I remember exactly what I was doing when I met Fred Yates, who would later become one of Wyoming’s most accomplished news photographers.
It was the summer of 1983, and Fred’s first day on the job at the Wyoming Eagle in Cheyenne. I had just walked into a pitch-black newsroom during a power outage, and the news editor introduced us. We awkwardly extended our hands in the dark and exchanged greetings.
I didn’t realize at the time that I had just met not only a man I would spend the next decade working with as one of his editors, but also my best friend.
We shared many interests, including rock ‘n’ roll music, films, politics and sports of all kinds. But our bond was primarily formed because we were both news junkies and workaholics.
Fred passed away on May 14 due to chronic medical conditions in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the age of 63. He left behind a great body of work from his time as the chief photographer at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Fred brought many memorable images to the paper’s readers, and I don’t need a photo album to vividly recall some of his best shots from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Former Sen. Al Simpson and Gov. Mike Sullivan were Fred’s favorite political subjects. He and I traveled to several of Michael Dukakis’ Rocky Mountain campaign stops during his failed 1988 presidential bid.
The Laramie native was a fixture at University of Wyoming football and basketball games, roaming the sidelines and often looking beyond what was happening on the field or court. Yes, he captured athletes in action, but he’d also bring back photos of fans’ reactions, from delight to dejection, depending on what was happening to their beloved Pokes.
Cheyenne Frontier Days was also a great time of the year for Fred. He’d don his cowboy hat and boots and spend night and day at the rodeo and concert arena. One of my favorite images of Fred at work was taken by fellow photographer Mark Junge, who depicted him kneeling in the mud with two cameras at the ready and a bag slung over his shoulder.
Fred brought both professionalism and enthusiasm to his assignments. Yes, he would grumble about some of the places we sent him, but more often than not he would come back with a story about what made that particular photo shoot special.
Once, he and a reporter covered a senior citizens’ dance. Not the most exciting subject, right? But Fred came back talking about this couple he met who were high school sweethearts that ended up going their separate ways and marrying different partners. They’d reconnected after their respective spouses passed away and the love they shared was immortalized in a Fred Yates photo. His shot of them kissing went on to win the Wyoming Press Association’s “Photo of the Year.”
Nobody had ever won two WPA top honors back-to-back, but Fred topped himself in 1988 when he covered the historic Yellowstone National Park fire, and I had the privilege of seeing him do it. Late one night we learned that the Old Faithful Lodge was dangerously close to being burned to the ground. Firefighters were trying to keep the blaze at bay, and we weren’t going to miss the effort.
We hopped into Fred’s car when we ended our shift around midnight and high-tailed it to Yellowstone. Our business manager told us not to go, but what did he know about news?
We arrived just in time for a press briefing and were handed our mandatory fire helmets and yellow safety jackets from the National Park Service. The lodge had been spared and we were assigned to a work crew, which we followed as they cleared paths to protect some of the nearby structures.
At the end of their shift, these guys were clearly beat. I interviewed one and Fred, who had been snapping pictures all day, grabbed his gear to go.
I explained that the crew had asked if he would take their photo as they posed by their truck. Fred wasn’t happy.
“That’s just a snapshot,” he said. But he took it, and we didn’t think anything else about it when we traveled back to Cheyenne a few days later. Fred had plenty of action shots, which we both assumed would be how he would illustrate our stories.
But an amazing thing happened when Fred developed his film: the image that stood out was that trio of firefighters, covered in soot and grime but smiling at the end of a brutally tough day. It might have been just a snapshot in the hands of anyone else, but Fred’s photo conveyed something universal: the indomitable human spirit.
Thousands of photos were taken of the fires as they raged throughout the park that summer, including many by fine Wyoming journalists. But when the WPA named its Photo of the Year, Fred’s captivating image is the one that took home the award.
Over the years, our paths diverged. We both left the newspaper; I moved to Casper and Fred headed east, first to Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked as a research analyst, and then to Boston.
Journalism jobs were scarce, and so was public relations work, though Fred had experience in the latter at Laramie County Community College. We stayed in contact through regular phone calls that Fred initiated. He wasn’t going to let our friendship die just because we lived thousands of miles apart.
A few years ago, Fred moved to Fort Collins, where he worked as a postman. He often bemoaned the fact that he was no longer in the news business, and to me it was one of the great tragedies of the new normal for our industry. With so many newspapers going under and talented journalists losing their jobs, professionals like Fred had to pursue other careers.
As I look back, I see a craftsman who brought a special gift to his work: the sheer joy of meeting other people and sharing what they did with the public. He left many of his subjects feeling that they had just made a good friend, and it was genuine.
Fred loved his friendships with people he admired, including brothers Al and Pete Simpson; former Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Robert Rose; former state legislator and pastor Rodger McDaniel; and his mentor and University of Wyoming journalism professor, Robert Warner.
If I sent Fred to shoot anything related to trains, he’d come back to the newsroom grinning ear-to-ear and tell me what he learned from an engineer, maintenance man or railroad fan. One of his favorite days of the year was when he got to ride “The Treagle,” a special train that would carry the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s top advertisers from Cheyenne to Laramie to watch a UW football game.
It was an all-male event, which is one of the reasons it no longer exists; doing that today would be unbelievably sexist. But Fred was a bit of a rebel, and he mischievously helped sneak one of our female reporters onto the train for one trip. A few newspaper executives were livid, but all of the passengers loved it!
I will miss him terribly the rest of my life. But when I think of Fred I will always remember what became his trademark greeting whenever he’d return after an enjoyable assignment and make a beeline to my desk: “Drake, you’re never going to believe this …”
What I can’t believe is that he’s gone. I may have met him in the dark, but for me, and thousands of readers and subjects whose lives he touched, his photos will remain a beacon of light. Fred’s images define not only a unique Wyoming era, but the gifted man who took them.