Rich Fritzky was my predecessor and he had much to do with the fact that I have the honor of serving as president of this great Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce today. He led our organization for more than 25 years. He is the one who first placed us on the public-private venture frontier. In addition, he established multiple nonprofits and made us the advocacy force for both the business and greater Meadowlands community that we serve today.
Rich smiled always and looked upon his work as a kind of spiritual quest. He loved our organization, he loved the Meadowlands and he loved the people he worked with. He was in at 7:00 a.m. and rarely, if ever, gone by 5:00 p.m.
We here at Meadowlands USA, which Rich edited and wrote the bulk of during those years, decided that it was time to catch up with our once leader who was brought down by a horrific disease, Neisseria meningitis—a monster that kills more than 90 percent of those who get it. A monster of a disease that kills more than 90 percent of those who get it.
Hospitalized for fully 15 months, from Oct. 5, 2005 through Dec. 21, 2006, he spent three months in a coma and a hyperbaric chamber. He had it two-packed in ice with a fever that daily topped out at 107 degrees and endured many days in surgery. After battling renal, respiratory and circulatory failure, he was rendered a quadruple amputee. The ossification of all of his joints and the extreme atrophy left him without the ability to move at all. Rich had experienced eight months that were devoted to a daunting therapeutic effort to restore life.
While Rich, ever reluctant to use the word miracle, got a fair share of what he calls, phenomenon. There’s one miracle among quite a number that we’re compelled to share:
The meningococcal bacteria, which infected him, fries the neocortex of the brain. Every time, it does this. It destroys the home of all of the good stuff: wisdom, emotion, memory, knowledge, etc. Accordingly, about six weeks into the coma, his doctors met with his wife, Maggie, to give her the bad news about Rich’s brain. They told her that he had been lost to the deadly bacteria and what was described as thousands of mini-strokes. The MRIs and brain scans they had done, repeatedly confirmed this.
She was told that “Even if he were to awake, he would neither recognize nor know her, nor his children, nor ever—ever—again be able to utter a cognitive thought.” And yet, in a moment’s grace, he woke three days later and scanned the room. He spotted Maggie and softly said, “I love you, Maggie,” before immediately drifting right back into the depths of the coma. Just 10 seconds of grace, four words and the greatest of messages: “The science be damned—I am still here.”
This beyond-the-science phenomenon was confirmed by Dr. Leon Smith, the guru of American infectious disease doctors. Upon meeting Rich years later, he smiled, shook his head and said, “In 50 years in infectious disease, I have neither seen nor heard of anyone—not a one—ever going into a meningococcal-driven coma for any extended period of time who ever came back whole or even lucid, until you.”
But the sustaining impact of this disease was devastating as it left Rich a frequent flyer to hospitals and rehabs. To go into detail would be overkill, but suffice it to say that he went on to beat other brushes with death and dealt with everything. He had more than 30 major surgeries to C. diff to MRSA to extensive bed sores to the reconstruction of his backside to kidney transplants to pulmonary embolisms to intestinal blockages to end-stage renal disease to cancer to diabetes and more.
Smiling always, no matter the challenge, he developed his own theology of suffering along the way. He had one that he insisted “only took him to higher ground and invited him to strive to see the world as God does.”
Having served as a communications specialist for the mayor of Boston and having taught at Seton Hall Preparatory School and Bergen Community College before coming to the Chamber, he has now served as a member of the adjunct faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than 35 years. And while he misses the classroom, where he described himself as “a warrior,” he continues to teach online today.
He teaches classes that he himself developed. They include The American Experience, Business in a Global Society and The Political Vision and Genius of Abraham Lincoln. He is excited about developing a fourth, Political Theory and the American Mind. It will be offered for the first time in the fall of 2016.
“It is about the wonder of who we are and what we are made of and the essence of heritage and legacy and what we, given it, ought to be aspiring to be. It is about evolving and living political ideology,” he said. “Very sadly, however, all too many who aspire to lead us today know little or nothing of it.”
Beyond teaching, Rich writes. Interestingly, with the small stub of the only finger left to him. He is no fan of the vagaries of voice recognition technology. Years ago, he self-published a passionate and humorous work celebrating his and Maggie’s 12 children! That book is entitled It Isn’t Cheaper by the Dozen Anymore and Rich still has a handful of rare copies left.
Two of his books were published just last year: A Pilgrim’s Song – Mary Varick and her Theology of Suffering and What Must Needs Come – A Legacy of Gettysburg. The first is a moving story about his aunt. She devoted her life to her fellow disabled and to bringing them joy, love and God. The second is a powerful and inspiring view of the third day at Gettysburg. He looks at it through the lens of the mind, heart and soul of the man who called all of the questions and made all of the decisions there: Robert E. Lee.
A third book, entitled “Tidings of Great Joy,” about Advent, the great gifts that he received during his original 15-month exile and Christmas homecomings, is in the publication process now and will be released later this year. A fourth, with a working title of “Conversing with Old Abe,” is born of his firm belief that our greatest president has words, advice and inspiration yet to offer as to how we grapple with the great issues of our time. “Abraham Lincoln can and should be a living force for all of us today and not merely a dead saint,” he said.
Rich also speaks, largely to church groups, Knights of Columbus, youth ministries and the like, about everything from suffering to faith to grace. Of Rich’s powerful and moving speeches, Monsignor Paul Bochiccio of Immaculate Conception in Montclair said, “Rich touches the broken places in people. He, in so movingly speaking to both his extraordinary aunt’s and his own horrific experiences, becomes a healing force for many as he helps them to see that there is joy, love and purpose on the other side of great struggle.”
“He spoke to our seminarians,” added Monsignor Joseph Reilly, rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University, “and lifted up those who had already devoted their lives to Christ. Needed or not, he strengthened their faith and their resolve in a moving engagement with them.”
