Movies have always fascinated Donald Fitzgerald.
“A long time ago, I got into film and wanted to make my own movies,” he said.
After a stint in the Air Force, he attended auto mechanics classes at a community college in Alameda, California. That’s where he met a guy who worked for a local television station. When Fitzgerald saw a newspaper ad for a 16mm camera, he took his buddy with him to check it out.
“The owner opened a leather case and my friend, Bob, said, ‘Wow!’ ” recalled Fitzgerald. “So, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
The purchase launched a hobby that quickly became a passion project.
“It was in the early ’70s,” he said. “Bob gave me film the station couldn’t use,” Fitzgerald said.
The only problem?
“The film came in 300-foot reels and my camera only took 50-foot reels.”
He bought a couple of film winders and cut the film to the size he needed.
“Then I shot everything that moved,” he said. “Car races, boat races, air races, frog-jumping contests. Bob developed the film for me.”
Fitzgerald kept his day job as a mechanic for Del Monte Foods but spent most of his free time filming California life.
When video cameras came out, he quickly bought himself one. Now, he could record sound as well as action.
He began shooting camel races in Virginia City, Nevada, and quickly became a regular at the annual event. The races evolved into the International Camel and Ostrich Races and started as a prank between two newspaper editors more than 60 years ago. Fitzgerald rarely missed one, but at 82, he’s started to slow down.
“The last one we went to was in 2020,” he said.
When he retired from Del Monte, he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Gresham, Oregon.
“I drove to the nearest public television station and volunteered,” Fitzgerald said. “Then I got my own show.”
He filmed community events and senior theater productions. Over time, he became more interested in talking to people than in filming action.
“It amazes me,” he said. “The things people do, the predicaments they get into, and how they survive.”
When he and Barbara moved to Elko, Nevada, he continued filming.
“I went to the museum and volunteered to film senior bios,” Fitzgerald said. “Several women did the interviews, and I filmed them.”
That’s when he got hooked on recording and preserving personal stories.
“I met a World War II vet who served 365 days in combat,” he said. “He was in North Africa, in Normandy, and at the Battle of the Bulge. He was a tank commander and had three Purple Hearts.”
Fitzgerald’s eyes filled with tears when he recalled what happened to the veteran after the war.
“He was taking flying lessons and his wife and kids were on their way to the airfield to pick him up when they were hit by a truck. They all died.”
He shook his head.
“How do you survive something like that?”
Speaking of survival, he recorded another WWII veteran who claimed to have saved Gen. George S. Patton’s life.
“He said Patton and his driver drove up to the front lines just when a barrage of shelling occurred,” Fitzgerald said. “The guy yelled at Patton to get out of the jeep and take cover, and when he didn’t move, the guy said he pulled him out of the jeep and lay on top of him.”
Then there was the farmer in Elko whose grandfather built a ranch with a two-story log cabin and several smaller cabins for his ranch hands.
“His grandfather brought in teachers for the kids from back East, but he had a hard time keeping them because the cowboys kept marrying them,” he said.
The stories fascinated him, and when he and his wife moved to Spokane 12 years ago, he wanted to continue to record them.
“In assisted-living facilities, they’ve all told each other their stories, and people don’t want to hear them again,” Fitzgerald said. “But I do.”
He also filmed bios of several retiring pastors from Opportunity Christian Church.
“If people ask how much I charge, I’ll say $20, but if they don’t ask, I do it for free,” he said.
Fitzgerald never wrote a screenplay or shot a movie like he once thought he would, but he estimates he’s recorded at least 50 senior bios. However, he doesn’t think he’ll be shooting more.
“I’m 82 years old and it sucks,” he said. “I probably won’t be able to film anymore unless I can find someone to help haul the equipment.”
But he’s proud of the stories he’s helped preserve.
“People in their 90s have seen more than any other generation in history,” he said. “Once they’re gone, you’ll never hear these stories again.”
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