Russ Bauman was knocked out cold on the streets of Fort Worth.
A photojournalist who shot video for Dallas’ WFAA-TV, Bauman was covering the 1984 General Dynamics strike when he was rocked in the head by a glass bottle thrown by someone in the crowd.
He still has a black-and-white photo of the incident. It shows him lying on his back, unconscious. Two policemen are trying to pick him up. A third is crouched by his side, looking into the distance, perhaps trying to figure out what they should do next.
Bauman, a Chicago native, held the WFAA-TV job for more than 30 years. It took him a lot of places, allowed him to experience things he wouldn’t have otherwise.
He shook hands with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He covered the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing. He flew to, among other places, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Honduras and Mexico. It was a stressful gig, he admits, but exhilarating. His camera equipment stayed in his home (all 80 pounds of it), because he never knew when he’d be called out into the field.
Nowadays, Bauman – retired, and living in Biltmore Village with his wife, Susie – is all about photographing bluebirds. His new hobby is a significant downshift in terms of adrenaline. Bluebirds, after all, can’t hurl bottles. Even so, he takes his newfound passion seriously. He’s coordinator of the Buncombe County chapter of the North Carolina Blue Bird Society, a role that allows him to give talks and educate the public. All told, he believes he has about 1,200 photos on file of Eastern bluebirds.
But does he pine for those days when the unexpected laid just around the corner? When flying in an Apache helicopter, riding in a M1 tank or sitting in the cockpit of a B-1 bomber (all things he did) were within the realm of possibility?
“I don’t miss it anymore,” he said. “For instance, when it snows nowadays, I can simply get a cup of coffee and enjoy it. I don’t have to worry about covering this or that. Back then, when I was working, I was so focused on getting the story that I didn’t think about the beauty or the tragedy of something.”
Beauty is what Bauman aims to capture through photography. His world moves slower now. He has time for more methodical pursuits, like tracking the enthralling lives of bluebirds in his backyard for the better part of a year – which is something he recently did. The microdramas and power struggles that unfolded wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the TV series “Planet Earth.”
Once, Bauman recalled, a baby bluebird fell to the ground from its nest. A squirrel was heading its direction, but three juvenile bluebirds swooped in to scare it off. Bauman has also witnessed “wing waving” – a means of communication – as well as males feeding females, which he called a “bonding thing.”
Perhaps the rarest moment he’s observed thus far, however, is an adult robin feeding baby bluebirds. It was such an unexpected — and downright odd — occurrence that Bauman contacted the National Audubon Society and the North American Bluebird Society to see if either organization had ever observed such behavior. Neither had.
Bauman felt compelled to write an article about the experience in “Bluebird Notes,” the North Carolina Bluebird Society’s newsletter. “Never did I think this act of concern would come from a robin,” Bauman writes. “Maybe robins aren’t the bullies as many think. Maybe different bird species can get along.”
“It kind of blew me away,” he said. “The mom and dad [bluebirds] didn’t go after the robin because they realized she was doing something good. I always have my camera set up, because you never know when you’re going to get stuff like that.”
Bauman had never even seen a bluebird prior to moving to Asheville in 2010. He hadn’t shot stills before that, either. His passion for both ignited when he bought a bluebird box, filled it with mealworms and installed it in his backyard. So came the birds. Soon thereafter, he began taking pictures and sending them to the North Carolina Bluebird Society. Then, four years ago, the coordinator position in Buncombe came open. He took it.
All of this raises the question, though: why bluebirds?
“I believe they’re forest ambassadors,” he said. “They’re people friendly. They’ll share their lives with you once they get to know you. When I walk out their food in the mornings, they’re already flying over and waiting on the railing. They wouldn’t do that with just anybody. But they will if they know they can trust you.”
Before the bluebirds
Bauman’s story about being knocked unconscious during that strike in 1984 perhaps paints the most accurate picture of his unpredictable pre-bluebird life. But he has other tales, too, anecdotes about how he was able to make a difference, in his own way, from behind the lens.
He talks about a woman who had her car broken into, and camera stolen, in Texas. That camera apparently held the only photos she had of her father. After the story, which showed the woman torn up about the incident, ran on TV, the reporter received a phone call. It was the thief. He’d had a change of heart. So he put the camera in a paper bag and left it by the reporter’s car.
“We drove up to Oklahoma City and gave the woman her camera back,” Bauman said. “When you do stories that made a difference, that’s when it was fun.”
Another time, the station did a series in the emergency room at Cook’s Children’s hospital in Fort Worth. The focus of that series was on the unsung support people — the nurses, the x-ray technicians, etc — who helped the place operate like a well-oiled machine.
On one particular day, a young girl whose arm was nearly severed after it was shut in a car door arrived in the ER. “Basicall everything except for the nerves [was severed],” Bauman said. Bauman followed the girl throughout her journey in the hospital — from her crying for her father, to undergoing successful surgery that ultimately saved the appendage.
“It was a chance to spotlight people who normally don’t get a lot of recognition,” Bauman said. “It was nice to see that — and to have a happy ending, too.”
He also recalls flying to Panuco, Mexico, with a plastic surgeon who conducted operations on children who had cleft palates. At first, the kids, who spoke no English, were frightened by his camera. That changed after he videotaped them and showed them the recording. “They were mesmerized watching themselves...we were all buddies after that,” he said.
Here are some other highlights from Bauman’s photojournalism career. Some of the numbers may be approximations, but he insists that they’re relatively accurate.
- 1.3 million miles driven in 33 years.
- Met 100,000 people.
- Covered stories in 20 states.
- Toured a nuclear power plant and visited the control room.
- Covered three national conventions (including that 1996 one in Chicago).
“It was a window to the world for me,” he said of his career. “I got to go places, sometimes not the best places. I covered floods and storms and hurricanes and tornadoes. I saw pain on people’s faces. I’m an empathetic guy, so that bothered me, but I knew that by getting these stories out, I was informing the public. I was doing my job.”
Take a breath, Bauman
Retired life has brought Bauman close to his now-beloved bluebirds, in addition to other fulfilling (and relaxing) endeavors.
He enjoys painting pastels, particularly of dogs. He also takes his therapy dog, Abby, many places, including to visit cancer patients. One time, a nurse mentioned to him that a woman at the end of the hall needed a “little bit of Abby,” as Bauman put it.
She’d just been diagnosed with cancer, and was sitting alone, her head in her hands. After Abby approached, her entire demeanor changed. Within minutes, she was smiling, showing Bauman pictures of her own dog.
“A dog does a lot that a human can’t,” Bauman said. “They connect with people. When Abby goes into her mode, she knows exactly what to do. She’s working.”
When Bauman relocated to Asheville, he couldn’t figure out why the air smelled so funny. He mentioned this to one of his friends, who responded: “Buddy, that’s fresh air!” Dallas was so polluted that Bauman had essentially forgotten what it was like to breathe clean air.
Now he’s breathing it everyday. He’s breathing a lot deeper now, too. Him and his bluebirds.
“Being retired finally allowed me to chill out,” he said. “I’ll take a book out on the back porch, listen to the birds and enjoy the great weather we have.”