Monday, August 24, 2015

He’s Going Out: Fred Burkhart

He’s Going Out

Fred Burkhart


It’s the end of summer, and we’re melancholy

at the turning of the calendar page. Change.

As if between the 31st and the 1st the world skips a beat.

August to September, a demarcation,

an imaginary line has been crossed.

There is no going back.


Fred Burkhart died August 30, 2014, nearly one year ago. And, nothing has been the same.

I met Fred toward the end of his life. So much so that I agreed to be his power of attorney so that his medical choices might be carried through to the end. I wanted to make sure he went “gentle into that good night.”* Dylan Thomas. Little did I understand the man’s fighting spirit. He claimed it was his micro biotic diet, grass juicing, acupuncture, purified water, grapefruit oil, etc but I think it was his iron will. He always followed his own vision.


Fred was what is called an underground photographer. Not celebrities—unless they were infamous—but the everyday, down-and-outer.


 He photographed the Klu Klux Klan in downstate Illinois and was an early documentarian of the Gay Pride Parade in Boys Town. His Burkhart Underground Studios was a refuge for many emerging artists. Fred and I were as different as night and day, and yet we had so much in common. I found a place in his world of misfits.

Bill Hillmann, author of the recently published novel "The Old Neighborhood" (Curbside Splendor) had this to day of Fred: “I found Burkhart when I was an incommunicable tuff and had no venue to express myself," he said earlier this year. "I found a kindred spirit in Burkhart and a venue for my writing. He influenced every single one of my creative endeavors. He showed me a way to live through your art and to make a life in it. I owe Fred a tremendous debt …. (He was) an unknown world-class photographer, a guru, an original and a living legend.”

I was called to the nursing home where he lived the last four and a half months. The nursing home was just down the street from me and I was up there about every other day—and if I wasn’t there someone else was. The staff never had a patient with so many visitors, it was a revolving door. Catherine called me: “He’s on his way out.”

Unfortunately, we had friends in town and had just ordered a pizza. I thought it was the pizzeria telling me the delivery guy was on his way. I replied: “Great!”

“No,” she said, “Mr. Fred. He’s passing.”

I hurried and got up there in probably 10 minutes. He was there, thin as can be, his hair wild and white his beard braided, his stark blue eyes open. But I sensed no one was there. He was still breathing. Catherine came in and said: “I thought we’d lost him.”

“Thank you for calling me,” I said. I felt like I was on the verge, emotionally and physically. I didn’t want to lose him, but knew his cancer would take him anyhow. I just couldn’t imagine a world without him.
I sat for almost an hour and then called Catherine in. “I don’t think he’s breathing,” I told her and she checked and then went to get another nurse. They both confirmed. His eyes were still open. Still blue.

I can still smell his Tiger Balm. I see him everywhere, in the pictures that surround me in the Jesus People dining room, the walls that he decorated like some midnight elf. Slipping down when he couldn’t sleep and leaving Styrofoam boards filled with prints, portraits of residents taken, not taken, no, never taken, but given as he always claimed. It was he who gave so much.
We’re grateful Fred. Thank you for your life. So glad we had a chance to share it.
pic by Alana Hall, whom he also mentored, one of the endless people he helped