Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Getting to know Frost collection donor Joan Christopherson Schmidt

Joan Christopherson Schmidt (Miss Chris) during a recent
visit to UW-Eau Claire.

The rare, extensive collection of Robert Frost materials that now are part of UW-Eau Claire's special collections has rightfully generated a lot of media attention in recent weeks.

This wonderful collection includes first-edition books with handwritten notes from the poet, as well as Christmas cards and other personal correspondence from Frost to his friend Frederick "Fritz" Schmidt. The collection will long be enjoyed and treasured by our students, faculty and others with an interest in the respected and beloved American poet.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting the dynamic and delightful woman who brought this rare collection to our campus. While we have learned much from her about Fritz and his decades-long friendship with Frost, I wanted to share a bit of what I learned about her during our visit.

Joan Christopherson Schmidt is her full name, but everyone knows her by her TV name from years ago, “Miss Chris.” She is a Wisconsin native who has lived in the Milwaukee area — right across the street from UW-Milwaukee — for decades.

Miss Chris was a true pioneer in children’s television. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, years before Sesame Street came on the horizon, Miss Chris was the star of two Wisconsin Public Television shows for children, "Let’s Talk It Over with Miss Chris" and "Fairy Tales from Around the World."

A talented artist and a dedicated educator, Miss Chris was teaching art to young children in Milwaukee when she met her husband, Fritz Schmidt. The two quickly found that they shared a passion for education and the environment.

Throughout the next several decades, they invested in land simply to preserve it, helped establish the Ice Age Trail and were active in countless other environmental and community initiatives. They also both treasured the books and correspondence from Fritz's longtime friend, Robert Frost.

After Fritz passed away, Miss Chris kept the Frost collection but began thinking about how to best honor her husband and Robert Frost by finding the right home for it.

While selling it to the highest bidder would likely have earned her a substantial amount of money, she knew her husband, also a Wisconsin native, would want the collection to stay in Wisconsin, preferably at a university, where it will be well cared for and used for scholarship. A family friend with ties to UW-Eau Claire suggested she consider our campus. It didn't take long, she says, to realize that her friend was right.  UW-Eau Claire was just the place she was looking for.

It's fitting, Miss Chris says, that her and Fritz's treasured Frost collection's new home is on Wisconsin's most beautiful campus, a place where students and faculty share a commitment to sustainability and a love for nature. She knows the books will be used and appreciated and studied by students and others who share her husband and Frost's passion for nature.

Both her husband and Robert Frost would approve of her choice, she says.

At the age of 83, Miss Chris continues to be active and engaged and passionate about education and nature. Last week, she drove herself from Milwaukee up to Eau Claire in a snowstorm, soldiered through the bitter cold for two days to talk with the media and others about the Frost collection, and then returned on her own to Milwaukee!

I'm thankful I had the chance to spend some time with this remarkable woman during her brief visit. After spirited conversation about everything from the importance of good coffee (she wanted the contact information for my coffee supplier) to her pride in her Scandinavian heritage (including the inn her family has operated for years just north of Wisconsin Dells), to her decision to entrust UW-Eau Claire with her most valued possession, I found her passion for education and nature and life in general to be very inspiring.

Hopefully, Miss Chris will return to our campus again sometime soon to learn more about how we are incorporating the Frost collection into our curriculum and sharing it in other ways with our students, faculty and others. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to take the time to thank her for entrusting us with this special collection and to learn more about her. She's an impressive and accomplished person with wonderful stories to share.

Below are links to several news stories featuring Miss Chris and the treasure she brought to our campus. I enjoyed reading  and listening to them so I wanted to share them with all of you: