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fred alley | 1962 – 2001

Yesterday my friend Tim Stone reminded me that today is the anniversary of Fred Alley’s death. Eleven years now, and I can still see his always smiling face, remember many of the conversations we had over coffee and lunch at The White Gull or Al Johnson’s, talking writing, poetry, books, theater, film, acting, travel. Discussing “Guys on Ice” which he was working on at the time for the American Folklore Theater, which defined him like nothing or no one else–the spirit, the very breath of that talented group, where his spirit continues to reside to this day.

He was all about life, all about people, all about words, all about performance, ‘be-ing’—how all of this came together in the soul of one person who surrendered self for the goodness and grace of art.

God, how we miss him. How the county itself has been diminished by his loss. The word “irreplaceable” is too often used to describe the absence of a host of people, places, and things these days that don’t quite add up to the loss of one person, one place, one time, one particular talent to put words, action, passion upon a stage and let it live, speak, sing, come together in celebration of who we are or might become. Fred could work that magic.

I remember, upon learning of his tragic, early death, driving one morning, to the place along the roadside where he was found, where he had had fallen, where his heart finally gave out so unexpectedly while jogging—which would remain a place, a site, etched forever in my memory with countless others. Which, after forty-three years of living here, would remain on my list of Door County final resting places, if you will, of friends, neighbors, acquaintances whom I periodically recall, visit, immediately recognize by merely passing by somewhere in the county, remembering a name, a face, a conversation: that’s where________car turned over…hit a tree, crossed the road, hit an oncoming vehicle; that’s where_______lost a daughter or a son; that bay, that lake, that mesmerizing body of water, so beautiful and blue this summer day, so wondrous in white all winter—that’s where_______drowned; where_____crossed Portes de Morts in a small boat, his body never recovered; where______fell though the ice one winter. That’s the barn where_______took his own life. That’s the big bluff where______ stumbled and fell.

I remember driving the quiet back road where Fred had fallen not far from his house, a bright, sunny morning, just like today. I remember driving very slowly, looking for some sign…the weeds padded down …something. And there, a small pile of stones. I remember continuing a short distance, then pulling over, leaving the engine running, slamming the door shut (an unwelcome sound, breaking the silence I was entering, the reverence I was already feeling) as I stepped slowly along the road’s edge, into the weeds and grass, approaching the now hallowed ground of a fallen friend.

I said something like a prayer in conversation with him.

I remembered.

It’s been said of James Joyce that his characters never remained dead, I remember just now.– norbert blei


It was everywhere, in the streets and houses,
on farms and now in the air itself.
It had come from history and we were history
so it had come from us.
I told my artist friends who courted it
not to suffer
on purpose, not to fall in love
with sadness
because it would be naturally theirs
without assistance,
I had sad stories of my own,
but they made me quiet
the way my parents’ failures once did,
nobody’s business
but our own, and, besides, what was left to say
these days
when the unspeakable was out there being spoken,
exhausting all sympathy?
Yet, feeling it, how difficult to keep
the face’s curtains
closed — she left, he left, they died —
the heart rising
into the mouth and eyes, everything so basic,
so unhistorical
at such times. And then, too, the woes
of others would get in,
but mostly I was inured and out
to make a decent buck
or in pursuit of some slippery pleasure
that was sadness disguised.
I found it, it found me, oh
my artist friends
give it up, just mix your paints,
the strokes unmistakably will be yours.

–Stephen Dunn


  1. Tom's Jude

    Fred Alley…a treasure of the Door I missed experiencing. Your final comment reminds me of the conclusion of a Jewish Prayer: “…So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”

  2. Bonnie Hartmann

    Thank you, Norb.
    Somehow I thought it was earlier in the year…somehow I thought it was not really true…irreplacable indeed. y crush on him will last forever.

  3. Tim Stone

    Thank you Norb for paying tribute to our dear friend Fred. Sue and I had a good lunch today with Fred’s parents Juanita and George at the White Gull. We meet every year on May 1st to celebrate and remember Fred.

  4. jean

    That was funeral I will not forget with the singing of his “Wild Bird” which had a terrible eloquence and soaring beauty. I echo the appreciation for your remembering.

  5. Dave Callsen

    Fred was one of those special persons who when you had a conversation with him– you were the only thing on his mind. Norb, thank you for your focus on Fred.

  6. Patt Clark

    I didn’t know Fred, but I, too, have lost friends at a young age. I enjoyed what you said about Fred; there was such tenderness in the piece. Thank you for the Stephen Dunn poem, “Sadness.” I have the book Between Angels, but I don’t recall the poem.

  7. Christine Callsen

    Amen to what my Papa wrote. Fred always make you feel like you were the most important person in the world. I think what is remarkable about his life is the community, the family, that he created with his work. A family that lives on just as strong today.

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