John Nagy | January 28, 2017
Revolutions begin with the quiet decision and the small act. So picture this scene of would-be rebellion:
Paul Fritts, a shy boy in his early teens. The son of a college professor who is both a musician and a craftsman, he is an attentive, fluid violinist. He has friends but spends his happiest hours doing projects in his father’s backyard workshop: Carpentry. Photography. Car restoration. Pipe organ repair.
It’s the 1960s. Tacoma, Washington. In the eighth grade, Paul and his classmates take an aptitude test and are assigned a report on a profession. Sky-high on mechanical and musical ability, Paul chooses from a short list of jobs that combine both sets of skills and tells his mother he wants to write about being an organ builder. “And my mother, who had invested heavily in my violin lessons, said, ‘No, you’re not.’”
This was out of character for Jean Fritts, who had a degree in education and sang and who “always let her children do what they wanted to do, and supported them,” her son the organ builder says.
Maybe she objected because the boy’s father, Byard, who’d played trombone in the Navy during World War II under the baton of George Liberace, brother of the famous showman, and who taught composition, choral conducting, piano and organ down the road at Pacific Lutheran University, kept his mechanical endeavors private — for the most part. Byard Fritts had learned carpentry from his own father and built the Fritts’ home on a woodsy suburban street. Eventually he ran a business out of his workshop, assembling organs out of pre-made parts for small churches. He had even restored a Model A Ford. “He had a lot of respect for mechanics,” Paul recalls, but on campus “he didn’t want to be labeled a grease monkey.”
Whatever her reasons, the boy’s mother may actually have won that minor battle — “I frankly don’t remember if the report was about organ building or violin playing,” he admits. The younger Fritts continued to help with his dad’s business and play the violin all the way through three enriching college years as a performance major at the University of Puget Sound.