Farewell Old Friend!

Eulogy delivered by Don Klein

Trinity Church

Lime Rock, Connecticut 

December 3, 2012

Without question, John left us an incredible legacy. Not only because he lived such a long life, and not only because he was so talented in so many different areas, but in large part because he had so many ideas.

I used to sometimes look at John and picture his brain like a popcorn machine, with kernels of ideas expanding, one on top of another, piling up until there was no room left in his head! And he was like that, full of ideas, right up until the end. 

The downside of all this creativity was that he didn't have time to execute all of his wonderful ideas, at least not all by himself. So he enlisted his posse of pals, the infamous Friends of Fitch, to help him out. I recall arriving at the house on Salmon Kill one morning to work with him. Those of you who ever visited John at home will know what I mean when I say it reminded me of the Collyer brothers. Not Miles and Sam Collier, the racing brothers, the other Collyer brothers ... the famous hoarders who for decades crammed so much stuff into their Manhattan apartment that ultimately they couldn't even move around. John had a big dining room table that was always piled high with papers. And the floor was covered with paper, too.  And the fireplace mantel. And windowsills. And the amazing thing is, if nobody moved anything, he more or less knew where everything was. 

Anyway, I walked in and there's John, seated at the head of the table, the King of his Paper Empire, wearing his trademark red sport jacket and white cap, Sharpie held high in midair, about to make yet another note on one of his famous #10 envelopes. He looked up and, upon seeing me, said somewhat frantically, "Don, old friend! Come on, then, we've got a lot of work to do!" That's what he called me: Don old friend. And I'll bet that he greeted many of you the same way. Didn't matter if he'd seen you just two days ago or two years ago, he'd call you "old friend." Because John loved his friends, as we loved him. 

Anyway, I could see right away that we weren't going to get anything done that day because John was way too excited, and when he went into sensory overload like that he simply couldn't focus. The popcorn machine was in high gear. So I suggested we have a cup of tea and calm down. I said, "John, listen ... let's take a break. I want you to stop for a minute and think: If you could do ONE thing today, not work, but one FUN thing, anything at all, what would it be?

"I must say, John always indulged me when I suggested these little mind exercises. He was always willing to play. So he put his pen down, leaned back, eyes closed and mouth open, thought for a few moments and then said, with great enthusiasm, "I know EXACTLY what I would do!"

He then proceeded to tell me about a new sort of airplane he'd heard of. A glider, a soaring plane that had an auxiliary electric motor. It could take off under its own power and, if you ran out of updraft, be switched-on to take you to the next valley and a fresh updraft. If he had one, he explained, he could fly all across the country and drop in, unannounced, on old buddies whom he hadn't seen in years. He'd just swoop down and land. At first the "unsuspecting party" (that's what he called them, the unsuspecting party) wouldn't know who it was, but at the "moment of recognition, he'd open the canopy, pop out, wave and say, "Hello old friend!" and they'd have a good visit.

Clearly, he was enchanted with the thought. I asked him what gave him the idea and he explained that when he was courting Elizabeth, they would often take off in his seaplane, look for a certain lake or pond or river in which to land, tie up, grab their picnic basket and drop in on friends who lived nearby. It was a happy time in his life.

Well, being an old marketing guy, I thought we can make this happen.  I'll contact the company and see if we can borrow one of their planes, maybe get a camera crew and document John's travels. Think of the publicity value: so easy to fly, even a 90-year-old can do it! Yes, John was old, but remember, he had just tried to set a new speed record in Bob Sirna's Mercedes Gullwing, and that requires physical and mental agility. And Lord knows, he certainly knew how to fly a plane. I floated the idea past John and he loved it. So after wrestling with the day's agenda, I went home and started Googling the glider company.

Turns out, they're made in Morocco of all places.  I got the contact info and drafted a proposal, which I was eager to share with John. But when I returned a couple of days later, he was adamantly against the idea. How could he have changed his mind so quickly? "No good," he explained. "Too many of my old friends are gone. I've outlived them all." And that was the first time I saw John acknowledge his own mortality.

"What we should do instead," he said, "is write my obituary.  And we should start right now!" The sense of urgency surprised me. John was pretty good at putting unpleasant things off, so he must have really wanted to do this. He commanded me to sit, which I did as soon as I could carve out some space on a paper-laden chair. Then he slid me a legal pad and pencil. I’ll talk, you write," he said.

"Where should we start?" I asked. "Why, at the beginning!" he replied, and for the next four or five hours he told me everything about the life and times of John Fitch. He told me about growing up in Indianapolis about going to the Indy 500 with his stepfather, who was an executive at the Stutz company, and about attending military school in Kentucky.

He told me about his trip to Europe. He'd inherited some money from his grandfather and set off to "see the world" on a journey that included plans to ride across Italy on a horse. Then he told me about the war years. Stories that most of you are familiar with, like shooting down the Messerschmitt, and being shot down himself and taken prisoner of war. And of course we talked about his racing life...about starting off in MG TDs at places like Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen. And Cunninghams, in places like Elkhart Lake. Of course he talked about his experiences racing with Mercedes; the 1952 Carrera Panamericana; his great victory at the Mille Miglia in 1955, where he came in first in class, fifth overall, in what he considered the best race of his career. And, of course, the tragedy at Le Mans later that year. And then the 1960 victory at Le Mans, where he co-drove the no. 3 Cunningham Corvette, that now belongs to his dear friend Lance Miller, to a class victory. And we talked about his many safety inventions, notably the Fitch Inertial Barrier. And about his beloved Lime Rock Park.

Well, I think somewhere around 1965, it was starting to get dark outside and I was hungry. Time to wrap things up. "John," I told him, "we made great progress today. But when all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered? Give me John Fitch in 10 words or less."

His pause was surprisingly short. Clearly, he had already given this some thought. "I want to be remembered as a good American, and a good Christian."

There's no question that John Cooper Fitch was a good American. He selflessly put his life on the line many times during the war, He served with great courage and pride. He wasn't just a soldier and pilot, he was a true war hero. He wasn't just a member of the greatest generation-- he epitomized the greatest generation. John was a patriot right up to the end. A good American, indeed.

As for being a good Christian, I pointed out that he rarely went to church. "You don't have to go to church to be a good Christian" he replied, and explained that long ago he had made a deal with God. "If God gave me the opportunity to help mankind, my end of the bargain would be to do it." For that, we need look no further than the Fitch Inertial Barrier. With that single invention, he more than upheld his end of the bargain. So by his definition, John succeeded magnificently: he was indeed a good American and a good Christian, and he earned the right to be remembered that way.

Of course, we all have our own private memories of John. Our own images. And on this day, I like to think of him like this...Elizabeth at his side, floating through heaven. They don't need an electric powered glider...they're soaring on their own. Bright blue sky, big puffy white clouds above. And far below, endless lush, green meadows. They're up there, looking for old acquaintances. And when they spot one, they swoop down. Of course, at first the "unsuspecting party" doesn't recognize them. But then, at that magnificent moment of recognition, John pops up and says with a wave of the hand, "Hello, old friend!".

Copyright   Chris Szwedo, LLC