After retiring from United Airlines, marketing executive Regina Fraser re-invented herself as co-host of the popular PBS program, “Grannies on Safari.”
She and her friend Pat Johnson globe-trotted to exotic spots around the world. Between the two of them, Johnson estimated, they’ve visited more than 110 countries.
“They shattered perceptions of who has access to travel and the world,” said Lisa D. Lenoir, a professor at Stephens College and former travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was exciting to see independent women go into these environments, and extracting knowledge and sharing it.”
Radiant and ebullient, Mrs. Fraser traveled with homemade lotions and bath salts she made in her kitchen with fragrances and oils collected on her travels. She gave them away as goodwill gifts.
“She had such a presence,” Lenoir said. “So positive, full of life, and to embark on this venture after retirement was so exciting, because they wanted to open up the world to everyone.”
Mrs. Fraser, 73, of Chicago, died May 6 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Born in Los Angeles, her wanderlust may have been sparked by her father, jazz cornetist Reginald “Rex” Stewart, who played with Duke Ellington.
“My father had an entertainers’ travel trunk with beautiful stickers,” she once told Lenoir. “He would go away to Europe, Australia, Japan. I have always wanted to travel and knew that you were supposed to. As an adult, I was traveling as early as the ‘60s in Paris, France, and all around England.”
She once blogged about the time that piano great Billy Strayhorn, composer of “Take the ‘A’ Train,’’ babysat for her sister during an Ellington band rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. “During the rehearsal he would hand my sister, Helena, handfuls of chocolates. She was happy and enjoyed the attention and the chocolates even if they melted in her hands,” Mrs. Fraser wrote. “When dad went to retrieve her, Helena’s dress was streaked with multiple chocolate handprints! Dad was not happy and knew he had some explaining to do to my mom.”
For 31 years, Mrs. Fraser worked at Chicago-based United Airlines in inflight operations and corporate marketing and communications. Her husband of 34 years, Thomas E. Fraser, also worked for United, according to Johnson.
After retiring, she and Johnson, an arts executive, pitched a travel show to WTTW. They recruited a professional crew of camera and sound experts. Station executives liked the pilot and asked the women to do a series, Johnson said. “Grannies on Safari” launched in 2006 and aired on public television from coast to coast, including on WTTW and WYCC. It’s also being shown on Retirement Living TV, Johnson said.
The women had aneasy repartee. “When I retired and wanted to go to more places and make cultural connections, I didn’t want to go by myself,” Mrs. Fraser told Lenoir. “I like [Pat] because she makes me laugh.”
‘People think we have canes and white hair and doddering problems,” she said. “People realize, ‘These are not the average grannies.’ ’’
The Emmy-winning program had international impact. “They were filming in Buenos Aires, and I remember Pat and Regina said they were spotted by people who were saying, ‘Grannies on Safari!’ ’’ said Daniel Soles, WTTW senior vice president and chief television content officer.
They were in the headlines in 2011 when the “grannies” were stuck on a boat on the Nile during Egypt’s anti-Mubara+k revolution. She told the Sun-Times she got scared when stick-waving crowds raced past their tour bus in Alexandria. ”Some of those who came by flashed us the peace sign. I was frightened at times. I was uncertain at times,” she said. “But, most of all, I was curious.”
They rode elephants in Africa, learned to cook in India, and traveled about 5,000 miles from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
“She was a very great organizer,” Johnson said. “She had a great amount of curiosity about the world. She wanted to bring people together.”
“They had this level of wanderlust and adventure, but wisdom attached to it,” said Lenoir.
Mrs. Fraser loved jazz, including the tunes “Lush Life,” “Satin Doll” and “Cashmere Cutie.”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Fraser is survived by a daughter, Helena Hutton; her stepchildren, Steven and David Fraser and Melissa DiDonato; a sister, Helena Ashby; her brothers, Rex Stewart and Paul Albert Hardy, and seven grandchildren. A memorial is planned at 10 a.m. Saturday at Blessed Aloysius Stepinac Croatian Catholic Church, 6346 N. Ridge.
“There’s a lesson to be learned,” Lenoir said. “Live life. Experience it. Don’t postpone travel. That was a gift that she shared with us.”