One was an iconic American poet.
The other was a thoughtful rabbi living in Cincinnati.
As unlikely a pair as they seemed, Robert Frost and Victor E. Reichert built a close friendship focused on literature and philosophy that stretched over two decades.
Now, that friendship will be preserved and admired – as well as studied, by future generations – here in Buffalo, thanks to a donation by the rabbi’s son.
Jonathan F. Reichert, a retired physics professor who taught for three decades at the University at Buffalo, has donated to the university a voluminous cache of letters, inscribed books, manuscripts, voice recordings, photographs and other materials exchanged between his father and Frost over about 20 years.
Jonathan Reichert, when he was growing up, also knew Frost.
“I wanted the friendship of my father with Frost to be part of history,” said Reichert, 81. “Because I saw it. I know it changed Frost.”
The thousands of Frost-related items in the Reichert collection mean that UB will vault into a prominent position among archives and libraries that have Frost collections – one of the 20th century’s best-known and most beloved literary voices.
Frost died 50 years ago this month at age 88.
Previously, the Buffalo university had limited holdings on the New England-bred author – despite the fact that Frost visited UB for three days in 1927.
“Mr. Frost said that every good poem begins in a mood,” the Bee, a UB student newspaper, reported of one talk Frost gave to students at the time. “Then the mood finds the idea and the idea finds the words.”
Michael D. Basinski, curator of The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, is excited about the donation.
“This is a major acquisition for us,” Basinski said.
‘Star-struck with Frost’
Basinski said the gift, which Reichert made final just a few weeks ago, has already attracted attention in the literary and poetry communities worldwide.
“It’s measured by the fact that the person who’s doing the collected Robert Frost letters is already on his way here,” Basinski said. “We have a delightful collection – it adds to the scholarly status of our college.”
“There are unique items here that are nowhere else.”
Frost, who was born in 1874, was already a well-known poet when he became friends with Reichert.
The rabbi was a generation younger than Frost, but the two connected after Reichert met Frost at a reading the poet gave in Cincinnati, said Jonathan Reichert, who lives in Buffalo. A friendship quickly blossomed.
“My father was absolutely star-struck with Frost, to some extent,” Reichert said.
But there was an everyday quality to their relationship as well.
“There was a lot of peer interaction,” Jonathan Reichert said. “I remember playing tennis with him. Dad said, ‘You’ve got to let him win.’
“And I said, ‘No, I won’t.’ ”
The relationship between Frost and Reichert was captured in a 1994 book, “The Poet and the Rabbi,” by Andrew Marks.
The new Frost collection is both varied and deep, said curators at the UB poetry and rare books repository in Capen Hall on the North Campus in Amherst.
Among the eye-catching items in the trove are books inscribed to Reichert family members from Frost, some of which contain personal messages or quotes from Frost’s poetry, and an array of more than 60 photographs of Frost, at various ceremonies and public events, but also in private, spending time with the Reicherts.
The family lived in Cincinnati and used a summer residence in Vermont that was near Frost’s home, curators at UB said.
The Reichert collection also features unusual and one-of-a-kind items – such as a 1946 recording of Frost delivering a sermon, at Reichert’s request, in the Rockdale Avenue Temple in Cincinnati.
The collection also includes about 600 newspaper clippings about Frost, a large assortment of magazines with Frost on the cover, and rare Frost chapbooks and holiday publications, curators said.
Among the other treasures are letters handwritten by Frost and answered by Reichert, often at length, as part of a correspondence that the men carried on, said James L. Maynard, associate curator of the poetry and rare books collection at UB.
“I sort of think of the two of them … as Wordsworth and Coleridge,” Maynard said. “They lived near each other. As for Frost, he could be taciturn.
“So much of their conversation was in person. We have just a handful of their letters.”
Attention to detail
In one letter, Frost wrote to Reichert – in sprawling handwriting, on unlined paper – asking him a theological and philosophical question, about whether human beings can be acceptable in the sight of God. He writes a plaintive-sounding question, wondering if he has been conjuring bits of faith and philosophy in his own mind.
Reichert responded with a three-page typed letter – also in the UB collection – in which he laid out extensive literary and biblical reasons for faith.
“ ‘Here it is, the Bible is the authority,’ ” Basinski said, summarizing the letter. “ ‘You most assuredly have not been making it up.’ ”
Frost, said the curators, was a man eternally questing against the biggest conundrums and most basic questions of human existence.
“A classic American questioning mind about the nature of the spiritual, humans, life, God,” Basinski said.
“And,” added Maynard, “he was from New England, so there was a dark tinge to it, as well.”
The manner in which the rare materials found their way to UB is a story of attention to detail and personal relationships.
According to Jonathan Reichert, he had considered three locations for depositing the trove of Frost materials collected by his father.
Middlebury College was one, because Frost had a personal tie to that college; Amherst College, which has a library named for Frost, was the second.
Then there was UB, Jonathan Reichert’s own university. The younger Reichert had been a professor of physics for nearly 30 years, had won a top award for his teaching and had served as chairman of the Faculty Senate for a time.
What made the difference, Jonathan Reichert said, was that Basinski, the UB curator, made him an offer to come and spend time with him in his Buffalo home, sorting through the two decades worth of materials, identifying and cataloging the thousands of items.
“Mike was different from everybody else,” Jonathan Reichert said. “He was the only one of the archives who said, ‘I will come and work with you.’ My feeling is, if Mike took charge of it, it would get the attention it deserves.”
Victor Reichert also had a connection to UB, his son said. In the 1980s, Jonathan Reichert said, his father came to the university to deliver a series of talks in the English department, about religious and literary subjects.
“My father … was a real scholar,” said the son. “He was a man in love with literature.”
The older Reichert died in 1990, at age 93, his son said. His mother, Louise, died some time after, at 102.
The trout factor
The creation of the new Frost collection at UB has allowed Jonathan Reichert to reminiscence about his own relationship with Frost, which lasted until the poet’s death in 1963.
He said he had one technique for getting to see the famous poet – who later in life had staff and assistants around him who could be protective – that never failed: trout.
“I knew Frost loved trout, so I would catch a bunch, … and I would go up and say, ‘I’ve got a bunch of trout, can I give them to Mr. Frost?’ ” recalled Jonathan Reichert.
“And I don’t think I was ever turned down.”
An exhibit featuring selected items from the new Victor E. Reichert Robert Frost Collection will be open to the public for two months, starting Jan. 31, according to UB curators. The display will be on the fifth floor of Capen Hall on the North Campus between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.