Helmut Fricker is a living Vail Valley landmark
January 1, 2014
VAIL — Helmut Fricker is an American miracle.
He inspires laughter and happiness everywhere he performs. Mostly, though, Fricker inspires. This is a small story about his huge life. He has known love and loss, war and peace. Love and peace are better.
We’ll start Fricker’s story with peace. He and his family immigrated to the United States from Germany and landed in Oklahoma, July 3, 1969. The next day, their first day in their new country, they saw parades, picnics and fireworks.
“We thought it must be for us,” Fricker smiled.
Fast forward a few weeks and his host family took them to Denver for a visit. They arrived in the dead of night. The next morning Fricker stepped outside and into a crystal blue Colorado day. He looked around at the pine trees, the roses and gazed west toward the Rocky Mountains. He swore he’d never leave. It’s Colorado’s great fortune that he didn’t.
He’s been to every state in the United States, and people from every state have come to Colorado to see their old friend perform. Not only has Fricker been alive for seven decades, he has lived.
Everything is a story; some are magic, some are tragic. He grew up in war torn Germany in the 1940s where tragedy was the fabric of their lives.
There’s the story about how his school was bombed and he spent 50 hours buried in the rubble before he was found by rescuers collecting the dead. There’s the one about the fighter plane that strafed a railroad track beside his grandmother’s house, leaving shrapnel scars in his forehead and neck you can see to this day. The cat he was holding was killed, but Fricker lived.
There’s the heartbreaking and awe-inspiring story of his father being ripped from the family in 1939 and forced into the war. His father had watched his two brothers, Fricker’s uncles, executed for refusing to fight. He knew that, ironically, war was his only chance for survival. For six long years he fought, mostly to stay alive. In 1942 he was listed as missing in action and presumed dead. The Americans captured him in 1945 and handed him over to the Russians. He spent five years, until 1950, in a Siberian concentration camp. The Russians imprisoned more than 10,000 people; 800 survived. In late 1949 a postcard finally found the family. “I’m alive,” was all it said.
On New Year’s Day 1950, 11 years after he’d been taken away, his father walked through the door. The reunited family returned to their hometown to rebuild their house and their lives. His father refused a job as a police officer. He looked at Fricker, his young son and said, “For $1 million, I will never put on a uniform again.”
Arriving in America
That same year, 1950, Fricker was offered an opportunity to apprentice with a master bookbinder. Eight years later Fricker was a master. While learning his craft he collected bricks, boards and rusty nails from rubble piles, and saved his money. Finally, in 1965 he built a little house with a small grocery store on one side. By this time Fricker had married Ursula, his childhood sweetheart.
In 1952 his father spent 50 marks for Helmut’s birthday present, an accordion. It took a year to pay off, but it has changed lifetimes.
America showed itself to Helmut one day when an Oldsmobile rolled up their street in Karlsruhe. Helmut had never seen anything like that huge American car.
Two women climbed out, all powdered up, and walked into his store, wives of officers at the nearby U.S. Army base. The families became good friends and when it came time for them ship back to the U.S., they invited Fricker’s family to immigrate to America.
“We’re going to America!” Fricker announced.
Part of that story is the story about how being able to read backwards helped him to win a television quiz show, how first prize was a cow and how he sold the cow the next day for 900 marks to buy passage to America. The quiz show cow was plastic, and as Fricker pretended to milk it he read the answer to the question on the bottom of the milk bucket.
He and his family landed in Oklahoma, July 3, 1969. That next day was the day Helmut figured all the parades and celebrations were for them coming to America.
Fast forward from Oklahoma to Denver. Fricker let it be known that he was a master bookbinder, and he had five job offers that week, although the actual job interviews were short.
“I didn’t speak English,” he said.
Through it all, his music made the difference.
He met a German woman, Herta Thomas, who owned an import business in Denver’s Larimer Square. They roped off a huge area and Fricker became a one-man Oktoberfest.
A guy named John Kelly saw him perform in Denver and invited him to Vail to perform for a doctors convention at Manor Vail.
He’d play wherever he could in Denver and Vail. During breaks he talked to people, improving his English and promoting his book binding business. He was having a tough time getting a business loan. He’d been turned down by six banks and the Small Business Administration.
One night he was playing in a Front Range restaurant and this guy was paying close attention. He turned out to be an administrator for the Small Business Administration. They talked a minute, and the guy decided to cut the red tape.
“You come see me,” the man told Helmut during a break in Fricker’s show.
“By Wednesday I had $10,000 in my bank account,” Fricker said.
His first bookbinding customer was Gov. John Love. He had met Love’s secretary during a performance, the same way he met folks from the Denver Public Library. He restored their books from the 1500s to the 1800s. Through it all he played as much as he could. He still does.
When it rains in Vail, Fricker jumps on a town bus and rides around and around playing music for two hours.
“I just keep playing,” he said.
Keep playing, that’s the real miracle of Fricker’s life in America. Like the time he laughed all the way to a picnic because he made Clint Eastwood carry his accordion.
When former President Gerald Ford started the World Forum in Beaver Creek he invited Fricker to perform. Fricker spotted Betty Ford in a Vail beauty salon a day before and wandered in. “You know, there’s a tradition of hosting a breakfast dance,” Fricker said.
She didn’t believe him for a second, but it sounded like fun so she gave it the green light.
Fricker invited 14 of his friends, a brass band from Boulder, to join the party. His mother and father were visiting from Europe and when everyone was gathered he told the guys in the band, “We’re playing for President Ford!”
“Flapdoodle!” they responded, or words to that effect.
But about 8 a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning, Fricker and his 14 brass band buddies struck up the band outside President Ford’s Beaver Creek home.
Onto the front porch poured the Fords, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, British Prime Minister James Callahan, French Prime Minister Valery Giscard d’Staing, other amused aristocrats, their wives and a bemused Secret Service detail.
They danced. They sang. They had a great time. He said it was his parents’ most exciting day from his life, except maybe when he earned his U.S. citizenship in 2001.
It’s good to play. If you’re Fricker, your life is filled with it, and that’s the miracle.
“I can’t believe I have all this,” Helmut says, looking around and smiling at his handsome Rocky Mountain home.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.