In Memoriam: Robert W. Fri

Robert W. Fri

Robert W. Fri, an expert on environmental and energy policy who became director of the National Museum of Natural History and helped steer it through a period of renovation and rapid growth, died Oct. 10, 2014 at a hospital in Washington. He was 78.

The cause was lung cancer, said his son Sean Fri.

Mr. Fri (pronounced “fry”) was named director of the museum in 1996 after a decade as president of Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank studying environmental policy.

During his five years as director, he guided the remodeling of the gem and mammal exhibition halls and in 1999 opened the museum’s IMAX theater. Attendance grew from 5.3 million visitors in 1996 to 9.5 million in 2000 — the most of any museum in the world, according to news accounts.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fri’s tenure was not without moments of friction. In addition to dealing with flat revenues and an aging facility, Mr. Fri sometimes encountered opposition from members of the museum’s scientific staff, who objected to plans to remove or alter familiar displays.

“The idea is to bring it up to date, to make the whole experience much more of an immersion experience,” Mr. Fri told The Washington Post in 1998, explaining a series of renovations. “That means getting rid of the glass partition between you and the figures.”

He said several decades-old animal dioramas would be replaced because “some are mangy.”

Robert Wheeler Fri (Photo by Carl Hansen)

Robert Wheeler Fri (Photo by Carl Hansen)

A $20 million bequest from California real estate mogul Kenneth Behring came under question, especially when Behring said he would also donate a rare bighorn sheep that he had shot in Russia. In the end, the funds went toward refurbishing the museum’s mammal hall, which was named for Behring when it reopened in 2003.

By that time, Mr. Fri had left the museum. He resigned in 2001, when the Smithsonian’s new secretary, Lawrence M. Small, announced plans to eliminate several departments and strip the museum of many of its traditional roles in scientific research.

“I do not feel that I can make that commitment enthusiastically,” Mr. Fri said in his resignation letter.

He was the fourth museum director to leave the Smithsonian during the first year of Small’s tumultuous leadership. Small resigned under pressure in 2007.

Robert Wheeler Fri was born in Kansas City, Kan., on Nov. 16, 1935. He was a 1957 physics graduate of Rice University in Houston and received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1959.

After Navy service, he came to Washington in 1963 to work for McKinsey & Co., a management consultant firm. In 1971, Mr. Fri became the first deputy administrator of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency and was interim administrator in 1973. He held a similar role at the Energy Research and Development Administration, a forerunner of the Department of Energy, from 1975 to 1977.

He was president of a company seeking to market alternative fuels before joining Resources for the Future in 1985.

In later years, Mr. Fri served on advisory boards studying the future of energy and climate change. He lived in Bethesda, Md., and was an elder and trustee of Georgetown Presbyterian Church and a member of the Cosmos Club.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Jean Landon “Jill” Fri of Bethesda; three sons, Perry Fri of Herndon, Va., Sean Fri of Takoma Park, Md., and Kirk Fri of Centreville, Va.; and two granddaughters.

This obituary was written by Matt Schudel and originally published by the Washington Post.

Posted: 10 March 2015
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Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.