Newspaper career spans 45 years
Fitzgerald, always the newspaperman, wrote his own obituary sometime ago. Following is an excerpt:
“I was persuaded to write this by Jim Sherman, who said I should help write my obit. OK …
“ I was born Aug. 5, 1926 to Edmund and Gertrude (Gleason) Fitzgerald in Port Huron, Mich. I had 4 wonderful sisters, even including Terrible Jean. The other 3 are Mary Lou, Nancy and Linda. I graduated from St. Stephen School, from which I moved quickly – by draft – into the Army for World War II.
“When the war in Germany ended, I was there, in a hospital surrounded by wounded veterans. I was there because I had the flu. On Aug. 5, 1945, my 19th birthday, I left Europe by ship, promised a furlough in the U.S. before moving on to win the war against Japan. We landed in New York on Aug. 13, the day the Japanese surrendered. This proved the Japanese were smarter than the Germans because they obviously discovered I was coming.
“Upon discharge, I began college because the government paid my tuition and all other expenses. That was the first time I was glad to be a veteran. I graduated from the MSU School of Journalism in 1951 and got my first newspaper job at The Lapeer County Press. One of my first assignments was to go to the publisher’s home and help his wife move a refrigerator. I married a wonderful, beautiful co-worker named Patricia. Twenty-five years and 3 children later, we moved to Detroit where I spent 19 lazy years writing stupid columns for the Detroit Free Press.
“Now, I’m out of paper. Please forgive me this lousy typing. I love you all more than you could possible guess from my super silence. – Jim”
Jim Sherman, publisher emeritus of The Oxford Leader, Fitzgerald’s friend of many years upon hearing of the passing of his good friend, recalls, “Jim and I met at a Michigan Press convention in about 1953. We've been friends ever since, and I've been an avid reader of his “If It Fitz” forever. An early and lasting impression of his writing has been his use of words. I call it wordsmithing. He could give words different meanings than we had learned, make them fit the subject and leave me wondering why I hadn't thought of it. His range of topics seemed unlimited, and always timely. He was thorough, interviewing and searching for exactness. Jim could be cynical, critical, teasing and irritating, depending on his subject and opinion at the time. I looked forward to reading him whenever he was writing his column.”
Fitzgerald and his wife Patricia, a Lapeer native, met at The Lapeer County Press where she worked as a bookkeeper until 1970. They married and raised their family – daughters Karen and Christie, and son Ed – in Lapeer. Jim and Pat were active in the community as members of the Lapeer County Club, the First Presbyterian Church, and a number of service clubs. Pat recalls the early days of Jim’s newspaper career. “He wanted to be writer, but Harry Myers needed an ad salesman and Jim needed a job. While Jim was selling ads, he started writing a weekly column called ‘Along the Mainstem’ a collection of quips and news bits about his customers. The advertisers loved seeing their name in the paper. Jim’s sense of humor made the column popular with readers, too. Before long, Jim was reporting and writing full time and his column turned into “If It Fitz.”
Fitzgerald and Bob Myers, the son of publisher Harry Myers, were good buddies and shared a bachelor pad in Lapeer before they each got married to one-time classmates and best friends Patricia Fick and Lura Dietrich. Each couple eloped to Angola, IN on successive weekends in 1955 to skip the Michigan 3 day-waiting period for a wedding license.
Myers and Fitzgerald shared a love of hijinx that was often fueled by alcohol consumption. One of their more notable ad ideas was to photograph Lapeer farm implement dealer Jimmy Harris standing behind an operating manure spreader. In the resulting ad, the caption “I stand behind everything I sell” was printed in bold type beneath the photo of Harris, decked out in raincoat and hat while the machine sprayed him with cow manure.
Fitzgerald’s family was often the subject of his columns. His sister Jean Fitzgerald, recalls, “He always referred to me as ‘my much older sister, Terrible Jean’. We were really born only 21 months apart, but he liked to needle me.” When asked if she ever got angry about her brother’s printed barbs, Jean says, “Oh, yes, I’d be mad at him sometimes,” like the time Fitzgerald wrote that his 4 sisters each dyed their hair a different color. “That was when Jim was still in Lapeer and I thought none of our friends (in Oakland County) would see the paper. Then Bud Guest read the column on the air on WJR. I was so embarrassed. But nothing was sacred when it came to his column and Jim wouldn’t care if I got mad or not. He’d just laugh it off. I loved him dearly in spite of all the times he picked on me.”
