When award-winning writer Connie Frybarger Bretz expects visitors at her home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, she sets her nearly human-sized stuffed animal, George the Giraffe, on the porch to greet them. Waiting inside the house is one-year-old Bellina, a real-life Siamese cat who haughtily assesses guests from a safe distance before deciding if they’re worthy of her attention.
Cheerful stuffed animals snuggle everywhere – tucked into a wide windowsill, plunked atop the piano, and cozily seated on chairs as if expecting tea and crumpets on a moment’s notice.
Connie’s home, like her “pets” and her writing, is warm, creative and always original. On her low-pile living-room carpet, for instance, Connie has painted a large street map of her beloved Phoenixville, sketching in local points of interest in the appropriate places.
Because Connie doesn’t drive, she zooms through town on a bicycle with a helmet sitting perkily on her head and a smile on her face for everyone she sees. She was a young child when she bought her first bicycle, saving her allowance for the purchase.
“And here I am, an old woman, still riding!” she says as she sat on a concrete patio at the rear of her three-story twin house.
Connie may refer to herself as old, but she doesn’t share her age. Nor does she move or behave like the “old woman” she claims to be. But she proudly admits to winning medals for senior bicycling events at the Keystone State Games in Shippensberg, Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. One year, she even went on to compete in a national seniors’ competition in Texas. She didn’t do terribly well there, she says, because she misunderstood some instructions and went the wrong way, losing too much time to catch up. But the following year she won a silver medal back in Pennsylvania.
“My husband, Bob, was very proud of my medal, and he wore it around his neck during his dialysis treatments,” she says of the man who was her husband for 43 years.
Connie’s cycling award is only one of many honors she’s received including a “Wall of Fame” award that recognizes outstanding graduates of Leyden High School in Illinois. Most of the others were for writing - a total of 18 awards for poetry and stories. In 2004 she won headline writing honors from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Foundation and the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors. She was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1998.
Connie has seen more than 2,000 of her articles and poems published in magazines, newspapers and books, accomplishing all of this on the typewriter. She doesn’t own a computer and heads for the local library to use one when a publication insists on e-mailed submissions.
" Connie has seen more than 2,000 of her articles and poems published in magazines, newspapers and books, accomplishing all of this on the typewriter. She doesn’t own a computer and heads for the local library to use one when a publication insists on e-mailed submissions."
Not only does Connie write stories, she is also an accomplished oral storyteller who loves nothing better than donning a costume and entertaining children with her exciting tales.
Her interest in public speaking began in childhood days when her mother gave elocution lessons in the basement of their home in Franklin Park, Illinois. As an elementary school student, Connie was required to memorize the poems of Edgar A. Guest who wrote about the simplicity and sentimentality of life. Connie calls him “a newspaper poet” because that’s where many of his poems first appeared.
“My mother had me to recite them at church and at meetings of the Eastern Star and the Parent-Teacher Association,” she said. Another literary influence in her young life came through her father, a medical doctor who was on staff at the same hospital where the father of Ernest Hemingway also practiced.
But her six brothers – three older and three younger - also had a great influence on her life. From them she learned to be a “doer” and to take chances in life. “If I hadn’t learned to stand up to them and fight back, they would have devoured me,” she says.
Beyond all that, though, Connie believes the greatest influence of her life was becoming a Christian and knowing Christ in a personal way, an experience that happened when she was 14. “The decision to become a Christian changed my direction and helped me immeasurably.” But it was her stubbornness that brought her to the place where she would learn about God.
That obstinate streak led her to disobey her parents when they insisted that Connie and her sister stop seeing a young man that her sister had been dating. When her sister went for a car ride with him, Connie went along. They were found out and suffered their parents’ wrath. Connie’s share of it included being sent to live with her aunt in Kokomo, Indiana, for a year. Her aunt was a devout Christian who taught her the Bible and helped her come to know Christ as her Savior.
Connie went on to Indiana University where she majored in English with a minor in Speech. “I’ve been talking ever since,” she says, punctuating her words with a characteristic and very contagious laugh.
Her first job was at Judy Publishing Co. in Chicago, the originator of Dog World Magazine. Connie wrote movie reviews for the company’s literary magazine which was called “Judy’s.” She also did secretarial work for her boss until she left after he made a comment that today would have led to sexual harassment charges.
After quitting that job, she ran into an old college friend named Hannah who was also out of work. The two young women took jobs selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door and state-to-state and hitchhiked cross-country.
“We had no real problems except that we ran out of money and I had to wire my father for $100,” Connie reminisces.
They got other jobs in Los Angeles, but Hannah soon became homesick and went back home. Connie stayed on but eventually wrote to her boyfriend, Bob Bretz, who was working as a researcher at the University of Chicago.
“He had asked me to marry him, but I said no. This time I told him I would marry him if he came to L.A.,” she muses. He came and moved into a place down the street from her, but Connie got cold feet and decided against the marriage.
“After he went back to Chicago, I realized I did love him, and I asked him to come back.” He did, and they married, a union that lasted until his death 43 years later.
Experiencing an earthquake in Los Angeles made Connie anxious to head for the East Coast. They went to New Jersey, and Bob got a job in Philadelphia. But the commute from New Jersey was too long, prompting a move across the river to Pennsylvania where they bought a house in Phoenixville.
The years came and went, bringing with them two sons and a set of twin girls. Connie worked as a kindergarten teacher and loved it, but the job ran out and she “lurched into writing.”
Her interest in the printed page was sparked by a high school teacher in Berwyn PA who wrote a children’s book, Tuggy the Tugboat, for Wonder Books.
“It was a green light to me. I took a writing course with her and wrote a story on hedgehogs that she said was publishable.”
Connie believed her and in 1980 sent the story to Ranger Rick’s, an international nature magazine for children. Sadly, it was returned along with a note to try again later. She did so the following year, but got the same response. Undaunted, she waited another year and the third time was the charm. The magazine not only bought it, but used it as a cover story complete with several photos inside.
“That experience taught me persistence,” says Connie. The story also earned her $200, a handsome sum back then.
She launched her newspaper career after that, writing feature stories for many local papers and eventually finding a niche as a columnist for The Phoenix, a local paper that has published her columns about historic places and events in and around Phoenixville for over 20 years. Scores of her articles have appeared in publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s World, The Christian Science Monitor, and Writer’s Journal. She’s also been a speaker at writers’ conferences.
Besides writing and bicycling, Connie’s other interests in life include membership in Diversity in Action, a local committee that promotes racial justice and reconciliation by finding common ground among people. She also hosts the monthly Writer’s Exchange, one of several writers’ groups she’s led over the years.
But one unfulfilled dream is still out there. She still hopes to find a publisher for her series of children’s books, including three that have been previously serialized in newspapers. When that day comes, no one who knows Connie will be the least bit surprised - not even George the Giraffe or Bellina the cat.
Thank you Connie, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2010 by Joyce Starr Macias and Story of My Life®