The snapshots of Ron Fraser we have in our minds, the ones on public display, are the ones you would expect. Him in a Miami Hurricanes baseball uniform, doing what he did for a living: The winning coach. Or maybe him orchestrating a $5,000-a-plate fundraising dinner on the diamond: The master promoter.
Those weren’t the photos Karen Fraser was sorting through Monday at the Weston home she and Ron shared for most of their 24 years of marriage. She was looking at a more accurate picture of the man she knew and loved.
She saw the frozen images of a kind man teaching his grandkids to fish in the mountains of North Carolina, or laughing with them in a golf cart. She was seeing a family man first, one far removed from the ballpark and game that made him famous. She was seeing a man whose greatest victories were never recorded in a boxscore.
Fraser passed away Sunday at age 79, in the arms of family, after a long decline in the grip of Alzheimer’s. His career as UM baseball coach was epic — 30 winning seasons in 30 years from 1963 to 1992, including two national championships.
So it is understandable that the tributes seen and heard since his death have been about that, but that isn’t enough. Not to those who knew him best.
“We have appreciated everything said about him, but it’s all been ‘the coach, the coach, the coach,’ and there was so much more,” Karen said Monday afternoon. “He was the kindest person. He helped so many people and touched so many lives. Coming from nothing made him such a compassionate man.”
Karen recalled how the two of them would be shopping at the grocery store at times, and Ron would notice an elderly woman who seemed lonely or somehow down — a person who could use some kindness. He would approach the stranger gently.
“He’d say, ‘Excuse me, but I just wanted to tell you — you have the most beautiful eyes!’ And you should have seen the transformation. It made their day!” Karen said, smiling. “He had a heart as big as the world. That to me is worth more than a gold medal in the Olympics.”
Fraser had not been himself a long while when the end came peacefully Sunday at home, with Karen, three daughters and five grandchildren beside him and loving him until the end, after privately enduring a disease that can be as rough on family members as it is on the person at the center of the suffering.
I have seen what Alzheimer’s can do too closely, in my own circle of loved ones. It is why Karen and I shared conversations the past few years that would challenge both of us to not dissolve in tears. I also know from that experience that after the initial ache of loss comes relief.
And then something like a small miracle happens.
The person you knew before the thief Alzheimer’s did its work — that person returns to you by degrees as the mind works to heal. The full person you loved slowly returns again in the memory. The laughter is recalled. The smile. The best days.
Ron Fraser’s life was so big and well-led it should never be about how it ended.
Fraser mattered. He was the world to his family and to his extended family: Us. He made a difference here, at UM, on our sports landscape, in our larger community.
We don’t control which memories stick with us, and sometimes they are small ones, but there they are, out of nowhere, floating to the surface when one hears that someone has died.