You might think that after spending nearly half a century as a teacher and coach, a man might want to kick back, watch a few sunsets, play a little golf, and generally relax. And this is partially true of Jim Fraser. There will be golf and sunsets, but it is a good bet that the pace of his golf game will be quick, and the sunsets will be ever changing.
Fraser is tall and spare and handsome and he strides quickly into the coffee shop for this interview. He is the kind of man who can be both relaxed and engaging while also being precise and direct. It is easy to envision the attention and respect he commanded both in the classroom and on the playing fields at Western Reserve Academy. During his tenure there he was known simply as 'Señor.' No need to add the last name. There could only be one.
In addition to being a fixture at WRA for the last 48 years, Fraser has done quite a bit of globe hopping and he has no plans to stop any time soon. Despite the fact that he spent his professional life as a language teacher and a cross country, track and hockey coach, a job that would keep most people sort of close to home, he has still managed to rack up thousands of miles and pages of exotic stamps in his stack of old passports. Fraser was recently lauded by his children and alumni at an art show during the academy's reunion weekend in early June.
Titled 'Lugares,' the collection of oil paintings created by his children Elizabeth and Michael, colorfully illustrate many of the places that Fraser has traveled and even lived in during his career at WRA. The paintings, which honor his love for travel and cultures, include scenes from Hudson and Vermont, Peru, Ecuador, Spain and points beyond.
A native Canadian, the first indication of Fraser's love for traveling could have been his major in Spanish. "By the time I was a senior, I was studying four languages," he remembers. He is fluent in English, Spanish and French and "can get by" in Russian, Italian and Portuguese. His first foray off the continent came soon after graduation from Queens University which is located in Ontario. He moved to Quito, Ecuador where he lived for three years teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). He then returned to Québec, again teaching ESL to French-speaking Canadian Army recruits.
After a few years in Québec, he sought his master's degree in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont; a course of study which afforded him the opportunity to live and study in Madrid as part of the curriculum. The job placement service at Middlebury provided the connection to Western Reserve Academy and Fraser has been there ever since. At least while class has been in session.
If there is one thing that has been Fraser's legacy to his students at the academy, it is probably that there are many rewards to be found in hard work. Like crazy hard work. And maybe a few side bets. Fraser leaves the academy with his reputation for being a bit of a taskmaster intact, yet former students who accepted his challenges and learned the habits of excellence have gone on to become friends. Some of them very successful friends. Flipping through a book of photographs, reminiscences and quotes from colleagues and former students created by his daughter in honor of his retirement, the recurring theme is one of gratitude, respect and affection.
Former student Michael Fenger, who now heads up iPhone Global Sales for Apple says that he is where he is now, "because I failed Señor Fraser's Spanish class my freshman year at WRA."
According to Fenger's letter, Fraser did Fenger "a great favor" by having him repeat his first year of Spanish, thereby setting him up to "ace the next three years of Spanish." At the end of his senior year, Fenger made a bet with Fraser that he "could get a minor in Spanish at Miami University without really even studying." Fenger won the bet and credits that minor and his fluency in Spanish for paving the way to his success at Apple.
Another former student, John Rehling, who Fraser says is a software expert in Silicon Valley, remembers both the hard work in the classroom and the rigors of having Fraser as a cross country coach. "Spanish class was the first time I saw the value of hard work in the classroom. It seems so straightforward, to create a circumstance in which the student's success is ... dependent on their willingness to do the work. I'd never before or since seen it orchestrated so simply and clearly."
Fraser believes that language teachers are uniquely positioned to have great impact on the lives of their students. "Studying a foreign language is very hard work that requires you to be very precise. It is not like history where you won't be lost if you miss a chapter here or there." Students who accepted the challenge to excel in Fraser's classes and on his teams seem to have internalized the lessons and used them to fuel significant successes long past high school.
This demanding attitude also extended to the sports he coached. His pre-season cross country conditioning trips to his home in Vermont might be legendary. "We would get the cross country team up to Vermont for some early conditioning in August. We would run two times a day for eight or nine days," Fraser says.
Rehling also recalls those ventures. "... Those times between workouts in Vermont [were] life as it should really be. Exhausted from our long mileage in the morning, the team would lie in your house, slack-limbed, reading, playing board games, summoning up the strength for the afternoon run. There's no finer way to spend time than that."
To South America, Europe and beyond.
Besides his passion for fostering excellence, the other steady drumbeat in Fraser's life is travel. There is an interesting contrast between the man who spent more than half his life doing one thing very well in one place, and the other half of his time hopping all over the globe. Fraser talks about some of his most loved places as if they were close friends with endearing physical quirks and character traits.
When he describes Quito, Ecuador, where he spent his first years after college, he effuses about the beauty of the city that sits 9,500 feet above sea level in the shadow of a 15,000-foot high mountain, the friendliness of the people, and the spectacular scenery.
He is equally enthusiastic about Lima, Peru where he will spend the winter months. He will leave Hudson sometime around Thanksgiving and enjoy the summer weather in the southern hemisphere. Lima is a coastal city of 10 to 12 million people with an international flair and great food. Fraser has been there before and looks
forward to renting an apartment in this familiar city, traveling to other cities in the area and hanging out with the friends he has made there over the years.
A guy who has traveled this much does have some favorites. When asked to name a few places he would return to in a heartbeat given the chance, Machu Picchu is the first thing out of his mouth. Fraser has traveled many times to the ancient and iconic Incan ruins that sit almost 8,000 feet above sea level in the Cusco province of Peru. In March, he accompanied a group of friends, several of them former students, on another excursion to this isolated and challenging destination. A trip like this is actually more of an undertaking than a 'vacation' since there is a lot of acclimating to altitudes and hiking in a manner more akin to climbing than one might want in a relaxing vacation. The challenge might be Fraser's favorite part of the trip.
Fraser has been going to Machu Picchu for a long time. "When I first started coming to Machu Picchu, there wasn't even a town at the base," he recalls. Now that town, Aguas Calientes, which means 'hot waters, is a bustling little send off spot with hotels and restaurants that accommodate people who want to get an early start to the mountaintop ruins. Visitors can catch a bus to the top, but Fraser still makes the 2,000-foot climb himself at least once during a three-day visit. "It takes about two hours to hike to the top and then we spend the day hiking around looking at the ruins before heading back."
Fraser estimates that he has accompanied at least 20 groups abroad to destinations in Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, France and more. He thinks Paris is "the best big city anywhere" and would like to visit Russia someday but thinks he might wait until the political situation calms down a little.
Before heading to the other side of the equator, Fraser will be enjoying the summer at his home in Vermont. He fondly describes this idyll as "a house on one of the islands in Lake Champlain. There are three miles of water on two sides and woods out back." He plans to golf and hike and watch a few sunsets. In true Fraser fashion, he will walk the course and carry his clubs.v