Remembrances of John Fritzinger
By Mike Longman
WWL-TV was always a shooter's shop, that is to say the emphasis was on photographers whose news gathering efforts tended to include strong elements of art. When we hired John Fritzinger from WVUE, I was wary, for at the time, the place was not known for producing a great visual product. But the big bearded guy came in on his own time, introduced himself as Fritz and said he wanted to get this “live shot” stuff down before his first day on the clock. As it happened, It was St. Patrickís Day and after the shot was locked into the station's receiver, I said, "Yeah, Fritz, there is something you can do to help us. We are going on in two minutes and I need Jim Monaghan ‘live’ He should be in the clump of people down the block. Please go get him."
Two minutes later I was on the air. I saw this puzzled look in the new manís eye as he guided Monaghan to my side. The look was one of fear. I was already talking about the parade, so I introduced Monaghan and asked him to describe the planned parade route. Monaghan took a deep breath and then blurted out, "This is MY STREET." He had that mad twinkle in his eye, the look that Irishmen down the ages get from an excess of hard drink. “Well, Jim," I said, "The street is certainly yours on St. Patrickís Day, but how about the parade route, Jim?" All the padding and urging was for naught for there was only one message Mr. Monaghan wanted to deliver that day. "This is MY STREET." No sooner was the shot over than Fritz hustled up to my side. "Sorry, Longman. You said you had to have him. Do you think I lost my new job before I even started?"
Within weeks, Fritz proved himself every bit the artist of this top shop in town. As the new guy, he ended up on “Nightwatch," which meant he ended up with me. Because we were both single and raring to travel, we ended upon the longest hauls in most hurricanes. I can still remember Fritz and I screaming at Joe Duke when he sent us all the way to the Mexican border and then told us to remain in Texas, even though the storm killed a bunch of people only miles across the border.
As a team, Fritz and I were not always so prone to follow directions. It was during a time of tight budgets that a Delta Jet crashed at DFW airport in Dallas. The assignment desk said, "Head to the airport. See if you can get a flight, but check with us first. We may not send you." Well, we got tickets and then checked in a bunch of gear, and then called in, five minutes before take-off. "Come back," they said. "We are not sure anybody from New Orleans was on the plane.
"Well, we can come back," we said. "But they made us check the equipment, so it's going to Texas."
We left New Orleans at 3:30, hit the ground in Dallas at 4:45, and had our rental car on the infield of the airport by 5:50. I walked up to the camera position and was on with Bill Elder live at maybe five minutes after five. We did another shot at six and then were told to come back. Fritz and I had spent exactly one hour on the story and wanted more. We checked the manifest and found there were, in fact, Louisianans on the flight. We then learned the hospital would hold a news conference in the morning with six survivors. We knew that, of the dozen of so people in the hospital, two were from Lousiana. We said,
"What the hell, one-in-six odds." We decided to stay.
The next morning, having made this decision against orders, we were dismayed to find that there were so many cameras set up, there was no room for ours. This was not good. A CBS guy saw us and said, “I got you covered. Shoot cut-aways." Fritz found the only spot at the back of the room and started shooting. Into his frame came the survivors, including a woman in a wheelchair. Both of us were in the deepest sort of prayer. "Please make her from Louisiana. Please?" Not only was that true, but she was a mother, and her fellow passengers had passed her child to safely out of a gaping hold in the plane.
Working together in Oakdale, Fritz and I kept our ears to a portable scanner, and after weeks of covering the standoff, we heard an officer say, "They are putting thier weapons down."
Fritz walked to our camera and made believe he was fiddling with the lights, while I called the station. "It's over. We need to break in." Chris Slaughter said, "Hold on. The Saints are on. If you are going break into them, I gotta ask the old man.”
The “old man,” Mr. Early, said fine but, "only if Longman has pictures." Well, we were working off a pool camera inside, and when it might come up was anyone's guess, So Fritz and I gave it maybe two minutes and then busted into the Saints, I started talking, "The hostage crisis is over.” In my ear piece I heard, “Where are the pictures, Longman?” And once again the news gods took pity, and like that, we saw the hostages, being released from the prison.
When you work together with the same cameraman long enough, eventually you know what the other person is likely to do. This meant over time, when need be, one of us could handle both parts of the job. This came in especially handy in the case of Antoinette Frank.
On a Sunday morning, a tipster called me to say that a bunch of people had been killed in a restaurant in Little Vietnam, and the shooter was in custody. I said, “Thank you.” Then the tipster said, “Hold on, it's a woman, and she is a cop, and we got her upstairs right now.” At the time I was a weekend anchor, so I was stuck, but I called two cameramen, one to send to the news conference at police headquarters and Fritz to stake out downstairs. As we both guessed, the cops waited until they had cameras from every station inside before they tried to sneak the lady cop out the back door. Only Fritz was there to capture it all, including Antoinette Frank saying "But you said there would be no cameras."
It is the nature of the news business that you travel thousands of miles in an unending game of hurry-up-and-wait. Fritz and I spent a legislative session in Baton Rouge; a month on the road with David Duke; I flew us in a light plane to Waco; there was Oakdale and hurricanes too numerous to mention. As a rule, we tried to find a Ruth's Chris Steak House, along the route. Fritz like to bring packs of matches back and drop them on the assignment desk., "You guys found a Ruth's Chris there?" If it was within 50 miles we got there.
Fritz had survived being struck by lightening, being a LURP in Vietnam. He was the kind of photographer you would go into any situation with, knowing he would watch your back. Only once was I ever scared working with this big, Alf type. We were covering Hurricane Andrew. It was set to hit in the middle of the night and we needed pictures. We stayed in a big firehouse until the winds were really raging and then at my urging we went out driving. At one point it was so bad we could barely drive five miles an hour. A transformer blew up just a few hundred yards from out car. I told Fritz, "Man I am sorry I got us into this. Maybe this is too close." He said, "No, Longman. We are in this together, and were going to get the only damn pictures of this whole freaking hurricane."
Fritz's pictures were indeed the best. They were the staple shots on CBS, CNN and just about everyplace else, because we were the only ones crazy enough to be driving around in all that. When the sun finally came up, we went back to our news car, and found all four tires were flat, the victim of roofing nails that had been flying in every direction.
Fearless, resourceful, funny, warm, enthusiastic, John Fritzinger was among the very best.
Mike Longman, Butner N.C., October 8, 2002