Columnist Randy Fitzgerald spent his 75th birthday last December laid up in a hospital, recuperating from a heart attack earlier in the month that required emergency quadruple-bypass surgery and replacement of his aortic valve.
Come Valentine’s Day, he suffered a stroke.
It’s been quite a year for Fitzgerald, but the good news is he’s still here to tell the tale — and to celebrate the telling of other tales in a new book that he and his wife, Barbara, co-wrote: “Flights of Fancy: Stories, Conversations and Life Travels with a Bemused Columnist and his Whimsical Wife.”
The book is primarily a compilation of some of his favorite columns, often paired with commentary from Barbara, who through the years has been, as Randy put it in the book’s preface, “my editor, proofreader, often co-writer and, always, my muse.”
And Barb, as readers know her, was the force behind this new book, which will be officially launched with a signing on Tuesday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Fountain Bookstore, 1312 E. Cary St. (The book is published by old friend Ray McAllister under his Beach Glass Books imprint.)
As Randy recovered at home earlier this year, Barb pulled out his old columns, and they reread them together. The result was this: With Barb doing the heavy lifting, they came up with a collection of columns to publish, and, Barb said, “It also brightened our spirits. It was kind of a depressing time. We started reading all those funny columns, and that was good therapy, too.”
Randy began writing columns for The Richmond News Leader in the 1980s, moved over to the Richmond Times-Dispatch when the papers merged and still writes for Boomer Magazine. He’s written for other publications along the way because he always seems to have a story to tell, and they’re usually funny. Sometimes hysterically so.
He’s written about a variety of topics over the years, but his specialty is real life — as in the real life of his family and friends. As a friend pointed out, Randy has a knack of recognizing the joys of life that aren’t associated with having a bunch of money or status. He also is unafraid to poke fun at himself for mistakes he’s made — such as the time he planned their honeymoon around a trip to Fayetteville, N.C., the birthplace of Putt-Putt. (In his defense, Randy is a two-time Richmond Putt-Putt champion.)
At least he got another chance.
Another of his storylines has been his and Barb’s long romance.
They met as seniors in journalism class at Albemarle High. Barb was editor of the school newspaper, and she asked Randy if he’d like to be sports editor, a job he had coveted at his old school.
“I fell in love with her right there on the spot,” Randy said.
They married in 1961, divorced after 15 years, then remarried in 1986. (They call the time in between, when they were married to other people, a “sabbatical.”) Both weddings were held on Aug. 6, which helps cut down on the confusion, though when you ask how long they’ve been married, you might get 31, 46 or 56 years.
They wisely went to Maine — the opposite direction of Fayetteville, N.C. — for their second honeymoon.
I’ve known Randy for more than 35 years, since we used to meet on Friday nights at the old United Press International bureau in downtown Richmond to call around the state to gather high school football scores. The great ones always start with humble beginnings.
I’ve always enjoyed referring to Randy as “The Doctor” — because he really is a doctor, of the Ph.D. sort. He has a doctorate in English — he worked as a professor for a number of years — and he wrote his dissertation on William Faulkner. Of course, there’s a story in that.
While Faulkner served as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, Randy discovered while reading a biography, the great writer used to visit a nearby youth league baseball diamond to watch the kids play. It was the field where Randy played ball as a kid — and it turned out it was Randy’s team that was mentioned in the Faulkner biography.
“The reason I knew it was our team was because he mentioned a catcher by the name of Eddie Wingfield that he loved to watch,” Randy said. “Eddie was on my team. We never had any idea (Faulkner) was there.”
Funny thing, that was not Randy’s only connection with Faulkner. The writer visited Albemarle High for a career day to talk about being a writer. (Not only did Randy go on to write his dissertation on Faulkner, but Barb wrote her master’s thesis on him, too.)
“We got to see him and meet him,” Randy said. “He had his white suit on. He looked every inch a writer.”
Randy is fun and unassuming and a genuinely nice guy. We had some good times on the golf course (not the miniature variety), including the day in 1995 when we played the old Oak Hill course for the last time before it closed for redevelopment. (It’s still closed, but it’s still there.) It rained so hard it was coming down sideways. The greens turned into lakes. The lakes turned into oceans. The day was filled with fairway shanks, missed putts and a lot of bad words. My sodden shoes fell apart.
And what did Randy say after we putted out on the 18th? “Man, that was fun.”
Randy no longer plays golf; the stroke took care of that, along with his peripheral vision in his left eye. He no longer sings with the band he helped form (East of Afton), but he still loves music, and he breaks out his guitar or banjo or dulcimer just about every day. He’s a little wobbly on occasion, but otherwise in remarkably good shape.
“He’s been amazing,” Barb said. “His spirits have been good, and he’s still funny.”
Or as Randy dryly put it, “I still have my sharp wit.”