In Memoriam

A Quirky Integrity

Fred Schmidt died Sunday, February 14, at his home in Fredericksburg, at eighty. His final morning Sonia and he had the festive kind of breakfast they always had on Sundays. After breakfast, not feeling well, he went to the bedroom and lay down, and an hour later he was gone. Sonia says he died in his sleep, not in pain.

As a person Fred was a work of art, our own embodied potential, what we might become if we didn’t have to die too. He was one of my two or three best friends in his generation just ahead of mine, but close as he and I were for forty years, hard as we talked and thought and fought together in common cause, drunk as we got together, there was always his guard, like a fencer’s mask, between us. He was dark and brooding, and the death of one of his daughters, Karen, when she was seventeen, by suicide, never left him until his own breath did. But he loved life, and he enjoyed it, food, daylight, jalapeños, Jim Beam, and he loved you and you loved him back. Often special people can’t resist dramatizing themselves some, but he never did. He was who he was with you. He told you what was on his mind and you knew there was no act. After heart attacks and pains that didn’t quit, autumn two years ago he wrote me he hoped he would die that winter. I knew he meant it so simply as that, and I could not bring myself to say “No, Fred,” or anything at all. That was what he wanted and he wanted me to know it so I knew it.

His integrity was his strength, indeed, his identity. As integrity is, his was quirky and trapped him in tough places. In the late fifties I was against Lyndon Johnson for the favorite-son nomination from Texas for President, Fred went with labor for him, and that was the one thing we never discussed. Even after we had known each other only two or three years our friendship was more important to us than any knowing that risked a certain kind of offense. He was touchy, capable of bitter disregards. Something someone did or didn’t do would deeply offend him and he’d never let you see what it was again but you knew that was a cut place in him that would always be there. A wealthy funder of thousands of good causes and a lifelong friend of Fred’s has said to me, “You know, I’ve given away millions, but I’ve never been able to give Fred one dollar.” Fred had these places you didn’t go. He was Fred Schmidt.

He was a singularly progressive Secretary-Treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO in the late fifties and early sixties. He should have become president of the American AFL-CIO. We would have seen the organizing of the low-paid workers in the sixties instead of the nineties and by now we would have a people’s movement instead of this demoralized ending of some story we are in. But Fred was vulnerable in the union movement because he was an intellectual who’d become a labor leader to help workers and maybe lead them into political revolts. That told against him. There was a fist fight in Galveston – I pulled him and the other guy apart, or maybe I just imagined I did. He didn’t lose the fight but he lost the election. That wound never healed but he went on.

He had almost become a preacher, and he was an oilworker, a union leader, a legislative specialist in the Congress on the staff of Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, an economist, a professor, a fine writer, a painter, a sculptor, a great sculptor. Out there in Fredericksburg with Sonia he made with his hands and tools, until the pain in his hands stopped him, all those very beautiful figures that stay with us just as his integrity and love and the mystery in him stay with us.

Nevertheless, he was foremost a social inventor. For example: after he had been with Gonzalez in Washington and had made the shift from the innermost circles of high-minded politics in Texas to the similar innermost circles in California, the circles of César Chávez and Jerry Brown, he was sitting around out there one day trying to figure out how to improve the lives of migrant farm workers. They only had work six months a year. Hey, why not get them unemployment benefits for the other six months and double their income? Governor Brown was for that, and it was done. Just Fred’s idea and all those people’s lives were better. It was his gift for social invention that let him do the most for the most people. From his youth in San Antonio when he joined his feelings with the sufferings of the striking pecan shellers, he made all these gifts, and he gave them. In a national culture that was ready for him, think of all the gifts all of us would have.

In 1995, belatedly, he was elected to the Texas Labor Hall of Fame. You wouldn’t think that would matter to him much, but it did. More than three decades after he lost the election in Galveston there was opposition to his getting this, and you could see that it pained him. Joe Gunn, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO, and Emmett Sheppard, the secretary-treasurer, wrote him, “Your qualifications were never in doubt. But the usual selection process was on its way to postponing your name for another time – until the delegates got a chance to vote. Your supporters rose up one by one, and by the time it was over, that train had enough momentum to climb Mount Everest.” Fred was the first person elected to the Texas Labor Hall of Fame by a revolt of the delegates.

I interviewed him for hours over days about his whole life, that time for example he went down to Mexico City to meet Trotsky shortly before Stalin applied the logic of the ax to Trotsky’s head. A book must be made of the columns Fred wrote in recent years for the San Antonio Express-News. We have his best ideas; his books; his sculptures. But Fred is gone. I had already been missing him a lot across a quarter of a century during which we’ve been far places apart, divorces and blizzards apart. Now we can’t even go see him any more. But we are grateful he is in us and the light we shine is his too.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

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