Editor’s note: Before he died, Robert Fitzer asked Holly Burnett and me to deliver eulogies at his memorial service. The request made it necessary for me assess Bob’s importance to the Youngstown community and beyond. What follows is my eulogy from the memorial service at Bliss Hall at Youngstown State University in 2007.
By Mark C. Peyko
Today we gather to remember and celebrate the life of Bob Fitzer. We also offer our condolences to Bob’s family during this difficult time.
As a teacher, musician, public citizen and friend, Bob had an expansive definition of what constituted family.
Bob’s actual family was dear to him, but circumstances in his life would expand that definition to include colleagues, childhood friends, and a variety of kindred spirits. It is not an exaggeration to say that Bob had made the entire Youngstown community his family.
Bob said his parents – Dolores and Robert – had a profound influence on his values and outlook on life. He said he always tried to live up to their standards as a musician, teacher and public citizen.
A love of politics, art and music was fostered in the Fitzer home. Dolores and Robert Fitzer were teachers at the Dana School of Music. Both performed professionally as musicians. They traveled to Greenwich Village to absorb the art and culture of New York City. They supported Youngstown’s art and poetry culture of the early 1960s. Bob said his parents bought some of the first works produced by artists in the region.
Perhaps more important, though, was the influence of Robert and Dolores Fitzer’s social conscience.
When Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in June of 1963, Bob’s mother, Dolores wrote an impassioned letter to the Youngstown Vindicator denouncing racism. At the time, Bob’s dad was in Chicago for six weeks earning a graduate degree in music education.
Bob said many people called the house and said whatever vile things the anonymity of a 1963 telephone in Youngstown could allow.
At a very young age, Bob learned that standing up for one’s principles involved risk and the threat of alienation.
Against this backdrop of this time was a lot of personal family tragedy. Within one year, the Fitzer family endured the loss of two of their four children – a sister, Susie, and a brother Daniel. Dolores and Robert Fitzer also lost three of their four parents in the same year.
Yet, despite extremely difficult times, Bob said he and his sister Karen home had a home filled with love and happiness.
It was a home where Bob learned social justice and the importance of equal opportunity. It also was a place where he and his sister learned to have an open mind and an open heart.
Like his parents, Bob studied music, loved the arts, and had a passion for politics. He had deep love for the Mahoning Valley – a sometimes unnatural love for the Mahoning Valley.
When he graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in music performance, his career track was in music performance not teaching. Bob envisioned performing with a major metropolitan symphony.
While in his early twenties, Bob’s parents died. He said their untimely deaths made him reassess his life. He said he looked inside himself a lot in the three years it took to settle his family’s affairs in Youngstown.
After much reflection, Bob decided he didn’t want to play “200 year old music for people in fur coats.” Bob wasn’t suggesting he wanted to play jazz or rock and roll music. He meant it was important for him to be relevant in the community in which he lived.
During this period, Bob said he deflected the well-intended comments of friends and colleagues who warned him about the dangers of getting stuck in Youngstown.
The earlier lessons of standing up for one’s principles and acknowledging the risks involved would play out numerous times during this time.
Bob’s interest in politics resulted in his running for and holding political office. He held the position of precinct committeeman in the First Ward.
He co-hosted a public affairs program on WYSU called “Commentary Café.”
He gave the Democrats for Change political movement broad public awareness through an article and illustration in Holly Burnett’s “Speed of Sound.”
However, Bob did not run for office as part of some grand career strategy. He got involved in local politics to be an agent of change.
Bob’s finest hour politically was his investigation of the Cafaro Roundtable meetings. With pen, notepad and a pair of opera glasses, Bob exposed a regular, secret closed-door meeting between one of Youngstown’s most powerful political families and local politicians and business leaders.
Most of Bob’s work was guided by his parent’s quest for social justice and equal opportunity. And for Bob, it was never simply a case of whether the glass was half empty or half full. He wanted to know what was in the glass.
From the students he taught, to the community in which he lived, Bob cared about what was in that glass.