The Rev. Robert J. Fringo, a retired activist Methodist minister who was the founder of the Plumb Line, a Fells Point outreach center, died Aug. 31 from heart failure at Union Memorial Hospital. The Perry Hall resident was 91.
“Rev. Fringo was caring and compassionate while displaying gifts and graces to the flock he was assigned to attend,”the Rev. Gertie T. Williams, former pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, wrote in a letter to Mr. Fringo’s family.
“He exemplified the love of God to a small congregation — some of whom were not easy to pastor. He displayed great leadership skills as he preached and taught and encouraged us to be good stewards and disciples,” she wrote.
Robert Joseph Fringo, the son of Joseph Salvatore Fringo, a Brooklyn Borough Gas Co. repairman, and his wife, Florence Loretta Hansen Fringo, a homemaker, was born at home in Brooklyn, New York.
After graduating in 1946 from Alexander Hamilton High School, he began his college studies at Brooklyn College before transferring to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), from which he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1955.
He was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn when his father was killed at work in 1943.
“He always talked about how much he missed his father, who was killed trying to save someone from a gas leak,” said his daughter, Ruth Anne Diggs of Perry Hall. “My father was 16 at the time, and the eldest of 12 children, and his father’s death left the family extremely poor.”
It was while he was attending the old Fisherman’s United Methodist Church in Brooklyn that he fell under the influence of the Rev. Carroll A. Doggett, then a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City who became the church’s student minister and later an ordained Methodist minister.
“My parents also met at the church, and Rev. Doggett, who had left and became a minister, later returned and married them there,” Ms. Diggs recalled. “It was Rev. Doggett who helped get him a scholarship to Western Maryland College, and it was because of him that Pop became a Methodist minister.”
Mr. Fringo obtained his divinity degree in 1958 from Westminster Theological Seminary as a member of its last graduating class when it was located in Westminster.
While an undergraduate, Mr. Fringo was called in 1954 to become a student minister at the old Light Street Methodist Church in Federal Hill, a position he held for two years, because the “church was in decline and could not afford a full-time minister,” family members said.
In 1956, as an ordained Methodist minister, Mr. Fringo became pastor of Exeter Memorial Methodist Church on North Milton Avenue, where he remained until 1958, when he was assigned to three churches that made up the Fells Point Parish: East Baltimore Station United Methodist Church, Broadway United Methodist Church and Caroline Street United Methodist Church.
“Here was this young man from Brooklyn who came to Baltimore, and they gave him difficult parishes in East and South Baltimore and he handled them all very well,” said Mr. Doggett, who retired in 1988 from Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, where he had been pastor.
“They had been declining churches, and he preached in them on a regular basis and continued doing so until 1975,” said Jay Diggs, his son-in-law, of Perry Hall.
Each church had mixed congregations of African Americans, whites and Lumbee Indians, his daughter said. “These were turbulent times for inner-city churches whose congregations were shrinking, and it was also a time of poverty,” she said. “They couldn’t finance themselves and his mission was to combine the congregations.”
During the 1960s, he joined with local political and community leaders, clergy and other activists in the civil rights movement, and in August 1963 was on the Mall in Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech. He also participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Mr. Fringo was the founder in the 1960s of the Plumb Line, converting a Fells Point storefront into a parish office and community outreach center with programs that helped the needy. It also housed one of the city’s first Well Baby clinics, his daughter said.
“He always reached out to those who had special needs,” Mr. Doggett said.
“He was always concerned about the little guy and wasn’t afraid to take a stand against racists and bigots,” said a nephew, Derek B. Woodward of Perry Hall.
Mr. Fringo played a prominent role as a member of the Southeast Community Organization — SECO — which supported the Fells Point Preservation Society (FPPS) and the Southeast Council Against the Road’s successful effort to have Interstate 95, slated to be constructed through Fells Point and Canton, rerouted away from the communities.
The efforts of SECO and FPPS resulted in the annual Fells Point Festival, which was founded as a fundraiser to wage the campaign against the proposed highway.
From 1975 to 1983, Mr. Fringo was pastor of two churches concurrently: Emory United Methodist Church and Mount Zion United Methodist Church, both in Ellicott City, and from 1983 until his retirement in 1996, he led the congregation of Halethorpe-Relay United Methodist Church in Halethorpe.
But Mr. Fringo didn’t really fully retire, and two years later began working as a staff minister of visitation at Loch Raven United Methodist Church, a position he held until 2014.
From 1998 until 2014, when he finally fully retired, he was a substitute minister at Idlewylde United Methodist Church in Towson and at Camp Chapel United Methodist Church in Perry Hall.
The Rev. Herbert W. Watson Jr., pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Hanover, considered Mr. Fringo to be his mentor.
“Rev. Fringo. Here we go again. I can never thank you enough for all you did as my pastor, friend, mentor and guide as I answered a call to ministry,” Mr. Watson wrote in a note that was placed with others inside Mr. Fringo’s casket. “You and your family have touched and continue to touch my life. You have gone from labor to reward.”
Mr. Woodward praised his uncle’s abilities as a storyteller. “He was very good at storytelling, and I remember him telling me how he hitchhiked to go to Western Maryland College,” he said. “He was a person who was genuinely interested in what was going on in your life.
“He was a very kind guy who had a certain presence about him. He exuded intelligence and was obviously well-educated,” said Mr. Woodward, a Baltimore County public schools social studies teacher. “He liked to challenge you and because of that, I was drawn to him — plus we both shared an interest in history.”
Mr. Fringo, who maintained a deep interest in Egyptology and history, also enjoyed reading and visiting museums.
He kept a daily journal for more than six decades.
“He journaled on 3 x 5 cards and always used a fountain pen,” his daughter said. "Then he carefully filed them in cabinets. He was still journaling the Thursday before he died."
“Rev. Fringo’s life will be remembered and cherished,” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church wrote in a letter to conference members.
“His commitment to justice and his spirit of service have been a strong witness. His ministry touched countless lives. ... Thanks be to God for Rev. Fringo and for his example to us and the world, for his vision reached far and he saw beyond his present circumstances. Amen,” she wrote.
Funeral services were held Sept. 7 at Camp Chapel United Methodist Church in Perry Hall, where he was a member.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Fringo is survived by his wife of 69 years, the former Helen Marie Cox; three sons, Stephan Fringo of Annapolis, and Douglas Robert Fringo and John Fringo, both of Perry Hall; a brother, Edward Fringo of Rocky Point, New York; two sisters, Arlene Figliola of Brooklyn, New York, and Florence Alexander of Staten Island, New York; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.