This story is part of WHYY’s series “COVID-19: Remembering lives we’ve lost,” about the everyday people the Philadelphia region has lost to the coronavirus pandemic, the lives they lived, and what they meant to their families, friends and communities.
Tom and Betsy Pizzolato say their longtime friend Hugh Frick was a “curmudgeon — in a kind way.”
The retired University of Delaware plant physiology professor was a complex man, known for a dry and sarcastic sense of humor that not everyone understood.
Hugh was the kind of man “you had to get to know.” But once friends and acquaintances spent time with him, they discovered a funny, warm person who had a talent for helping others feel good about themselves.
“He wasn’t stuck on himself. He was assured of his own intelligence and worth, but he wasn’t pompous about it. And he had a way with the people he liked of building up their own confidence,” said Tom, his best friend and former colleague.
Hugh’s former students say he was a “character,” who could be seen walking around the lab wearing clogs, a pipe in one hand and a hand towel hanging from his belt to wipe his hands — rather than waste copious amounts of paper towels.
Hugh was frugal, riding his bike to the university, and wearing second-hand clothes — but loved ones say he was never stingy when it came to supporting students, friends and family. While he wasn’t one to show emotions or easily say “I love you,” he was devoted to those he cared about.
“He wouldn’t just give out praise, but when you earned it, you knew it,” said his daughter Tegan Maybrun.
Hugh died of COVID-19 on April 14 in Newark, Delaware at the age of 84.
‘He made me appreciate myself’
When the University of Delaware hired Tom in 1977 as a professor in the department of plant and soil sciences, Hugh soon took him under his wing.
Hugh asked Tom to participate in his research on a duckweed called lemna minor. Since Hugh was a plant physiologist and Tom was a plant anatomist, it made for an ideal collaboration. After working on the paper for about a year, Hugh insisted Tom become first author. It was that experience that endeared Hugh to Tom.
“It’s pretty important in writing these papers that the first author is the one most noted. The project was more than half his, so I thought it was very kind of him to allow me to be the first author,” Tom said. “I was touched … What I think he was doing was helping me toward my career.”
The pair soon became best friends, and shared a mutual admiration of each others’ work.
“It even makes it a little sad to think about it — he made me appreciate myself,” Tom said as his voice strained with emotion. “And he made me feel good about the work I was doing.”
Hugh’s encouragement drew students to him, said Eric Beers, who studied with Hugh while working on his master’s degree between 1983 and 1985.
Eric, who studied ornamental horticulture at the time, thought Hugh’s plant physiology course would be too challenging. But Hugh helped Eric become aware of his capabilities. It was that confidence boost that sparked an interest to embark on his now 35-year career as a molecular biologist.
“What you really want to have as a graduate student is someone who can challenge you, but also help you recognize when you actually accomplish something and reach your goals, and help you to do that,” said Eric, who now teaches plant developmental biology at Virginia Tech.
“Not every professor you run into in your career seems to care that much,” he said.
Eric’s wife Kay, who also studied with Hugh, said his courses were challenging, yet captivating.
“It was really pulling back the curtain on things you didn’t know already about the subject,” she said. “He was such a good teacher that although it was really challenging, he cracked it open for you. You had to work, but he aided you in that.”
Kay, who now teaches high school biology and chemistry, said Hugh inspired her to be a supportive teacher, who meets students where they are and helps them grow.
A keen sense of humor — and recycling
Hugh didn’t believe in using more than he needed to — his clothes were the “opposite of whatever the height of fashion is,” said his son Tim, and when his kids became adults, they frequently bought him clothes in an effort to make him appear more stylish.
Hugh cared for the environment while saving money — he rode a bike to work from the family’s home about 1.5 miles from campus. His daughter Tegan also remembers her father riding a scooter to run errands.
“We had one car for as long as I could remember, and dad cruised everywhere on a little motor scooter … which included taking me to dentists’ appointments, taking me to school if I missed the bus — which after he did that once, I never did again, because that was not something you really wanted to do when you were 12,” she said with a laugh.
Hugh collected aluminum and other metals to recycle, and after he broke down the materials, he sold them, which allowed him to save enough money to pay for Tegan’s room and board at college.
Tegan remembers circling ads in the paper and cruising town on Saturday mornings to find garage sales for deals and other items that could be recycled.
Hugh was also known for a keen sense of humor, and an unusual way of grabbing his students’ attention.
One of Hugh’s regular classes was an introductory plant physiology course required for undergraduate students within the plant sciences department — which he insisted on teaching at 8 a.m.
Hugh was known for keeping a tin of M&Ms on his desk, and if a student nodded off in class, he walked over, shook the tin and offered the candy, saying, “Oh, your blood sugar must be low,” or, “It looks like you need a sugar pick-me-up.”
