By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — On Jan. 8, 1997, a man walked into the Blue Earth County Courthouse named Fred Lynn Williams. He walked out named Punk Rock Freddie. Officially. No kidding.
“I was unhappy with my original name and I was going to punk parties where the youth told me I was a good punk rocker,” Punk told Static magazine in June 2004.
Punk Rock Freddie, who wowed passersby with his many piercings, tattoos and an old-school boombox, died Sunday at age 69. He reportedly had bladder cancer.
He was a colorful member of Mankato’s cast of characters, changing his hair color weekly, adding new piercings to this body. At the height of his movement about town, it would have been hard for anyone in town to not have at least seen him.
But Punk’s last few years saw him slow down quite a bit. He’d continued to lose his grip on reality and spend more and more time out of the public eye. He’d given up dyeing his hair. And he’d taken most of the piercings out of his ears, nose and chest. But on his hands, written across his knuckles — one letter per knuckle — you could still see his first tattoos he’d ever gotten: “P-U-N-K R-O-C-K.”
He was born and raised in Des Moines. When he was in his mid-20s, he bought a home on Lake Okoboji in Iowa. He got a job on the maintenance and grounds crew at an area school. This is where he said he began working with kids.
In that Static magazine article, he said: “The more I worked, the more youth I met and they would have nowhere to go so they would show up at my door. There was one counselor for five school systems. The youth came to me with their problems. Sometimes quite a few would show up at my door. They’d bring pizzas, snacks, have a real good time.”
Punk moved to the Mankato area in 1981. He told Static that a young man he knew wanted to move to the area to attend technical college. With the young man’s permission, Punk accompanied him to Mankato.
Once here, he started hanging out with young people and going to what he referred to as “punk parties.”
In 1990, Punk was involved in a motorcycle accident that would forever change his life.
“They said I only had 5 percent of my brain left,” Punk told Static. “Part of my memory of names, sometimes my mind will phase out, forgetting what I’m talking about.”
But that didn’t keep him from roaming town, boombox in hand, adding to his collection of friends, tattoos and body piercings.
He told Static a story of how, as he relaxed after getting his nipples tattooed, a pair of youngsters came up to him and invited him to a party. Punk went, and was treated to his first body surfing. He hit several parties that night, and was a regular in a vibrant punk scene after that.
The defining moment of his persona came in 1997. This is when he legally changed his name from Fred Williams to Punk Rock Freddie. He changed everything, including his bank accounts, to Punk Rock Freddie. And if you wanted to track him down in the phone book, he was there. First name Punk. Middle name Rock. Last name Freddie.
Heather Spann said she used to see him at Embers where she used to work as a waitress.
“He was really nice. Always friendly,” she said. “Didn’t always have a firm grasp on reality, but he was friendly.”
Spann said he was kind of a loner. But that may have changed around 2000 when he started coming to Bethel Baptist Church.
Rev. David Banfield said Punk came to the church and proclaimed he was an atheist. He came with an international student, and for some reason, he came to Sunday services.
And when he came, Punk came punk.
Different color hair every week, rock band T-shirt, piercings. Sometimes, when he was growing the holes in his ears, he’d used different things to fill them. Banfield says he remembered one Sunday Punk came with AA batteries filling the holes.
Not all was rosy in Punk’s world, though.
He was arrested once for purchasing alcohol for minors. But Banfield says that was a situation where his kindness, and fondness for youth, was exploited. Banfield said Punk, who was on several medications, didn’t understand what he was purchasing for the minors, and the minors knew that.
Other than that, Banfield said Punk was a busy volunteer for the church. He also volunteered at the ECHO Food Shelf and for the People’s Fair festival that used to take place in Mankato each summer.
“He was just someone who wanted to be accepted,” Banfield said. “He spent his life as a junior high kid, and wanted desperately to be accepted.”
In the twilight of his life, Punk disappeared from the scene.
He spent the final months of his life at Hillcrest Nursing Home. And when he was close to the end, he called Banfield.
“He was very appreciative of all we’d done for him,” Banfield said.
Punk may have come to Bethel Baptist an atheist, but he didn’t leave as one.
A year after he first arrived, Punk asked to be baptized. So after a Sunday service, Banfield and Punk together entered the baptismal font (in the Baptist church, baptisms are full-emersion affairs).
When it was his turn to proclaim why he wanted to be baptized, Punk said, “Jesus Christ is the Lord of my life.”
With that, Banfield put his hand on Punk’s orange-haired head and dunked him.
Banfield says he’ll never forget that day. Punk came out of the water, smiling wide and standing proud among his church family, orange dye dripping down his face.