Lawrence University is mourning the passing of retired English professor Peter Fritzell, a mainstay of the Lawrence faculty from the mid-1960s through the early 2000s. His creativity, passion for teaching, exuberant personality, and love of outdoor adventure made him a beloved figure on campus.
He died at home in Appleton on Dec. 7. He was 81.
Former students and colleagues are sharing stories of his enduring commitment to the students he taught and to Lawrence. Karen Hoffmann ’87, associate professor of English, had the good fortune of getting to know Fritzell as both a student and a colleague.
“He was deeply committed to his work at Lawrence and to his students as individuals,” she said. “His courses in American literature, known for their depth of inquiry, consistently stretched students’ thinking. Being in a ‘Fritzell class’ was an intellectually exciting, sometimes baffling, but always meaningful experience that brought about paradigm shifts for many of us students.”
Fritzell’s connections with his students ran so deep that a former student, Jason Spaeth ’92, and his wife, Anne, recently established an endowed scholarship fund at Lawrence in his name. Fritzell spread the word about the scholarship in a letter to former students in which he celebrated their successes and the ongoing possibilities of a liberal arts education.
In 1988, Fritzell was given Lawrence’s University Award for Excellence in Teaching, among the highest honors for a Lawrence faculty member. In presenting the honor, then-Lawrence President Richard Warch referred to Fritzell as a “scholar in the field of American literature, bedecked in gumboots, outfitted with philosophy, Freud, and Fritzellian originality, guided by a compass set on the polestar of excellence.”
During his time at Lawrence, he was the first to hold the endowed title of Patricia Hamar Boldt Professor of Liberal Studies. He served as chair of the English Department and spent time as director of Lawrence’s London Centre.
He was awarded two year-long fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, during one of which he served as a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. He wrote and published numerous reviews, articles, and essays on 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th-century American literature, including a widely shared essay on Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
Experiencing the outdoors and writing about nature became a lifelong passion. Fritzell was the only literary scholar invited to participate in the first National Symposium on Wetlands in 1978. He contributed a chapter to the book that resulted from that symposium. In 1982-83, he contributed a lecture to the symposium on the Social and Environmental History of the Great Lakes Forest, and a chapter to the book that resulted from it.
In 1990, he published his own scholarly book, Nature Writing and America: Essays Upon a Cultural Type.
In 1999, the English Department of his undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Dakota, awarded him the Maxwell Anderson Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement in Arts and Letters.
Fritzell continued to interact regularly with Lawrence well after his retirement.
“As a colleague, Peter kept his focus on the well-being of the university overall, especially given his belief in the expansive potential of liberal arts education,” Hoffmann said. “His compassion, wisdom, and unique sense of humor have touched so many of us. The passing of Peter Fritzell is a great loss for the Lawrence community, but he had a profound influence on many students that will be lasting.”
Fritzell is survived by his wife of 59 years, Marlys, sons Peter Jr. (Susan) and John (Dawn) and four grandchildren. The family has asked that any contributions go to the Peter A. Fritzell Endowed Scholarship Fund at Lawrence University (Office of Development, 711 E. Boldt Way, Appleton, WI 54911) or to a charity of one’s choosing. A celebration of Peter’s life will be held at a future date.