At some point in the ’90s, Hugh began a “backwards tractor cap day,” for which he wore a cap backwards to poke fun at the trend of undergraduate students wearing their hats backwards.
The professor had a dry and sarcastic sense of humor that not everyone understood.
“Sometimes it would take you a while to decide if he was being serious or being funny,” said his friend Betsy.
Hugh was misunderstood by some people, and not everyone appreciated his personality, said his best friend Tom. He was quiet until he got to know someone on a personal level, and not everyone related to his dry wit and pleasure of challenging people in intellectual discussions.
“It was like walking through a doorway, but once you got through the door, you saw the inside and it was very pleasing,” Tom said.
Hugh’s son Tim said it wasn’t until adulthood he fully understood his father.
“One of the things I always thought of my dad when I was younger was that he was always quick with a joke, and seemed so at ease socially,” he recalled. “And we had a lot of conversations over the last few years, and I came to realize he was very much an introvert, and he was not comfortable at all, and it took a tremendous amount of work.”
A guiding father
Education was central to the Frick household. Dinner table discussions revolved around the university and explaining the scientific conversations the professors had at lunchtime.
When Tegan and Tim got into trouble, their punishment was a science lecture.
“He lectured me on diabetes for an hour and a half. I can’t tell you what I did wrong to deserve the punishment,” Tegan said. “Then he wondered why I didn’t go into science. I’m like, ‘Dude, you lectured me on lactic acid, you lectured me on diabetes, you lectured me on photosynthesis.’”
The family didn’t have cable, and encouraged the kids to read books or participate in social activities rather than veg out on the couch. Every wall of their house was filled floor to ceiling with books on languages, countries, traveling and history.
Hugh was passionate about history, participated in the Delaware Historical Society and frequently took his family on trips to Gettysburg. The family also travelled to England and other parts of Europe every summer.
Hugh balanced his interest in culture with his passion for sports, particularly basketball — which he played as a student at West Virginia University on the junior varsity team. Hugh was an avid fan his entire life, and played basketball with his children and his colleagues at the university.
He also encouraged his children to be independent thinkers and taught them to hold their own during a debate.
“If you wanted to have a conversation, you needed to back up your argument,” said Tegan, who has followed in her father’s footsteps. “It makes my husband crazy sometimes.”
Hugh’s kids say their dad didn’t say “I love you” often, and sometimes held his emotions inside. Tegan said her father even kept a beard to hide his dimples, because he didn’t want people to comment on them.
After leaving her pre-school teaching career for 10 years, Tegan decided to get a second master’s degree and return to early childhood education. She said she would have never gone back to school at the age of 40, after getting divorced with three kids, if it wasn’t for her dad’s support.
Hugh sent her three New York Times bestseller books about the value of early childhood education, along with a note explaining how proud he was of her.
“It was his way of saying, ‘I love you, I’m proud of you, you’re doing a good thing,’” Tegan said.
Tegan, who lives in Illinois, said within the last decade of his life, Hugh found it more difficult to hide his emotions, asking her to not cry during the end of her summer visits to Delaware.
Tim said his dad recently opened up to him about an interaction he’d internalized for decades.
“We had gone to a baseball game when I was about 6, and he wouldn’t let me bring my baseball glove in, and he was thinking, ‘Oh, you’ll lose it,’” he said.
“I don’t remember that as a formative incident. But my dad … in the last couple months of his life, he brought it up and said, ‘I’ve been feeling guilty about this for the last 35 years.’ And it was an example of the way he cared about things and internalized them, and he was trying to figure out how to apologize for that for 35 years,” Tim said. “And it wasn’t that big of a deal to me at the time … but it was a touching moment when he brought that up.”
Hugh was also devoted to his wife Siân of 53 years. Siân, who was from Birmingham, England, met Hugh while traveling to the U.S. The pair weren’t much for showing physical displays of affection, but exhibited their love in other ways.
“They’d watch everything on PBS — I don’t think I knew a TV commercial existed for a while. It was that value in learning something that was such a big draw for them to each other,” his daughter said.
When Siân developed dementia around 2015, Hugh supported her by driving her to her Welsh dancing and singing activities.
Tegan said her dad was her “sounding board” when she questioned life’s paths. She said it is her dad’s ability to guide people that will have a lasting legacy on those he cared about.
“He would give you 10, 15, 20 different questions that he wanted you to mull over for days or weeks. He was never going to give me the answer — he was going to help me figure out the answer on my own. That’s who I’m going to miss,” Tegan said.
“My own son is 16, and he doesn’t know what he wants to do for college. My instinct is just to say, ‘No, go to college.’ My dad would have never put it that way, but would have helped you get to that answer with the way he asked the questions and the kinds of questions he asked.”
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