Remembering George Frein, founder of Greenville Chautauqua

George Frein died on Oct. 4, 2023 in his Fort Worth, Texas home at the age of 91. The cause of death was cancer.

George was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 2, 1932. He began seminary studies at a young age and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1958. He ministered in parishes, taught in Catholic high schools, and completed a master’s degree in European history in the St. Louis area, before admission into graduate school in theological studies at Catholic University in Washington.

He left the priesthood in 1968 and joined the department of religious studies at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he taught for 29 years. After retiring in 1997, he moved to Greenville, where he founded the Greenville Chautauqua Society in which he was active until moving to Fort Worth, Texas in 2012. George continued to work with Humanities North Dakota on Chautauqua-related programs until his death.

George was a consummate teacher, with the rare distinction of receiving the university-wide teaching award in his second year on the faculty at UND. Through the lens of religious studies he introduced his students to questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, not only through traditional expressions of the Christianity in which he was raised, but also in Greek mythology, Native American spiritual practices (especially of the tribes native to the Dakotas), the psychology of Carl Jung, and American Literature. Throughout his life he continued to receive notes of appreciation from former students for his influence upon them.

In his later years he became an advocate for humanities programs in the public square, especially through Chautauqua programs introducing audiences to prominent American thinkers and writers through historical dramatization. To participate in these programs, George immersed himself in the writings of and about Hermann Melville, Abraham Lincoln, and Erich Maria Remarque among others. Though George insisted that Chautauquans should be scholars foremost, and not actors, he developed a flair for dramatic performance, as well as for nurturing thoughtful conversation with audiences about the characters he introduced. His best characterizations were of the American humorist and critic Mark Twain. Though audiences may have come for Twain’s humor, George also challenged them to hear Twain’s critiques of American racism, colonialism, and religious hypocrisy. His final Chautauqua performance was a Mark Twain monologue before an overflow audience at a Greenville Theater in February 2023, where he was presented a key to the city of Greenville for his work in public humanities.

George loved children. He also loved books and the words that are made into books. His children and grandchildren came to expect that the first present from him at birthdays and holidays would be a book. His dinner time conversation often turned to etymologies of words he wanted his children to understand. He also loved serving meals cooked from scratch, believing every home cooked dinner should be accompanied by candlelight, with family sharing stories from the day.

George was preceded in death by his parents, Harry and Margaret, and his brothers, Paul and Robert Frein. He is survived by his wife Shelly Matthews; his sister Denise Cole; his sister-in- law, Beverly Frein; his children, Mark Frein (Jessica), Nathan, and Alice Frein Matthews; his grandchildren Kate, Fiona, and Alexa Frein; and his nieces Mary Beth Burkart, Laura Cole, and Helen Hampson.

A funeral service is scheduled at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth on October 21 at 10 a.m. Burial will be scheduled for the summer of 2024 at the cemetery of St. John’s Benedictine Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota. Donations in George’s memory may be directed to Humanities North Dakota: