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‘Photo Fred’ Larson is back – lifting spirits, telling his jokes

-Submitted photo
Fred Larson, a longtime photographer for The Messenger, stays busy in retirement serving as a one-man welcome wagon for residents of Friendship Haven.

The coronavirus pandemic could hold him down for just so long. “Photo Fred” is back!

Fred Larson, who has been photographing the people and places of Fort Dodge since he bought his first camera at 9 years old (“for 10 cents and three box tops”), has resumed self-appointed duties as the “welcome wagon” for fellow residents of Friendship Haven who until Monday had been under tight social distancing rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Before the pandemic, it was hard to find him in his room,” said Julie Thorson, CEO of the retirement community. “He’d be out calling on people, lifting spirits, telling his jokes. Photo Fred is now out and about. We think things are now getting closer to the interaction we once had with one another.”

Larson, who is 93 years young, is the ultimate people person – and the pandemic took its toll on him and all his fellow residents when Friendship Haven had to severely limit social contacting beginning a year ago.

“I’ll talk to anyone who will talk to me,” Larson said. “People come from all different varieties of life, some talkative, some not. I know a lot of people here. The pandemic just made it worse. Before, I was calling on 10 people at the health center, five days a week. We’d talk for 15 minutes or so. Now only two of those are left – the others have died. It hurts me because I couldn’t go over and give them a little comfort. Some have nobody to come by. I was somebody, even if they didn’t know me.”

Larson was the first fulltime photographer for The Messenger, working at the newspaper from 1963 to 1993 and through his camera lens telling the stories of thousands upon thousands of lives – their triumphs as well as their tragedies. The scrapbooks of many Fort Dodgers include Fred Larson photos that celebrated an achievement or other memorable moment.

Think Paul Anka’s classic song, “The Times of Our Lives,” and the beginning lyrics:

“Good morning, yesterday. You wake up and time has slipped away. And suddenly it’s hard to find. The memories you left behind. Remember, do you remember? The laughter and the tears. The shadows of misty yesteryears. The good times and the bad you’ve seen. And all the others in between. Remember, do you remember, The times of your life?”

Fred Larson – a man Thorson calls “a legend of the community” – helped many remember those times of their lives. And nearly 40 years into retirement, he’s still working at it, still taking pictures from time to time with his two 35mm cameras.

“I covered a lot of good things and a lot of bad things,” Larson said. “It was a fun job. I enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t kick and holler and scream when I had to get up in the middle of the night to go cover a story. It was a job that I loved to do.”

One exception he did note: When he and reporter Maxine Peet drove to Algona to cover the funerals of five people who were killed in a domestic disturbance, he reached back for his camera and found it wasn’t there. He left it at home. “We found a drug store downtown and I rented a camera,” he said. And he got the shots.

In his 11 years at Friendship Haven, Larson has been a “great ambassador” to other residents, Thorson said. “His wife Delores was very welcoming too. He was so devoted to her.”

Delores, a longtime school teacher who worked many years at Cooper Elementary, passed away in 2011.

“We were married 53 years, nine months, and five days, but I am not counting,” Larson said.

Larson was born at Mercy Hospital in Fort Dodge, one of five boys of Edith and Merrill “Pete” Larson. The family first lived at 209 I St. and then at 219 I St. His parents and his brothers Jack, Dick, Dave and Don have died – Don, two years ago after a career that included operating Ridgewood Lanes. His father worked for Fort Dodge Creamery, going to work at 3 a.m. and early on using horses to deliver milk.

“Those were the Depression years,” Larson said, “and he supported five boys, his wife and his dad on $20 a week.”

His father was killed at the age of 44 – when Fred was 8 years old – when bricks fell on him after a building, the Fort Dodge Club, on the City Square exploded and collapsed after catching fire. His father and a friend were bystanders outside when both were struck by bricks. His mother then went to work for Lutheran Hospital for 35 cents an hour.

As a 12-year-old boy in 1939, Larson took his first job as a paperboy, delivering the then-afternoon Messenger on the west side of the river. He had 80 customers and held the route for two years.

Larson got into what would be his life’s profession by accident. Nels Isaacson, a master photographer and owner of Baldwin Studio, asked his mother if her older son David would be interested in a job there. David was working at Charles A. Brown clothing, she told him, but “I’m sure Fred would do a good job for you.” Larson was 10 when he started by sweeping out the store after school, then learned to develop film and print pictures while working in the darkroom.

When Isaacson divorced and moved his studio to Algona, Larson went to work for Harold Bergman at Bergman Studios in downtown Fort Dodge. He was 13, in high school, and worked there weekends doing darkroom work and later selling camera equipment.

Larson stayed with Bergman after graduating in 1947 from Fort Dodge Senior High School and began shooting his first weddings – taking pictures both in the Bergman studio and at churches and reception halls. In all, he took pictures at about 80 weddings (including the author’s).

At one wedding at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, an uninvited guest in the form of a mouse made things interesting, he recalled.

“I noticed up front that people were half standing and gawking at the altar. I took my camera and walked up. A little mouse was running from under the bride’s dress, in and out three or four times. I was waiting for a scream. But she never did.”

Larson was drafted into the Army in 1950 and served two years, stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, before being discharged and returning to Fort Dodge. He and Delores were married in 1957.

“We met in a bar, the Chatterbox. She had been at a senior dinner dance at the Laramar,” he said with a laugh. “I was trying to date her older sister but I ended up driving Delores home.”

He joined The Messenger in 1963 when General Manager Bob Merryman offered him $20 more a week than he was paid at Bergman, Larson said. For the next 30 years, nary an event of importance occurred that did not include Fred Larson photographing it with his cameras – first a Speed Graphic, then a 2 ™ and finally 35mm cameras.

“One of the good things I covered was the pope coming to Des Moines, and JFK coming to Fort Dodge,” Larson said. “He was one of eight presidents I covered in Iowa (Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush). The longest day I ever put in was a big downtown fire in January 1971 that destroyed eight businesses and claimed a life. I was there at 3 in the morning and got home at 6 that evening. That fire was so hot that it melted a phone on a desk in a building across the street.”

Daryl Beall, former state senator, said “Fred not only was a photojournalist, capturing people and events in the news, but he was a part of the community. He recorded and chronically captured current happenings, yes, and also preserved them for their historical documentation. Fred was a bit of a joker. He interacted with his subjects. His art was memorable — just like the artist.”

Beall said Larson once told him that one of the toughest photo assignments he ever had was in his first year with The Messenger, in 1963, when he covered a plane crash that claimed the lives of Beall’s brother Mike and three other young people when their aircraft went down near where Gunderson Funeral Home is now located.

Larson’s sidekick on many of his Messenger assignments was daughter Carrie, who now lives in Sioux City with her husband, Jack Lammers, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, and their daughter, Katherine, 17, a high school senior and cross country runner at Sioux City East. Carrie and her dad talk daily by phone.

“He would take me with him if there was a fire or an accident, with orders that I stay in the car,” she said. “When we got back to the Messenger, I have great memories of running around the empty newsroom late at night while he developed his film. Ican remember making hundreds of paper airplanes with printed instructions that came with each roll of film.

“I was pretty shy in high school and dad would always load me up with pictures to share with classmates who he photographed. I know he always tried when taking pictures at the high school, if he learned there was a kid who needed a boost, a little something special, he would make sure to include him or her in a photo.”

For this past Christmas, Carrie framed for her daughter’s bedroom one of her favorite photos taken by her dad – showing the High Bridge in Fort Dodge shrouded in fog and a hawk sitting on a sign that says “No Trespassing.”

Weeks after retiring from The Messenger, Fred’s hanging out at home proved too much for his wife Delores. He recalled, “She said, get out of my house. You’re in my way!” So he found a part-time job at Hy-Vee grocery and sacked groceries and had other duties there for the next 18 years. He and Delores enjoyed travel – with retirement trips to Russia, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Panama Canal, Mexico, Hawaii and Germany.

Larson still recalls with pride the time when his photos were displayed at the Blanden Art Gallery.

“I started to cry, there were so many people there,” he said.

Larson keeps several shoe boxes of negatives he’s saved over the years under his bed at his apartment in the River Ridge community at Friendship Haven. He has donated negatives to the Fort Dodge Historical Society over the years and plans to donate the film in those boxes as well.

This past Monday, when Friendship Haven began opening up once again, a dozen of Larson’s photos were put on display outside the Celebration Center.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Residents were free to mingle again – and share stories with their beloved ambassador. And he paid visits on resident friends whom he had not seen in a year.

“You feel alive again,” Larson said.

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