I saved an obituary in my blog "idea book" from late last year. Frank Frese died last December at the age of 86. Frese was a fourth generation blacksmith who spent most of his life in Chicago. A blacksmith? In Chicago? That alone is worth headlines.
I find myself marveling at his picture (above) sitting over one of his hand-made canoes. Why? I'm the son of an engineer but can barely hammer a nail. The idea that anyone could make their own canoe is as foreign to me as sewing my own wardrobe. I loved the Ray Rayner show as a kid precisely because he was so awful with the art projects. In fact, if left for a weekend to build a canoe you would find me asleep in a pile of splintered wood.
I love the fact that Ralph Frese dedicated his life to preserving wildlife and getting people outdoors to enjoy Illinois rivers. In 2007 a portion of the Chicago River was named the Ralph Frese river trail.
It's easy in a city like Chicago to get lost in the notion that concrete and skyscrapers should dominate the landscape. I often pause with one of my kids, crouched down with them over the sidewalk, my eyes straining to view whatever bug they have come across (my 2-year old calls all bugs and insects "ladybugs").
I am always struck by someone who appears to live the life they want, on their terms, in a world where half of Americans hate their jobs. Ralph Frese led a simple life in a complex urban center.
A favorite memory of mine is an early date with my (now) wife spent canoeing on the canal outside of Chicago. On a a warm spring day we paddled down the Chicago River, enjoying a slice of the city rarely seen.
I'm sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Ralph Frese; sorry that I never had the opportunity to bring my son's Cub Scout pack out for a visit, as Frese also designed canoes for scouts.
Winter will soon turn to spring and I will remember Ralph Frese with a return trip along the river, family in tow.
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