Today is my grandfather’s 87th birthday, and it’s also the first since 1926 that he won’t be here for, and the world is much worse off for it.
My grandfather’s name was James Francis Fitzgerald (or gramps to me) and he was an amazing man.
So in honor of gramps’ birthday, I’m going to do something I don’t normally do and share a few family photos here. Growing up, I never paid any of these pictures much attention, but now that he’s gone and I’ve become a photographer, they’ve become precious to me. I hope you don’t mind letting me tell you a little about him.
My grandfather was born March 27th, 1926 in Janesville, Wisconsin to a wholesale flour salesman named Michael Henry Fitzgerald and his wife Chloris. By his 5th birthday, the country was already in the midst of the Great Depression, but as Providence would have it, his grandfather (my great great grandpa Beiter) was a butcher in Iowa. So between the flour and the meat, they kept from starving. It was through my grandfather’s grandfather, though, that he got his first summer job at an Iowan rendering plant. For those of you who don’t know, a rendering plant is where they basically boil down dead animals and use their parts for soap or Jello or whatever. If you were a farmer, say, and found that one of your horses had dropped dead on the far end of your property, you’d haul it on down to the rendering plant and they’d take care of things. It was pretty gnarly. On his first day, gramps had to hack apart a several-day dead cow. That’s when he decided that he needed to do anything else in order to make a living.
Fast forward a few years, and gramps was off to college at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio. It was smack dab in the middle of World War II, so he’d also joined the Navy and was in the officer’s training corps. After a few years, the Navy sent him to Notre Dame in order to finish school. And by the time he had graduated, the war had ended.
After serving his time and moving back to Janesville, my grandpa got right to business by starting a heating oil company with his long-time friend Fred Weber. Soon after, they bought a service station at the edge of town and Fitzgerald and Weber Oil was born. Gramps was officially an oil man. He ended up partnering with Shell and by the late 50s, owned dozens of franchised service stations in Wisconsin and Illinois.
In 1950, gramps married Marylin Cullen (aka granny girl). Granny was nicknamed “The Flower of Rock County,” and she was a bona-fide babe. Her family was in the contracting business, and pretty soon the Cullens and the Fitzgeralds were in business together. By the end of the 50s, my grandpa had moved into a whole number of different fields. He and the Cullens built Janesville’s first strip mall, first super market, and first Holiday Inn. By the 60s, gramps found himself wrapped up in a brand new industry called “cable television.” And altogether, granny and gramps ended up having six kids: Aunt Marcia, Uncle Mike, Uncle B, my dad (James Jr.), Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Ellen.
In 1975, my grandpa pulled together a group of investors and bought the Milwaukee Bucks for a paltry $800,000. He owned the team for 10 years before selling them in 1985 for $18 million — a record at the time. He then took over the Golden State Warriors and owned them until 1995, when he then sold them for another record-breaking amount. I suppose this is what my grandpa’s most known for — being so involved in the NBA. As a little kid, it served to make gramps seem larger than life to me. He was always doing business with amazing people, or golfing with bigwigs (he counted more than one former President amongst his personal friends). But how he dealt with his success taught me two important lessons: first, even famous (and even perhaps important) men are still just only men. And secondly, the bigger you become, the more humble and grateful you should be. My grandfather had the means, but never spent money frivolously, and died in the same little house that he had raised his family in.
My grandfather loved doing business, but more importantly, he loved people. When I brush all of the history aside, I think that this is what stands out to me the most. He was always laughing — he had a big belly laugh (I can still hear it in my mind when I try hard — imagine a nice, friendly Jabba the Hutt). And he was always listening. He was genuinely interested in everybody and everything. He had a natural curiosity that complimented a honed sense of compassion — and that’s why he was so successful. He was your friend first, and your business partner second.
Moreover, he was an honest man. He epitomized everything good about the great American businessman. In a time when free market capitalism is almost a swear word, I think back on how my grandpa demonstrated to me over and over that good business is not a zero-sum game, but rather an exercise in mutual benefit. He worked hard to provide for his family, but he worked just as hard for those with whom he did business. He never took advantage of people in order to get ahead, and he respected everyone he dealt with. In short, they don’t often make them like gramps anymore.
So on this first March 27th that I won’t be able to call him up and say happy birthday, I’ll say a prayer to God instead — a prayer of thanks that I was blessed enough to have a man like James Francis Fitzgerald for a grandfather. I can’t wait to see him again.
Before I go, just a note on a few of theses photos: The first is from the 1983 NBA playoffs when his Bucks defeated the Celtics in the semifinals. I think this is my favorite photo of gramps. It perfectly encapsulates to me how jovial he always seemed. He always had that smile on his face.
The last is a photo taken by the legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh. I think that this was gramp’s favorite photo of himself. He used it for decades. The photo immediately above it is gramps with Karsh. I’m jealous. ^_^
About 10 photos down from the top is a shot of gramps with his soapbox car. This is my second-favorite shot of him, but it’s just a great photo all by itself. I think the year is 1950 here. Immediately below it is my favorite picture of my grandma. It’s her freshman college photo. What a babe.
I debated heavily on whether or not to add any color photos to this post but eventually decided against it. I wasn’t able to get scans of some of the photos I wanted to include here either — especially shots from gramps’ time with the NBA. I’ll most likely add them at a later date. In the mean time, thanks for reading. ^_^