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Bob Fitzer Historian Of The Department

Bob Fitzer Historian Of The Department

A call box key. A baton. Old police phones. A polished brass cap emblem. For many, objects like these wouldn't mean much. But for a young cop named Bob Fitzer they were bits of history, human existence embedded in metal and wood and faces looking out form the hushed, still world of a photograph. This love of the past as represented by an object or document found or passed on, emblematic of a man's whole life, was something that began early in bob's life and that continued into his police career. Eventually those objects would

Bob Fitzer be gathered in a collection ranging from brass buttons to a 1950s patrol car. It was only logical that bob would one day become the Department's archivist and the curator of a police museum that has yet to find a permanent home. Now a sergeant with 28 years in the Department, Bob sits in his small Hall of Justice fifth-floor office in the Equal Employment Office, where he's assigned. Behind his desk there's an old mannequin draped with a 1930s police uniform: knee-length wool coat with a line of brass buttons, deep rounded helmet like a bobbie's. Walls, table tops and shelves are loaded with police artifacts: police photographs, police patches, brass buttons, stacks of annual reports, billy clubs, handcuffs. There are thick musty mug books filled with ghostly faces and the elaborate, curving
handwriting of a lost time. There are bound issues of Douglas 20, the Department's first newsletter, named for the first part of the police telephone number when the phone company had name prefixes instead of numbers (ah, alas for the loss of Montrose, Delaware, Juniper and all the rest, when you dialed the first two letters of the name prefix then five numbers).

Bob can't say exactly what led him to become a serious collector of police memorabilia.  Maybe it was destiny, he says with a little smile. Maybe so, but certainly there were factors and circumstances throughout Bob's life that led to the collection he now maintains.

An early factor was living in the historic Presidio as a child. (Bob was Born, in 1950, in Yokohama, Japan – his mother was Japanese – and he has two younger siblings.) Bob's father was an Army staff sergeant from West Virginia who has been stationed in Korea.  Everyone on my father's side was in the military, uncles, aunts, cousins, he said.  it was a way for them to escape the poverty and chronic unemployment of coal towns. To a ten-year-old boy, the Presidio was a veritable playground steeped in history. He would play with the other kids on the old Howitzers and Army tanks that ringed the paraded grounds. In the forest of cypress and eucalyptus a short walk picked blackberries, and hunted for treasure.  We'd dig up little treasures. He recalls.  A button, an old army belt, a helmet. Once I found an old ammo box. After carefully cleaning these precious finds, he'd stash them in a cigar box under his bed. The  collecting gene was at work.

Even at that young age, Bob began to sense that there were human stories behind those little finds. Playing at the edge of Crissy Field that adjoined the Presidio he discovered that tombstones had been thrown among the rocks used to make the breakwater. (in the late nineteenth century, the monuments were removed from the cemetery once located on Laurel Hill at Masonic Avenue at California Street – land had become valuable and the tenants were not paying rent – and unceremoniously dumped. There are some pretty ticked off spirits out there.) Wiping the algae away from the stones, Bob was fascinated by the names and dates.  I felt I was uncovering history. He said, looking bak on his childhood adventures.

When Bob was 16 years old, his parents split up. His father was transferred to Germany, while the rest of the family moved to the Excelsior District, where he went to Balboa High School. His father away, Bob helped to support the family by working at his mother's flower shop in Japantown.

San Quentin Execution Record, 1900
San Quentin Execution Record, 1900

But the treasure-hunting interest and his affinity for history never waned. He remembers going to Glen Park searching for the loot the legendary Mexican marauder Joaquin Murietta supposedly had hidden in San Francisco's Glen Park. ( The only thing we ever found was golf balls,  he confesses.) This interest continued as Bob built a relationship with his Uncle Fred, a Chief Petty Officer stationed in Alameda. Like his nephew, Fred was a treasure-hunter who made it a point to remember the location of ghost towns, mines, and deserted shacks that he spotted from the air. When taking Bob on fishing or hunting trips, he'd make it a point to stop at these sites. The stuff they found seem unimportant-miners' picks, gold pans, old bottles, crocks, a rusty revolver-but for Bob they all represented a connection to the past, a story waiting to be told and documented.

The importance documentation had for Bob figured in his choice of career. When he enrolled at City College in 1968 he wanted to be a photo journalist. But one day his best friend, Steve Keel, persuaded him to take a criminology class taught by Pete Gardner. Gardner was such an effective teacher that he decided to sign up as a police cadet. In September 1971, Bob, now 21, was sworn in as a police officer.

You might think that the day-to-day business of police work would put Bob's fascination with history and the discarded remnants of the past into the background. Instead, his police work served to heighten the interest when he was sent to Richmond Station for field training. The commanding officer, Captain Ludlow, had policy of pairing rookie cops with veteran officers, believing that their experience of police work would rub off on the young cops. The Captain's theory, perhaps, can't be quantified, but one thing is sure: Bob was fascinated listening to the old-timers tell their stories, men like Shelby Ryan, Bob Mills, John Mulligan. These were men from another generation, men of the Depression and, many, like his father, veterans of World War II or Korea. They were part of a history that Bob knew he'd want to preserve.

