In Homewood, it’s been Ouida Fritschi, a lady whose name is synonymous with all manner of community activity, but who is especially notable for her work with the Homewood Citizens Association, founded in 1979, and the newsletter she circulated containing all manner of inside stuff about my hometown.
Ouida mailed out the final HCA newsletter last week, concluding three decades of shining a small, bright light on politicians who too often prefer working in shadows. “Most of the founding members of the HCA have moved on,” she wrote, and Ouida is as well, planning to summer in Vermont during summers to come, thus unable to follow city actions as closely as before. With no successor committing to take her place as public witness to endless council, commission and board meetings, Ouida is signing off, but not without one last public disclosure:
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Anybody can watch these things from the sidelines, but somehow you decided to get involved, and I’m just wondering what was that spark?
OUIDA FRITSCHI: That’s a good question. I guess I got heavily involved with attending the council meetings because I was writing the newsletter and I had asked one of the city councilpeople a question about an issue, and he told me totally wrong. I went and checked it out and then I decided, well, you can’t write about it — you don’t know it — unless you’re actually there.
Have you had a lifelong interest in political things?
No. It really was just Homewood [that brought it out]. And I love Homewood.
Is there any particular issue you’ve crusaded for all these years?
I guess just openness. To be transparent. Because “they” aren’t.
Have you been frustrated by the lack of openness in community politics?
Well, you know, that’s why I’m there. You go to council meetings, you go to committee meetings and you really learn the thought processes behind what they’re doing.
Did you or the HCA ever come under pressure for all this transparency you were bringing to bear?
Actually, I’ve been threatened to be sued three times. They didn’t have any grounds, so I wasn’t worried about it. In fact — you’ll love this — the first time they threatened to sue me, an attorney sent me a letter, and he said something that I’d said in the newsletter he took exception to, and he said, “See attached” — my newsletter. When I went to see what was attached, it wasn’t my newsletter, but it was a letter he’d written to a doctor in south Alabama telling him how to testify during a deposition. So I sent that letter on to the good doctor, telling him what had happened and sent a copy back to the attorney and told him what happened. And of course I put this in the newsletter.
[Former state attorney general] Bill Baxley was the next one that threatened to sue me, because I’d made a statement in the newsletter about a soon-to-be-retired Homewood policeman, who, if he was elected mayor, was going to set up the largest gambling operation in the state of Alabama in Homewood. Bill Baxley sent me a letter and said there’s only one soon-to-be-retired Homewood policeman. I put that in the newsletter, too, because there wasn’t just one, there were two and I knew that. I never would have said it if there’d only been one. So I wrote in the newsletter that I didn’t name the soon-to-be-retired officer, but that Bill Baxley did, in his letter. Of course I sent him a copy of the newsletter, and I never heard from him again either.
Were you ever tempted to run for public office yourself?
I did. I ran for council in 1988, was in a runoff and then beaten in the runoff.
When you were politicking, did you find that people appreciated the openness you would have brought to the council?
People have told me that over the years, that they appreciate what I do, because it does bring things to the light of day that otherwise wouldn’t. One time — you’ll love this story, too — some man gave the Park and Rec Board a new pool table that showed up in the superintendent’s den. So I wrote about it in the newsletter and somebody called me from west Homewood one day, from the football stadium, and they said, “Ouida, they’re out here unloading a pool table into one of the buildings, and they dropped it and broke a leg off.” (laughs) I’ve really had a good time, but the politicians who don’t like me would tell you I’ve had no effect.
Yet you’ve been described so many ways — as a gadfly, an inspiration —
“Despicable.” That was one of the more recent terms, back when Ginger [Busby] was still council president. And way back the last time we voted to continue a school tax we’d been paying all along, a former councilwoman, she and I had a huge falling out, and she got on the radio with Russ and Dee Fine and called me “a self-proclaimed visionary.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Now, how has your family dealt with your being such a fixture on the local political scene?
When someone would say to my oldest daughter, “Are you by any chance Ouida Fritschi’s daughter?” she would say, “Well, is that good or bad?” But I think [my family] appreciated what I did; they were very, very tolerant. I mean, I was gone every Monday night.
A lot of people on blogs fancy themselves citizen activists because they write about what they think is going on, but here you were, for all these years, not just writing about it, but actually investigating what was going on. Do you think there’s still a role for your kind of citizen activism?
Obviously, I do. I wouldn’t have done it for so long if I didn’t. Now there’s a new group forming, Leadership Homewood, and they’re very clear that they’re not going to attend meetings. You sign a pledge to devote an hour a week to community activism, but they’re not going to be political. They’re not going to write a newsletter, but they will keep people up to date electronically.
Kevin Forsyth is the person heading up Leadership Homewood and I think he’s going to be an activist, but it’ll just be different. Kevin seems to be good at keeping on top of things, and that’s part of the reason it was the right time. Our active people in the HCA are all getting older, including myself, there are no young people coming in behind us. The young people that belong to the organization do so because they like the newsletter.
How could you stimulate young people to take the same intense interest in local politics that you have all these years?
That’s a great question. I’m just not sure that there’s anybody out there willing to devote the time to it. It’s very time-intensive. You would hope there would be somebody out there with that spark, but I don’t see it.
How do you think Homewood has changed in the 31 years you’ve been observing it?
Gosh, I don’t think it’s changed remarkably. I think we have the same pride in the schools, pride in the band. What’s interesting in Homewood is that wherever your child is in elementary school, that’s the school you think is the best in the system.
I guess the schools have changed, but we seem to keep on top of it. We continue to educate our lower socioeconomic group, which I am very proud of. Most people who live in Homewood do so because of the diversity. I’m very proud that we have it. If we didn’t want diversity, we’d live in Mountain Brook.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.