Saltwater Portrait

Philip Fretz: From Sierra Leone to Lewes

Lewes man is Peace Corps teacher, computer programmer and author
May 22, 2018

Philip Fretz has lived three lives. His first was as a member of the Peace Corps, teaching in the African nation of Sierra Leone. His second life was computer programming in Washington, D.C.

Now living in Lewes, he has reinvented himself as an author, with five published works to his name.

In person, Fretz is reserved and fairly quiet. Gray-haired, mild-mannered and easygoing, Fretz comes off like your typical retiree who has come to the Cape Region to live the beach life. It's only once he begins talking that the richness of his experiences shines through.

It was Fretz's experience in Sierra Leone that formed the basis of his first book: "Softball, Snakes, Sausage Flies and Rice," an account of his days with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s.

Fretz wrote letters back and forth to his father while he lived in Africa, and both father and son had kept their letters. Fretz said when his dad passed away, those letters were given to him. When Fretz retired in 2008, he had time to look through them, and he started writing.

Of joining the Peace Corps, Fretz said, "This was when Vietnam was going on, so it was either the Army or something else. I was 21 years old. We trained in Washington, D.C., as school teachers. Then we went to Jamaica for four weeks to learn how to farm. Then they just shipped us out."

He said the kids of Sierra Leone had nothing, no books or anything, and he had to make frequent trips to Freetown, the country's capital, to get supplies. "It was a fascinating time. I wouldn't trade it for anything," Frentz said. "It's a fascinating country."

The country was an English colony, and English is the official language, but people there spoke a mishmash of tribal languages. As the book title suggests, Fretz coached softball, which presented some challenges. "They caught the ball with their feet, like they did in soccer," he said.

The snakes part of the title refers to an encounter Frentz had with a green mamba, one of the most deadly snakes in the world. "I was sitting in the place where I lived. I was with a student that I was talking to, and he grabbed me and threw me out of the house," he said.

Sausage flies are inch-thick flies found in Sierra Leone that Frentz said natives would catch and eat, as a protein source. "I made the title up thinking it was interesting. I had a lot of fun with this," he said.

Nearly 50 years after his time in the Peace Corps, Fretz took a trip back to Sierra Leone, and said he was surprised by how much things had not changed. Many of his old friends had died - the life expectancy there is 40, he said.

"People had cellphones, but other than that, the country is as poor as dirt, and it has never gotten beyond. That's sad. They also had civil war and an Ebola outbreak and all kinds of terrible disasters. It's not easy living there. What I learned myself is the people are the same everywhere," he said.

Following his time in the Peace Corps, Fretz got his master's degree in computer science at Temple University and became a programmer. That career spanned 25 years, working for Siemens Medical in medical and hospital data processing.

Starting in the late 1990s, Fretz began vacationing in the Cape Region, starting at a house in Ocean View.

Fretz's second book was the memoir-ish "Lost and Found on the Dance Floor: Romance in Rehoboth Beach." The book details memories of Rehoboth, particularly the former nightspot, the Renegade. "That one was easy to write," he said. "It was personal, but it was also a reflection back."

Fretz said the basis of the story is someone he knows that he described as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality during the day, but who would come alive at night on the dance floor

Fretz said Rehoboth is a special place for him. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he said.

Traveling is something Fretz has long loved to do. He's visited every continent and says Laos and Southeast Asia are his favorite places. He traces his ancestry to Romania, where his mother was born, and he once traveled to her family's old village. Fretz said her father died in World War I; fleeing Romania during World War II, his family came to the United States. His father's side of the family goes back further; they came from Germany to Pennsylvania in the 1720s as farmers.

Tracing his family geneaology helped form the basis for Fretz's first foray into fiction, his two-book "Alfred" series, which chronicles the life of an orphan boy in Philadelphia in the 1890s. He'd become interested in his family history because, while his father's side of the family kept very detailed documentation of their time in America, he and his sisters knew very little about their mother's side.

"She was brought over when she was 10, and her father died when she was 4. She passed in the 1970s, and my sisters and I decided, 'We're going to go track this down,'" Fretz said.

He said writing fiction was an adjustment for him and took some practice. But once he had the idea for the story, Fretz said it just came to him.
He said his fiction writing was helped by being a member of the Rehoboth Beach Writers' Guild.

"That's been really big in terms of getting to meet people who are also writers and getting to read in front of people. That gave me confidence," Fretz said. He has also taught and attended classes as part of University of Delaware's Osher program. He said the program keeps him active and his mind sharp at the age of 72. Fretz said he watches very little television and tries to read often, which helps his writing as it expands his vocabulary. He said he's now writing poetry, a format he enjoys for its brevity.

A father of two and grandfather of three, Fretz said he's looking to the future.

"I'm just really happy. I like it here," he said.