On his first day, Bob was paired with Einer Berg, and he remembers Einer pointing to the passenger seat of the patrol car, saying,  Just sit there , adding for good measure,  And don't touch the mike! . Maybe not a promising beginning, but two things happened. A master of model shipbuilding, Einer taught Bob how to make intricate and painstaking wood models that required both manual skill and knowledge of the past. So Bob learned how to do research, studying the ships of the past, and his research would later be of great importance to him. Bob's artistry and respect for the past combined when, in 1979, he became part of the Carousel Project in Golden Gate Park, in which he worked on restoring every wooden animal on the carousel.

Just before retiring, Einer gave Bob his hat shield and call box key, both crafted in solid, old-style brass. The shield had been polished over the years so assiduously that it was nearly impossible to decipher the details of the city seal. This was the beginning of Bob's police collection.

In 1973, Bob was transferred to Park Station. Like Captain Ludlow, Park's Commanding Officer, Captain Dougherty, also had a policy of pairing up older veterans with new cops on the block. He got along with them, and they liked him. Bob showed a measure of respect that they appreciated. Like Einer, before retiring a few of the old-timers gave him their old police paraphernalia: an old billy club, a hat shield, a parade belt. One retiring veteran gave Bob his star. Bob was astounded.  This is this man's whole life ,' he recalled.  This was something inherited, a badge of honor, seniority, service. I knew I was preserving history. When word got around that Bob collected objects associated with the police, officers would give thing to him when they retired, or gave him memorabilia that they themselves had casually acquired. A police officer's widow might call to give him her husband's star or belt buckle, or even a complete uniform. He was beginning to acquire the emblems of values and tradition because, as he points out,  We learn from traditions and heritage.

Central Station Crew, early 1900's
Central Station Crew, early 1900s

Bob was collecting a lot of police equipment; next he would begin a collection of photographs, understanding their documentary value. One of the next stages of his police career would be working in the police Photo Lab, where he'd discover a trove of historic photographs documenting the police presence in San Francisco.

Police Band, 1930
Police Band, 1930

In 1976, Bob signed up for a position as Field Evidence Technician. Chief Charles Gain had decided to transfer the police Crime Lab duties to patrol officers in the field who would process crime scenes. Bob went to evidence technician school, also getting training for forensic photography. Gain's plan was later dropped and the Crime Lab remained an entity. In 1980, Bob was selected to fill an opening in the Crime Lab.

At that time, the lab was next door to the Photo Lab, which was headed by the Inspector Frank Moser. There, Bob discovered three or four file cabinets full of photographic negatives, many of them the old glass plate type. When he held them up to the light, Bob knew he had some treasures. These were pictures of cops from the lost eras, standing in front of police buildings that may still stand but have different uses; cops in vehicles now only in car museums; cops standing or walking their beats in a city that has changed so tremendously over the decades.

The photographs and all other memorabilia Bob had collected now found a home at the Police Academy, which, at the beginning of the 80's, was located on Silver Avenue. In 1984, Bob and Al Casciato talked about finding a permanent place for the museum. Chief Con Murphy thought that would be a good idea, and so did Bernard Averbusch, the President of the Market Street development Association, who was a member of the Friends of Police. Bernie had been a reporter assigned to the old Hall of Justice on Kearny Street. After Bernie spoke before Friends of Police in support of the museum, they gave Bob money to buy display cabinets and mannequins to show the uniforms, but weren't able to come up with a permanent museum home.

When then-Supervisor Wendy Nelder heard about the problem, she arranged to have an area inside the Civic Center Auditorium set aside for the museum. It wasn't a very big area, Bob admits, and there wasn't a lot of visitor traffic in the building, but the area was nicely enclosed in glass. He had four-foot by eight-foot photographic mural prepared (his photography skills came in handy), and several donated mannequins, which were dressed in period uniforms and shown in a time-line display.

Restricted Area The museum came to a quick end in October 1989. The Loma Prieta earthquake not only damaged some of the important items in collection (including a faux lie detector contraption that's another story in itself), but forced the closure of the entire building. After seismic upgrading of the building, it seems tht the museum was not to be a part of its reopening.

Next venue: the Cannery at Fisherman's Wharf. It wasn't a very big display area, and there wasn't very much visitor attention. It was also expensive; Bob was paying the rent himself. It closed after three months.

Today, the collection is split between his office and his home, and Bob feels thwarted and sad as he tells of a valuable 1950s Ford squad car rusting at the City's corp yard for lack of proper accommodation, and an old Harley Davidson motorcycle he's trying to retrieve from a former cop who  borrowed it.

Police Substation after 1906 Earthquake
Police Substation After 1906 earthquake

With the Department celebrating its 150th anniversary this August, with gala dinner planned at the historic St. Francis Hotel, which survived the 1906 earthquake, Bob's collection becomes especially significant. His collection is not just things, it's a shrine to all those members of the Department who came before him. Bob assesses his collecting mission:  I felt these guys, like hundreds before them, were passing into oblivion. Despite the setbacks, despite all the wrenching frustration, Bob is making sure they won't.

General Strike, 1934
General Strike, 1934

Last updated: 12/4/2015 9:35:35 AM