Fitzgerald’s daughter, Christie, knew well the lack of privacy that her dad’s column created. “He’d write about something stupid that one us did and I’d hate to go to school the day after the paper came out because everyone would be talking about it”. Christie, her brother Ed and sister Karen became known to Fitzgerald’s readers as “Ferd, Nerd and startswith T-and-rhymes-with-Ferd-and-Nerd”.
“Thank goodness I had already graduated high school and moved away from Lapeer when that nickname hit the paper,” said daughter Karen. “I never would have lived that one down had I still been in school!”
Fitzgerald made a lot of friends in Lapeer. In spite of his liberal views on matters of religion, politics and social norms, which sometimes rubbed conservative-minded readers the wrong way, “Fitz” had plenty of buddies among Lapeer’s business community . Preston Mann, owner of the Hunters Creek Club in Metamora until his passing, was a frequent verbal sparring partner. Charlie Mann, Preston’s son, recalls, “They had a very interesting relationship. They were the greatest of friends but held polar opposite political and social views. Their discussions usually stayed civil unless Bob Myers would pour some gas on the fire by airing their debates in Myers’ own column.” The younger Mann recalls that Fitzgerald once referred in his column to the Hunters Creek Club as “an open air butcher shop.” “Myers egged on my Dad and put my Dad’s response in the paper, which was ‘Jim can say what wants about me, but I heard that when he gets a chocolate Easter bunny he bites the head off first.’” Mann says, “If those two guys were still here, CNN could put them on TV and have the number one debate-style show in the country.”
When Jim and his wife Pat made the move to Detroit and the Free Press, they embraced the city and the city embraced them. Fitzgerald’s columns on the Back Page of the Free Press became a must-read in the Motor City. Whether Jim was writing about cars double parked at the Detroit Athletic Club, marathon sitting or waging peace on military arms facilities, Free Press readers responded to Fitzgerald’s blend of humor, indignation and open emotions for family, friends and those who were not as equally blessed. Fitzgerald helped raise thousands of dollars for the Focus: HOPE and Leukemia Research Life! charities by publicizing their causes in his column and calling upon readers to donate.
Fitzgerald loved life in the city where he rode the bus to work from his high-rise apartment on E. Lafayette to the Free Press’s downtown office building on W. Lafayette. Fitzgerald turned down the Freep’s offer of a private office. Fitz preferred a desk in the middle of the City Room, working side by side with beat reporters.
Fitzgerald and his wife took advantage of Detroit’s dining and cultural options, attending plays or concerts and dining at the London Chop House or Little Harry’s. Fitz and Pat got to know many of the city’s piano players on a first-name basis as they frequented the piano bars at places like Top of the Ponch or the Caucus Club. But they were equally happy to dine on Coney dogs from the Lafayette Coney Island or catch an afternoon movie at the Ren Cen or in the suburbs.
Fitzgerald loved the Detroit Tigers and went to many games at Tiger Stadium, especially during their 1984 World Championship season. Whether the Tigers were winning or losing, Jim was a true fan – meaning he’d praise them when they won and curse them when they lost – and rarely missed a game on TV, radio or at the ballpark. Jim and Pat struck up a longlasting personal friendship with Tigers Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell and his wife Lulu.
Fitzgerald’s column was so popular that the Free Press published a book of his selected columns in 1986. Fitz’s friend, Elmore Leonard, famed author and screenwriter wrote in the introduction to that book, “The thing that amazes me about Jim Fitzgerald’s columns is they can veer off in unexpected directions, appear to be topic-hopping, observe llamas and Lee Iacocca in the same piece, but always manage to get back in time to arrive at a perfectly logical conclusion. You hear Jim’s voice and get the feeling that he would break his own fingers before ever attempting to show off with cute-clever words or images. What he is is an awfully good writer.”
Fitzgerald left the Free Press in 1996, several months shy his 20th anniversary there. A labor strike had hit both Detroit dailies that summer. Fitz said he was too old to pick sides and instead chose to retire a little early. He and Pat had already built a home in Lapeer by then and retired life suited Fitz. Friends and coworkers would ask Fitzgerald about writing a special column or even if he was planning on authoring a book. Fitz’s standard reply: “Do they ask a retired ditch digger to come back and dig one more ditch? No, they don’t. I’m retired and I’m done writing.”
Fitzgerald finished out his life in Lapeer, surrounded by family, reading every issue of The County Press, Free Press, Detroit News and Oxford Leader cover-to-cover and walking a mile or two every day until recently.
Jim Fitzgerald left a lasting impression on generations of journalists and writers. He brought a sense of fair play and class to anything with which he associated himself. He championed the less fortunate and challenged bigotry. He was and is an important part of the fabric of Lapeer County.
— Wes Smith, Group Publisher