Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mr. Fisk goes to Sao Paulo

Here am I paraphrasing Hollywood director Frank Capra's titles 'Mr. Deed goes to town' (1936) and 'Mr. Smith goes to Washington' (1939) to introduce the life of Richard Hugh Fisk aka Mr. Fisk the man who made the task of learning English-as-a-foreign-language a little easier for thousands upon thousands of Brazilian students. 

'Immediate Converstion in English' double-album made by Chantecler in the 1960s.

Richard Hugh Fisk was born on 3 September 1922 in a farm in Tunbridge-Vermont  owned by his grandfather Roswell Fisk.

His parents Sarah (born in 1890) and Herbert Fisk (1893) lived in Fulton-N.Y. and had Herbert Junior (Herbie) in 1914 and Leonard (Larry) in 1916 when tragedy struck Roswell Fisk’s family: their son Fay died of polio in 1917.

Herbert’s mother Emma Slavar Fisk was grief-stricken and made Roswell Fisk move the family to the hills of Vermont in the Orange County to start a new life planting corn, hay and extract maple syrup from the trees. Tunbridge-VT was a small town so they did their shopping in Barre-VT.

Herbert & Sarah then had Robert in 1919, Lois, the only girl, in 1921 and finally our hero, Richard Fisk in 1922.  

In 1924, when Richard was 2 years old they moved from his grandfather’s property and rented a house near by but kept on working for him.  

In 1929, their neighbour Clarence Rogers died and his widow Myra employed Herbert Fisk as her factotum.  The family moved in to share the farm-house with the owner.

In July 1933, when Richard was 11 years old the farm-house burned down so the family moved back to Fulton-N.Y. where one could get better employment. Soon, Herbert loses his job and goes back to Vermont and Myra’s arms. Sarah who stayed back in Fulton sues for divorce which is granted in 24 October 1934.

Richard enters High School in September 1935 while Herbie Jr. marries and Larry becomes the de-facto male head of the family.

In 1938-1939, his last year in High School, Richard gets the taste of how much he liked teaching when he substitutes an absent teacher at the last minute and sees it’s good even though he was shy personally.  At the same time he takes typing and short-hand at a business school.

In the summer of 1939, his brother Larry decides to try his luck in Richmond, Virginia and Richard goes along for the 15-hour ride south.  Larry found a good job but Richard didn’t so he went further south to Saint Petersburg, Florida where he stayed with Ernest and Lottie his elderly grand-uncle and grand-aunt just in time for the 1939-1940 winter season. Richard found employment in the hospitality industry, made himself a little money working as a bus boy and bell-hop and as 'high season' ended in May 1940, he went back to to Richmond-VA where he worked  at McCrory’s department store while going to business college at the University of Virginia at night and shared a house with Larry and their mother Sarah.

The USA entered World War II in December 1941. His brother Robert (Bob) had joined the US Army in 1940 as a nurse and Larry decided to volunteer with the Navy. Richard was finally conscripted into the US Army in November 1942. As both brothers went to war, Sarah went back to Fulton-NY to live with Lois, whose husband Slim was also conscripted. 

In 1943, while in the US Army, Richard studied engineering at the Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical University being finally shipped to Europe arriving in Marseille in the fall of 1943 where he performed mostly clerical work usually typing away in 4 carbon copies. While working for the Army, Richard noticed that American generals and military staff had difficulty in communicating with the Russians, who were USA's allies in the war against Germany, Italy and Japan. So Richard started studying the Russian language by himself thinking he might one day help Americans communicate faster with their Russian counterparts. 

Richard Fisk served the US Army for 37 months, 13 of them in Europe where once he had a chance to see Marlene Dietrich performing for the troops. In December 1945, when the war was already won, Richard received news from home that his father Herbert had had a stroke and was not well. Richard was discharged and had the chance to spend Christmas 1945 with his father in Vermont. Father died early in the new year.

As Richard had served the Army for such a long time he was entitled to go to University free of charge benefiting from a programme created by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration. Richard took full advantage of that and went to Syracuse University in the State of New York early in 1946 and graduated in International Relations having taken Russian as a second language.

