Charles Frink, whose many talents touched New London, dies at 86

New London - Prolific composer, longtime New London High School history teacher and former City Councilor Charles Frink died Friday at age 86.

Frink's accomplishments span the decades and include serving as a composer and pianist for both the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and the Hartford Ballet in the 1950s, two years as a playwright with the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in the 1960s and founder of both the William Billings Institute of American Music and Performers' Co-op through the early 1990s.

"He was a genius," said Joseph Albano, director of the Albano Ballet in Hartford, who was a student of Frink's at New London High. "This man's legacy is indeed New London. It's as powerful as (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene) O'Neill, if not more powerful, in another point in time."

Earlier this year, Frink rewrote portions of the music for Albano's dance piece "The Minister's Black Veil," based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story. The piece was performed in August at Central Connecticut State University's Welte Theater in New Britain, and Albano says he has plans to reprise it next year in the New London area to honor Frink's memory.

Despite his many talents, Frink never sought the limelight, instead preferring a simple existence in New London, where he enjoyed writing music and collaborating with other local artists, including his wife, Resurreccion Espinosa, who started the group Teatro Latino de New London and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith.

"For him, being involved in the arts was always a community thing," Espinosa said. "The theater was very much alive and also very thought-provoking. There was nothing common about it."

Among his greatest local successes were a series of musical plays with Performers' Co-op, including "Hands," which involved sketches with musical interludes based on the characters he and Espinosa saw on Bank Street in New London. The group also performed a popular annual play titled "Winter Holidays" that traced the traditions of the season.

He also enjoyed recognition as composer and musical director for the play "Donnegan's Crusade," put on by the Footlighters in 1969 at Mitchell College.

As co-founder and president of the William Billings Institute, Frink introduced the region to the music of much-neglected American composers in a series of summer concerts. He also led a local chorus that sang songs from the American experience, and he would lecture about the history behind each of the pieces that he arranged for piano and voice.

After graduating with a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1951, Frink spent three decades as a history teacher at New London High School while also teaching at Connecticut College and Three Rivers Community College. Former students remember his passion for teaching and his ability to transmit that passion to his students.

Richard Foye, a former New London interim school superintendent and former Frink student and colleague at New London High, said he found Frink encouraging of others' explorations even if he was not interested in going in the same direction.

"He loved to be out on the edge and exploring the next idea," Foye said. "He left a lasting impression on me during my career."

Frink also was remembered for leading a series of teacher strikes in New London as head of the local teachers' union.

In 2005 he ran for a seat on the City Council under the One New London Party banner and won. But he later had disagreements with the party and ran for re-election unsuccessfully as a Republican. He also served as vice chairman of the city charter commission and was known as a forceful opponent of the strong-mayor form of government.

Michael Passero, a city councilor who sought advice from Frink before running for a seat as a Democrat and later opposed him on the strong-mayor question, said he remembers Frink for his willingness to share his views and to educate.

"I think that he always made very principled decisions," Passero said.

Murray Renshaw, a city political observer, said he admired Frink's ability to stand his ground and not be bullied.

"He would not be manipulated by any political party," he said. "He was a real New Londoner. He just wanted what was good for the entire city."

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow

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