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Late poet Fischer remembered as 'through and through an artist'

July 07, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Frederick Ethan Fischer
Frederick Ethan Fischer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Frederick Ethan Fischer’s work showed in his poetry and writings, and was heard on his radio broadcasts, in his Shepherd University classroom and by children sitting on the grass.

Fischer, better known as Ethan, died June 17 at his home in Bolivar, W.Va., after a year-and-a-half bout with cancer. He was 69.

A memorial service will be Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church at Washington and King streets. It will be followed by a procession down Washington Street to Carlos Niederhauser’s and Liz Wheeler’s home at 202 S. Princess St., where a reception will be held.

“For the last 20 years,” said his wife, Ursula “Ushi” Nottnagel, “Ethan taught poetry, English and creative writing as an adjunct professor at Shepherd University. He loved writing poetry and introduced it to children of all ages. He was an accomplished poet and writer.”

If Fischer had any vanity, it was over his hats.

“He had 15 or 20 of them and he always knew which one he was going to wear that day and who gave it to him,” Ushi said. If he was vain about his hats, the rest of his attire was strictly utilitarian.

“Ethan was through and through an artist,” Ushi said. “Money was never his priority. He got his clothes at thrift stores and from hand-me-downs. Deadlines were never his thing.”

Fischer’s parents were lawyers. He earned his law degree from the University of Michigan. He practiced law for only a few years and quit to become an actor. He supported himself with odd jobs, often waiting tables. “Ethan lived the simple life,” Ushi said.

She said she met Ethan in 1983 on a drive from Washington, D.C., to a peace conference in Austin, Texas.

“Every other person thinks they’re a poet. Ethan was a poet,” said the Rev. Randy Tremba, who will officiate at Saturday’s memorial service.

Tremba said he worked with Fischer on “The Rumsey Radio Hour,” a local literary production in live radio format that ran intermittently over several years in Shepherd University’s Reynolds Hall. It was a fundraiser for the Shepherdstown Public Library, one of Fischer’s favorite haunts.

In the show, Fischer created the role of “Johnny Dime, the Poet of Crime,” a character loosely fashioned after the 1950s radio series, “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” a freelance insurance investigator with an “action-packed expense account.”

“One of the great things about Ethan was his ‘teacherliness’,” said Shepherdstown poet Georgia Lee McElhaney. Both belonged to Bookend Poets, a local poetry club.

“I took his advanced poetry class at Shepherd,” McElhaney said. “He could teach without the students even knowing they were being taught. Ethan had a sense of humor, he cared about people and he never scolded us as students.”

Longtime friend and fellow poet Ed Zahniser of Shepherdstown said he and Fischer worked together on many literary projects over the years.

Zahniser said he learned about Fischer’s strong literary ethics when he published one of his poems in a column too narrow to maintain the lines as Fischer wrote them.

“His disdain for such editorial behavior was not lost on me henceforth,” Zanhiser said.

“Ethan excelled as a teacher,” Zahniser said. “His integrity, rich literary background, dramatic ability, empathy and great sense of humor really reached his students.”

A sample of Fischer’s poetry appears in a poem he wrote in honor of Frank Woodruff Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va.,  America’s last World War I veteran, who died in February at age 110.

“Old veterans of wars
he steps away in peace
of a winter night. Sleeps
his content with a century
of work at understanding
the whole earth he saw
unfold as love and fury.”

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