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Front Row Seat: A 'wonderful life' for one of 'the greatest generation'

by Mike lesko | reporter Published: September 18, 2016 12:00 AM
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"When Tom Brokaw wrote about 'the greatest generation,' he could have been talking about my dad," said my wife, Lori, referring to her father, William J. "Bill" Fridrich, who died of bladder cancer on Aug. 26, 2016, at age 88 at his Solon home.

Anxious to follow his brother and join the war effort, at age 17 in 1944, Mr. Fridrich quit high school and signed up with the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II.

"I was afraid the war would end before I could get in," he told me.

He, indeed, got in on time and was assigned to the USS Saugus, a landing ship used for carrying tanks and destroying mines in the Pacific Ocean -- and transporting troops, bringing the boys back home.

When the war ended in 1945, Mr. Fridrich made it home himself aboard a joy-filled, rollicking train filled with other sailors, soldiers and marines. He was headed home to his Old Brooklyn neighborhood and sang "Sentimental Journey" as the train neared Cleveland.

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"I wanted to surprise my mother and sisters, but when I got to our house, nobody was home," he said.

His next step was to "find a nice girl," and a buddy introduced him to his own girlfriend, Marie -- and the rest is history.

Thanks to the GI Bill, the young couple was able to buy their first house and quickly had two daughters, Lori and Diane, and he had a new job as a patrolman in the Cleveland Police Department. A few years later, a third daughter, Marilyn, arrived.

Unlike many fathers of that time, Mr. Fridrich was very involved in his daughters' lives. He helped with homework, made the girls his infamous French toast on Saturdays and followed the girls' baseball and basketball games, as well as ballet recitals.

It meant so much to my wife that her dad was willing and able to play catch with her on many evenings and take Lori and her sisters to Indians and Browns games, sharing his love of sports.

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I will miss the conversations he and I had through the years about what was wrong with the Indians and Browns.

Before he died, he asked Lori, "How many games do you think the Browns will win this year?"

And he was always willing to listen.

"Like the time Dad bought me my first baseball mitt on my 11th birthday and when he watched me ride my girlfriend's bicycle back and forth in front of our house to prove to him I could ride a 26-inch bike -- even though my parents said bikes were not safe.

"I didn't know if I had convinced them or not, but my dad knew where to find a second-hand bike and painted it up to make it look like new."

Lori trusted his judgment.

"Once when I was 15, I agreed to go to a junior prom with a boy but changed my mind," Lori said. "I asked my dad what to do, and he said, 'Just don't go.' I felt relieved."

On hot, summer days, her dad would take Lori to Rexall Drug to sip a Coke at the counter and maybe even buy her a comic book -- for no reason at all.

As a Cleveland police detective, he never talked about guns or violence -- or showed prejudice -- a big message to his children and a great legacy to his character.

After the death of Marie, he married Solon's Marilyn Muetzel and the two spent the last nine years of his life together.

A natural athlete, Bill, in his 80s, kept active in sports at the Solon Senior Center, where he became a popular leader in their activities, events and field trips from singing on stage to participating in the Senior Olympics. One of the mourners at his wake said he inspired her in chair volleyball.

Mr. Fridrich showed courage in the war and as a policeman. Perhaps his darkest hour came when his youngest daughter, Marilyn Habian, a Cleveland public school teacher and dance instructor, was brutally murdered in a home invasion perpetrated by a neighbor who was found guilty in a Cuyahoga County court trial.

He was most courageous battling bladder cancer during the last year of his life. His final days were spent in pain. Suddenly, the strong husband and father had become very frail.

"I lived a wonderful life," he told me about three weeks before he died. "I married two great women and raised three great daughters."

When the end came, his wife at his side, a tear rolled down his cheek and he passed on peacefully.

His wake was filled with mourners, many with stories of how his life inspired them.

"He was a real man's man," a friend from the Solon Senior Center said.

He certainly was.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9436

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