Fred Frillici ’52 has taught thousands of children from the Bridgeport area how to fish,

Fred Frillici ’52 has taught thousands of children from the Bridgeport area how to fish,

by Meredith Guinness

Fred Frillici ’52 knew he could make a fisherman out of Lily Garbe. And did he ever.

Two weeks after he helped her catch her first perch in a Redding, Conn., reservoir, Frillici saw Lily, who has Down’s Syndrome, in church. “So Lily,” he asked, “how big was that fish again?

“It couldn’t have been more than four or five inches, but she held her hands out and it had become about 9 or 10 inches long!” Frillici said. “Two weeks after that, it was up to a foot.”

Fisherman FredThe next time he asked, the little girl – in full angler’s exaggeration – stretched her arms out as far as they could go. “Now that’s a true fisherman!” said Frillici, laughing proudly.

Lily is just one of the nearly 5,000 children Frillici has introduced to the fine art of fishing in the last 23-plus years. A chief instructor with the Connecticut Aquatic Resources Education (CARE) program, he goes wherever he’s asked, volunteering with dozens of public school classes in Bridgeport and with suburban kids in Greenwich, Weston, Stratford, and beyond. He often works with Aquarion Water Company, teaching children at their picturesque reservoir in Redding.

Most recently, he worked with a group of children with special needs organized by Lily’s mom, Mary Bolger Garbe ’81.

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Garbe, the daughter of longtime math professor Bob Bolger ’51, who, it turns out, was studying on campus at the same time as Frillici, a biology major. “A lot of kids aren’t really exposed to this unless they have someone in the family who fishes. As parents today, we know they’re all hooked into the electronics the iPods and the videogames. This is an alternative to that. And it’s great just to see the kids are outside.”

Frillici doesn’t just hand each child a rod and reel and head for a trout-stocked stream. His course usually includes four or five two-hour classes showing the kids the ins and outs of a tackle box, how and when to fish, basic baiting and casting techniques, and how to find fish, which is half the battle. Once they’re ready, the group heads out to a local reservoir to practice what they’ve learned. “I usually take them somewhere where I’m pretty sure they’re going to catch something,” said the retired scientist and active member of Fairfield’s Golden Stags.

The classes are about a lot more than fishing, though. Frillici believes it may be his Jesuit education that instilled in him the importance of inspiring others. “It’s that Jesuit tradition of passing it on,” said Frillici, who has six children of his own with his wife Claire. “I also learned from the Jesuits how to be a sneaky son of a gun. See, I’m giving a little class in religion along with it. I get them out in nature. There’s a thing of beauty out there and I tell them to take a deep breath and really look around. Some of these inner-city kids have never been out in nature like this.”

Dead FishFinding success with a new skill can translate to success in other areas, too – most notably, the classroom, according to Christine Griffin, a fourth-grade teacher at Stratford’s Lordship School. One of Griffin’s young students was having trouble casting during a class. Frillici worked with the boy and when he followed the veteran angler’s suggestions, he cast farther than anyone in the class.

“She came up to me once and asked if I remembered that student,” said Frillici, who did. “She said he was having the most trouble in class, he was failing and acting up. And things turned around after that day. Since that time, he’s been an honor student. She said ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for him.’”

Maureen D’Ascanio, a school media specialist at Barnum School in Bridgeport, has similar tales. Frillici, who has taught fishing there for 10 years, took a sixth-grade class last May. At the end of the trip – during which the children squealed and laughed while baiting hooks with worms – Frillici passed out pamphlets on fishing sites and the types of fish found in Connecticut waters.

“I remember watching one of our male students, who was completely absorbed in reading the pamphlet on the bus ride home,” D’Ascanio said. “He turned to me as we approached Barnum School and asked, “Miss, do you know where I can buy a fishing pole? I want to ask for one for my birthday. Maybe my dad will take me. This was the most fun day ever.’”

Griffin has been so impressed with Frillici, she invited him to talk to her classes about his work as an inventor. Though he’s not one to brag, Frillici spent 26 years as a respected senior scientist for AMF, Inc. (a diversified company that specialized in sporting equipment) servicing all 52 of the company’s divisions and providing marine expertise. He holds patents on a number of things from the ion exchange membrane in the fuel cells of the first Gemini spacecraft to a coating for bowling pins.

Though it might not seem as lofty as working on the Gemini, creating a safe coating for bowling pins may have saved a few lives. Companies once used substances that were so carcinogenic that – once the U.S. government listed their dangers – plants were shut down until suitable replacements could be found, Frillici said. And the replacements weren’t much better. Frillici remembers standing in a plant once when a worker spilled a little of a volatile chemical. “Everyone went running,” he said. “I thought, ‘No one should have to work like this.’”

Frillici’s boss didn’t want him spending company time on the bowling pin dilemma, but he agreed to let his senior scientist dabble with alternatives on his lunch break. He did – for a full year. The resulting coating was so much safer for those who produce it that his bosses took notice. Today, that same formula is used on most bowling pins across the country. And Frillici was named one of the 10 outstanding employees of the year out of the 23,000-member workforce.

Not bad for a child who grew up with such modest means he joined the Army because he knew it would pay for his college tuition, something his parents could never afford. “I think it was $470 a semester,” he said. “My father was born in Italy and came over as a teenager. They didn’t have that kind of money.”

Frillici was a soldier in the army of occupation in Japan from 1946-47. What he saw there changed his life. “The devastation,” he said, “Towns the size of Bridgeport leveled. Children with scabs and potbellies. I’ll never forget it.”

Once back, Frillici enrolled at Fairfield, earning his bachelor’s degree in biology. Over the years he’s taken courses at the University of Connecticut, Fordham, Stevens Institute, and other colleges to stay current in his field.

These days, his main focus is his family – which now includes 16 grandchildren – and fishing. Active in Fairfield politics for years, Frillici was once commodore of the Fairfield Boat Owners Association and said he’s always spoken out for more programs and activities for the town’s youth. He applauded the recent addition of a skateboarding park near Jennings Beach, and he’s always looking for ways to get kids outside.

His dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed: The Connecticut Post named him a Sportsman of the Decade 1990-2000 for his volunteer work.

“I thank the Almighty I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “It reminds you to appreciate what’s around you, what you’ve been given, and to help others, even if it’s just teaching them to fish.”