

“The two became quick acquaintances,” Kocken said. “From the stories I’ve heard, the two would start to traverse campus together ang go on long walks and be able to talk about all of these things they had in common.”

Schmidt was called up for service during World War II, but his friendship with Frost did not cease.

“Robert Frost wrote to Fritz’s parents and said, ‘Would you send me his books?’” Kocken said. “During the course of the war, Robert Frost would occasionally open up one of Fritz’s books, write some poetry inside the front cover, sign it and after the war had concluded he sent the whole lot.”

About 20 books were inscribed by Frost, most of which were then donated to the university.

After his passing in 2005, Miss Chris was encouraged to donate her late husband’s rare collection of Robert Frost by Eau Claire resident Dr. Mark H. Attermeier, next-door neighbor of Miss Chris’ sister, to ensure that they would do more than collect dust. Taking his advice, Miss Chris decided on UW-Eau Claire as the right place to donate the collection to.

One condition of her donation was that Miss Chris requested that the collection, as well as American poetry itself, be celebrated every year. At 93, she still drives herself from Milwaukee to Eau Claire to attend.

“Every year we have a celebration of American poetry,” Kocken said.

Michele Olson, director of Stewardship and Planned Giving, helps to coordinate this event when it is time to be held.

“I’m mostly the coordinator of the logistical things, planning the event,” Olson said. “We work together planning the event, planning the logistics, data and time, readers. That sort of thing.”

Olson said that, in being a liberal arts university, this event is just one way that students can learn something new.

“Learning doesn’t just happen through a book, through a computer, through math. There’s other ways of learning that the liberal arts education opportunity encompasses,” Olson said.

The event was introduced and brought to a close by Max Garland, former UW-Eau Claire English professor and Poet Laureate of Wisconsin in 2013 and 2014.

Garland is also a friend of Miss Chris. As a testament to their friendship, Garland greeted Miss Chris with the only living daffodil from his garden, or as he liked to say, he brought her his “entire garden.”

Garland and others made their way to the front podium to read select poems, some by Robert Frost, some by other renowned poets and even some original. 

After all had finished their readings, Miss Chris shared her knowledge of the friendship between her late husband Fritz and Frost.

“They both loved nature, they both were a little shy and they both wanted a better world,” Miss Chris said. “They both wanted to make it.”

Miss Chris then read Frost’s “Stopped by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She shared her hopes for the future, even ones she may not live to see.

“I truly wish I were young again. I have so much to do,” Miss Chris said. “Maybe this will be the last time [I attend], you never know.”

An avid believer in environmental preservation herself, Miss Chris left the group with one piece of advice.

“We have work to do,” Miss Chris said.

Braun can be reached at [email protected].

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