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Obituary: James Donald Fisk ’41

BURNT HILLS, NY — James Donald Fisk, known to Capital Region baby boomers as “Uncle Jim Fisk,” host of “The Freddie Freihofer Show,” has died.

Fisk, 91, of Burnt Hills, passed away Saturday at the Ellis Center. Thousands of area children appeared on the WRGB program, also called “Breadtime Stories,” that first aired in November 1949. Fisk, a Glens Falls native, was its host from July 23, 1956, to 1966, when it was discontinued. The show featured “squiggles,” a cartoon drawing completed by Fisk — and previous hosts — with “abstract” assistance from kids in the audience, WRGB’s website says.

For many preschoolers, it was their first experience interrelating imagination, drawing skills and the magic of television. “Breadtime Stories” was the first live local color series. More recently, Fisk founded the well-known company JIMAPCO — “Maps to swear by, not at.”

Fisk began working at WRGB in 1945, during the early days of television, when programs were all locally produced and live. In 1956, he moved his family from Scotia to Burnt Hills and had a variety of responsibilities as host of “The Freddie Freihofer Show.” Every day he’d create the stories, write commercials, do his own costume and makeup and conduct a pre-show warmup. He also handled tickets and promotion, and was WRGB’s general staff art director until 1968, when syndicated television began to make local programming obsolete.

By then, he was already starting on JIMAPCO. His first map was of Burnt Hills, which he called home for more than 50 years. The map was created to help organize a church canvassing project, but he needed to print 2,000 of them, so he asked Veeder and Yelverton drug store to sell leftover copies. With that success, the company was born.

With each successive map, Fisk refined his products and would eventually sell more than 150 of them throughout the country. He resigned from JIMAPCO in 1991, but remained active as a designer into his 80s.

Fisk was the son of David and Grace Fisk of Hudson Falls, where he grew up. His father was a prominent Hudson Falls attorney. After graduating from Hudson Falls High School, Fisk went to Antioch College and Yale University, studying math and theatrical set design.

His graduate work was interrupted by World War II, when he was an officer in the U.S. Army’s 96th AA Regiment, and later in the newly-formed 7th Army, touring the Pacific, European and African theaters. He married Jane Gitsham in 1942 while on a short military leave and came back to Hudson Falls in 1945.

In a prophetic happenstance, Fisk had paid a visit in the mid-1930s to the attic of a Hudson Falls neighbor, Johnny Mills, chief engineer for the Sandy Hill Iron and Brass Works. Mills had created a huge contraption to receive a television image that was being experimentally broadcast by General Electric Co. in Schenectady. Mills was kept informed about when signals were being broadcast so that he could work on improving reception. He was one of the earliest scientists working on development of this new medium, which became a large part of Fisk’s life.

Fisk was active throughout his life in a number of community projects and services, including the Burnt Hills Ambulance Squad, Burnt Hills Library Board, Burnt Hills Methodist Church, various schools and charitable endeavors. He also enjoyed creative hobbies such as building a sailboat, creating and licensing word puzzles and building elaborate model train scenarios.

Fisk was predeceased in 1981 by his first wife, Jane Gitsham Fisk. He is survived by his wife of 28 years, Mary Lou Fisk; his sister, Grace Elizabeth Giddings; four children, David (Christina), Thomas (Margaret), Barbara (Gregory) Gachowski and Sarah (Kevin) West; stepdaughter, Margo Ryerson; six grandchildren, Stacy Mendrick and Michael Fisk, Jamie Gachowski and Stephanie Hample and Erika and Connor West; three step-grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011, at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, 73 Midline Road, Ballston Lake. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Make A Wish Foundation, the Adirondack Lyme Disease Foundation, local animal shelters or the charity of one’s choice.