Late May 1947, Richard gets his feet on road and hitchhikes from Fulton-NY to California. He visits Minneapolis-Minnesota, Oregon, San Francisco finally reaching Los Angeles. On his way back East, in San Bernardino he gets a lift with a friendly 60-year-old man driving a Buick. They share the driving-wheel and go through Las Vegas, Denver, Wichita up to Kansas City. Richard takes another 10 days to reach Syracuse-NY where he would stay another year and finally graduate in May 1948.

In 1949, Richard does his Master degree at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington-DC while Larry, who had been working for the government since 1948 is transfered to work at the US Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

After Richard earned his degree he came to a rude awakening: he could not find a job. Little did he know that he had been swimming against the stream when he chose to study Russian during the War years. Circa 1947, President Harry S. Truman declared Russia as the enemy starting the hideous Cold War that lasted 35 years and shattered any dreams Richard might have had in using his abilities with the Russian language. He got stuck with a diploma that opened no doors whatsoever.

He went on to try his luck in New York City where his brother Bob had been living and working as a hairdresser. Larry had been transfered yet again from Caracas to Sao Paulo to work in the American Consulate. He lived with Sarah in a good apartment on Avenida Brigadeiro Luiz Antonio. As Richard was depressed and dejected in NYC, Larry invited him to visit them and the invitation was accepted on the spot.

Richard sailed to Brazil in late February arriving in Santos on 7 March 1950. He had studied some Portuguese grammar on the voyage and could already form some sentences to impress his mother and brother at his arrival. He realized he could work in São Paulo as soon as he opened the newspaper and saw Help Wanted ads for people who could speak English. He soon starts working for Oleo Galena Signal a Texaco company at an office near Theatro Municipal in the heart of the city.

Besides working for the American Consulate during the day, Larry had been teaching English as-a-foreign-language for União Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos at night. He introduced his kid-brother to the school management and he was hired immediately to give classes to two groups of 20 students each. Soon Richard left UCBEU for Instituto de Idiomas Yazigi, a private language-school on Rua Libero Badaró not far from the Texaco office.

Richard knew he liked teaching much better than working in an office so he left his day-time job and started teaching English morning, noon and night. Richard fell in love with Brazilians and their friendlieness and particularly with Zelia de Toledo Pisa, one of his students at Yazigi, who was a young lady who had already been married, separated and had 3 children.

In early 1951, TV Tupi, the very first TV station established in Brazil only a year before entered a partnership with Instituto Yazigi for them to produce a half-hour weekly programme in which a young North-American teacher would teach English for a few hand-picked students. The show would also be beamed on Radio Tupi and presented in a printed format at some newspapers belonging to Diarios Associados, owned by press baron Assis Chateaubriand the Brazilian counterpart of Randolph Hearst.

Richard Hugh Fisk was the man chosen to impersonate Mr. Pep, a handsome yankee with a heavy accented Portuguese who taught English in a most engaging way to students who could be either Lolita Rodrigues or Hebe Camargo, both future major TV stars. Mr Pep soon became a popular fixture with those who had a TV set. Before sailing back to the USA, Larry warned his brother that he would be known only as Mr. Pep so Richard made sure TV Tupi would insert a vignette saying: Richard Fisk as Mr. Pep! The show ran from 1951 through to 1953.

Mr. Fisk hams it on TV Rio, Channel 13, in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s.

After some time teaching English to Brazilians Richard came to the stunning conclusion that what Brazilians found the most difficult in speaking English was how to make questions. So he devised his Metodo Fisk de Ensino (Fisk's Teaching Method) in which he emphasized the use of Auxiliary Verbs - do, did, will and would - in the making of questions. He leaves Yazigi for private classes at home. Late 1955, he enters a partnership with Zelia in a sports good business but soon realizes teaching is his only calling.

Late 1957 he marries Zelia who moves into his apartment with her 3 children. Around this time Richard presented a show on TV Paulista in which children lip-synched to an American pop-song and he would translate it into Portuguese and explain some grammar points. The programme was video-taped at his own flat using his children as characters. TV Tupi wanted to revive Mr. Pep but that ended up going to someone else who had been a Fisk's student.

Finally in August 1958, Richard opens his first school on Rua Francisca Miquelina, 118, a short street running parallel to Avenida Brigadeiro Luiz Antonio where he lived with Zelia and the children. It had a few rooms that were turned into 6 class-rooms and a small space to acommodate a secretary-receptionist that would play a very important role in the running of the future units that would spring up with the years. Richard always had a special relationship with those secretaries through the years. Some of them rose to prominent roles in what would become the Fisk Organization and later Fisk Foundation.