He also speaks to secular organizations like our own Chamber, at events for the Meadowlands YMCA and Comprehensive Behavioral Health Care, and he is just beginning to address Civil War roundtables and forums.
“I live,” said Rich, “With the ‘Why did I survive when most did not?’ guilt and I have dwelled long and hard upon the ‘Why me—why did I catch the break?’ questions. Of course, there’s my family, but I have always felt that there had to be more. I find the answer in the ability I seem to have to touch and move people, in helping them to find a spark in something that they may not have noticed or considered before. There’s great purpose and meaning in that.”
Family, of course, remains the alpha and omega of his life. At the epicenter is Maggie, who 10 years ago took on the role of caregiver as well as wife. Elegantly and without a hitch, she became the one who enables Rich, along with the regular assistance of their sons Bill and Frank, and the “when in a pinch” help of Teri, Tom and Joe. All 12 are now grown, five are happily married, one is about to be and more certainly will be. There are now 12 grandchildren with two more on their way, and where it will end, no one knows. All we can be certain of is that there is no end in sight.
“I am mightily blessed to have Maggie,” said Rich, “And to be enveloped by an atypical and large family that loves unconditionally—children and spouses and loved ones all.”
While he is devoted to his family, his teaching, his books, his speeches and his presentations, the paradigm of his life is not complete. He remains dependent on his Friends of Rich Fritzky Trust, which was formed shortly after he first got sick.
“I am out there plowing the fields, trying to move my books and looking for paid speaking opportunities,” he said, “but to date, they largely remain labors of love, labors that I enjoy and that I view as a means of paying forward the goodness and grace that has been and continues to be extended by so many to me.”
For the time being, as he meets medical challenge after medical challenge, he is sustained by the Annual Giants Banquet (a collaboration of some wonderful Giants veterans), his friends, Fairleigh Dickinson University and some God-given benefactors.
He calls them “blessings” and “instruments of grace.” However, he looks to “that happy day” when his books catch on and generate real revenue—and he adds a few paid speaking engagements to the pro bono ones that feed his soul.
The angels in his life, most of them former Chamber colleagues, he notes, seem to understand and appreciate where he is.
“So, they stay the course with me,” he concluded. “They don’t duck, they astound and they wonderfully hold me up whenever I falter. There are no words in the English tongue that do them justice.”
Rich looks back with no small measure of pride upon what was accomplished during his tenure. We as a management staff do our best to keep the Chamber “firing on all cylinders,” extending the legacy that Rich has established.
“We placed thousands of people in jobs and trained thousands more and it was our advocacy that led to everything from the Passaic River Bridge, to the Little Ferry Circle, to the Meadowlands Parkway, and to the Berry’s Creek Bridge roadwork improvements,” Rich said. “It was 25 years of our advocacy that led to the construction of the Meadowlands Rail Station. Rich Roberts—the then transportation planner for the Meadowlands Commission—and I made a presentation to an NJDOT and NJ Transit Task Force in 1989, upon which the planners for both hummed The Impossible Dream to us.”
“In the beginning, it was only us, until Allied Junction came into the picture. And there was so much more, but it didn’t get any better than the role we played in helping the Kenmare Alternative High School for Unwed Mothers and the Saint Joseph’s Home rise in Jersey City or to see our youth service projects get underway in area high schools or to have founded the best transportation management agency in the United States today, our own Meadowlink.”
From what he referred to as his “distant perch,” he celebrates the Chamber’s “superior and wide-ranging programming” today. He apprieciates the great work that it has done to promote the region as a destination, its continued advocacy on the transportation and environmental fronts. The sheer extent of its reach and its effort to help bring American Dream Meadowlands home for the region and the state.
“Before Mills even came into the picture, there was a terminal construction proposal, and I then worked long and hard on the original Mills Corporation development proposal on the Empire Tract and eventually on Xanadu—what were the seeds of American Dream Meadowlands. What they will eventually bring to fruition will, people forget, be the result of a 25-year plus effort.”
In closing, Rich asked us to please note this. In his day, he explained, he was long embattled with Captain Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper. “I then held up the massive environmental mitigation components of a few major proposals, while he held up his “line in the sand” hands-off vision. I am glad that those battles are over today, as I have such respect for Capt. Bill and his passion for what is the very spine and lifeblood of the Meadowlands.”
Most people who have lived what Rich has would have understandably given up. But our old friend, broken as he is—and he describes himself as utterly broken—is simply not ordinary. He still moves at lightning speed, teaching as many as three classes at a time. Rich still writes prolifically for both himself and often for others as well. He is known for preparing an array of speeches and presentations and getting around to them with the help of Maggie and the 12. Cancer and diabetes be damned, he is relentless.
Meadowlands USA checked and we know that Rich spent last Saturday with LAMP’s Lay Missionaries and some of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity at a conference in the Bronx. He has presentations coming up at Saint Kateri Tekawitha in Sparta, at Our Lady of the Lake in Sparta, at Trinity United Methodist in Hackettstown, at Queen of Peace in our own North Arlington and hopefully at Sacred Heart in our own Lyndhurst. He has a June 14 date with the Phil Kearny Civil War Roundtable and expects to also address the Central Jersey Robert E. Lee Roundtable. Everything from an address at a hospital in Harlem to a seminary in Yonkers to a leadership conference in Andover to a series of book signings in Gettysburg over the anniversary of the battle in early July are on his immediate docket.
What we want you to know is that, be it a business, a secular or a faith-based setting, Rich has the gift of moving. He is motivating and inspiring people in a powerful way. His message of enduring hardship, overcoming obstacles, maintaining a strong sense of faith and hope are remarkable. So think of him if you want to shake it up and do your own a favor.