By Walter Woodward, State Historian
For the last 30 years, virtually every history program of substance produced in Connecticut could have carried the credit line, “Brought to you in part by Bruce Fraser.” His June 13 death after a hard-fought battle with cancer leaves an unfillable void in the history community. It also marks the end of an era.
Bruce became executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council in 1982, when both the organization and the concept of government support for the humanities were in their infancy. With boundless energy, rapier wit, a zealot’s passion for history, and an athlete’s stamina for the block and tackle of politics, Bruce transformed the little bastion of heritage funding that was the CHC into an organization recognized nationwide for the strength of its funding and the quality of its programs. In 1995, he secured one of the first state appropriations to any humanities council. Under his leadership, CHC support for Connecticut cultural activities grew to more than $2 million annually sustaining many organizations through difficult times and helping to improve institutions and their offerings at all times.
A Ph. D. in history from Columbia University, Bruce passionately believed in creating history that people enjoyed but that was also subject to the rigorous analysis of academic scholarship. In this regard, he led by example. His multi-year project The Connecticut Experience, a 19-part history series for public television, received four regional Emmys. His exhibit on Connecticut’s history at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford is a permanent reminder of history’s importance for citizens and legislators alike. Bruce’s final project, the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online, scheduled to launch in 2012, will be a remarkable marriage of technology and history, making the state’s past instantly available to all its citizens.
Under Fraser’s leadership, the CHC’s extraordinary performance was awarded on 10 different occasions by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Four times, Connecticut received the Schwartz prize for producing the “best state council initiative in the nation” from the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
Bruce’s death came at a time when economic imperatives put the question of public funding for the humanities under unprecedented scrutiny. The CHC he built will of course continue its important work, though it may be that the era of generous state support for history Bruce was instrumental in creating is passing. Our community will miss his unique ability to make the case for supporting history so compelling.
I will miss the brilliance and the humor of a man I deeply admired.