LOS ANGELES - Former economics professor, banjo player and folk singer Fred Starner died Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, in Los Angeles. He was 72.
Fred grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He graduated with honors from Oberlin College with a degree in economics and received a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.
He went on to teach economics at Drew University in Madison, N.J., then came to the University Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1974.
During his time in New Jersey, he became an ardent environmentalist. He worked with Pete Seeger on the Hudson River "Clearwater" restoration from 1968-1974. He raised money and sang many concerts to bring the public along the Hudson to realize that the river was so polluted that no fish could live in it.
The idea to build a replica of an old Hudson River sloop, which had sailed up and down the Hudson River in the 1800s, came from Pete. He thought if he could get people to come to see this beautiful sloop that he could call attention to the plight of the Hudson. Fred volunteered to raise money and to do concerts to help bring attention to the job of building the sloop. Fred then sailed the first crew of the Clearwater from Maine to New York and then up and down the Hudson, working as a singing member of the crew. Later in the '70s, he served on the board of the Clearwater restoration for three years.
In 1972, he hosted a 10-part PBS series for New Jersey Public Television called "The Oleanna Trail," which featured many folk singers whom Fred had met while living on the East Coast.
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After moving to La Crosse, where he continued to teach at the university, he was a founder of the Great River Traditional Music and Crafts Festival, which was hosted on the grounds of UW-L. A weekend festival, it featured concerts and workshops led by singers from all over the Midwest and the East Coast. The orientation was to share the love of traditional music and to teach how to play the instruments. The crafts featured a large collection of talented midwestern artists who made birch bark canoes, carved wood in the Germanic and Nordic tradition or painted in a Scandinavian style called rosemaling.
Many who worked at the university served on the board of the festival and donated hours of their time to make the festival work. The university generously hosted the festival for almost 10 years, every Labor Day weekend.
Fred moved to California in 1987, where he continued to teach economics at several community colleges. He continued to write music and give concerts at colleges including UCLA, Pomona and Oberlin.
He then went on to research a group of people that had been forgotten, the Hobos, who emerged during the Great Depression. Hobos traveled the rails, leaving home and families during that desperate economic time, looking for work and a way to survive. He met and talked to many of the old Hobos, collecting their stories, songs and poetry. This collection turned into a documentary film called "Hobos," which was published in 2008 and is being shown at festivals around the country.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Nov. 14, at Studio City's Universalists Church. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, 724 Walcott Ave., Beacon, N.Y. 12508; www.clearwater.org.