Fisk introduced a revolutionary method in the teaching of English-as-a-foreign-language in Brazil. Most language-schools usually started with the verb ‘to be’ plus a demonstrative pronoun:  ‘This is a book’. Students got stuck in that mode and hardly ever made any progress.  Mr. Fisk had a complete new approach in the introduction of simplified questions & answers. He would write 4 auxiliary verbs in a column on the left-hand side of the blackboard: do, did, will, would; in the next column on the right he woud write the pronouns:  I, you, he, she, it, we, they; then on the 3rd column he would present a few verbs and complements like today, yesterday and tomorrow. Students looking at the blackboard could make up a question and their fellow student would answer it: ‘Do you eat potatoes every day?’ Yes, I do; No, I don’t.  ‘Did you sleep well yesterday?’; ‘Will you go to school tomorrow?’ etc.

Students could ask and answer questions on the very first day and that made the classes more dynamic. Instead of talking whether that was a book or not, students actually talked about themselves and their mates. Mr. Fisk was not Christopher Columbus but he actually discovered an easier way to make questions in English and not get lost in the forest.

The so-called Basic Course had 12 lessons and it contained the whole English grammar in a nutshell. This was revolutionary too as other methods were given in a piecemeal way. After less than a year, the Fisk student was lord of the English language as a whole.

After having acquired a sound base of the English language through those magical 12 lessons came the 2nd book called Junior in which the student could read a dialogue between American everyday people plus some notions of phrasal verbs and the introduction of the Imperial Weights and Measures - pounds instead of kilos, miles instead of kilometres, feet instead of metres, Fahrenheit instead of Celsius etc.

The 3rd book was called Senior and it contained short stories about a typical American family going off on their annual vacation. Then the 4th book, called Intermediate the student had the chance to see phrasal verbs with more details. Finally the 4ht and final Advanced book would wrap it all up.

Escolas Fisk grow

After some time, Fisk opened his 2nd school at Alameda Santos circa 1959. Then it was time to open a 5-class-room school on the 8th floor of a tall building at the heart of the financial district on Rua XV de Novembro.

In 1961, Fisk opened a unit in the far-away suburb of Santo Amaro on Rua Dr. Antonio Bento , 231, having put Russian national Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Jensen as directors. Next came the unit Ipiranga-Cambuci on Avenida Dom Pedro I, 1.048 having Umberto Blancato as director.

Circa 1966, Fisk opened one of his most successful units on Avenida Rebouças, in Pinheiros which would boast about 600 students by 1980. Maria Turchinski was Rebouças-Unit's indefectible secretary who made the grade even with stiff competition from Yagizi that opened a unit close by on Rua Pedroso de Moraes and CCI that opened a unit just across the street.

So we stop at the year 1966. We didn't actually intend to tell the whole story. A proper book telling Mr. Fisk's story was written by Elias Awad and released in 2008.

Richard Fisk (third from the left) at Elementary School in Vermont.
Sarah Fisk, his mother at centre and toddler Richard with his father Herbert at the farm.
Herbie, Robert & Larry Fisk. 
a young Richard Fisk; Larry & Robert Fisk.
Richard Fisk at the US Army in 1944.
Richard's graduation; Leonard & Sarah arrive in Brazil in 1950; Richard & Mum visit Florida in 1954.
Richard Fisk arrives in Brazil by ship and is welcomed by his mother Sarah (right-hand-side photo).
Leonard, Sarah & Robert Fisk in 1943; Sarah & Leonard in Brazil in the 1950s.
Fisk Family in the USA sometime in the 1950s. 


  1. Tenho este primeiro lp 'Immediate Converstion in English' de 1960
    alguém interessado? Edson 41-99750740 curitiba

    1. Obrigado pela informação, Edson... está ai para quem estiver interessado!!!

  2. oi eu to fazeno um trabaio sobre a fisk caraio, me ajuda ai meu concagrado i aiai

  3. A sua escrita está muito 'fake' para ser um aluno 'fazeno' um 'trabaio', 'caraio'...