Rick Freund was driving home from watching car races one late summer night in 1971 when he spotted a section of sky brightly illuminated by what had to be fire. Driving towards the light, the 24-year-old discovered a Fresno home engulfed in flames, three little girls in nightgowns standing on their front lawn gaping at the catastrophe, and their mother wailing, “My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?”
“I just asked her where her baby was and she pointed out the room,” Freund recalls.
Firefighters hadn’t arrived yet, so Freund and deputies from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office approached the baby’s bedroom window. One of the deputies shattered it with a baton, then hoisted Freund – who was the thinnest – through the window. Inside, he found a room filled with smoke, flames fast approaching on the other side of the door, and a smiling baby in a crib. He scooped up the infant and passed the child through the window, then pushed himself out, bloodying his back and hands in the process.
If he had not shown up, my brother would not be here.
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Then Freund walked away, without even knowing if the baby he saved was a girl or a boy.
Forty-six years later, Freund finally found out when the family he helped all those years ago tracked him down to share their thanks for the first time.
Freund learned that the baby he saved was a boy: Robert “Bobby” Magee. And Freund learned that because he saved him, Magee helped save hundreds of other lives.
Magee is now a 47-year-old father of three who has been organizing a large blood drive for the past 18 years with a business partner at the Pumpkin King Pumpkin Patch in Fresno.
“We put a lot of sweat and blood and tears into that blood drive,” Magee says of more than 18,000 units of blood that have been collected for the Central California Blood Center, “and I guess that will be what I’m most proud of, that every year we get to go down there and save lives.”
The reunion between Magee and Freund was facilitated by one of Magee’s sisters, Cyndee Farr-Gutierrez. Her search for Freund began after she wrote a story for a college class about the fire that destroyed her childhood home. It got her thinking more about how her family never got the chance to thank the good Samaritan who saved her baby brother’s life.
She wrote Freund a thank-you letter and emailed The Bee to see if it could be printed as an advertisement. Her family knew Freund’s name from an old Bee article (Freund’s name was given to the paper by a friend he told about the fire) but the family had been unsuccessful in locating him.
Although Bobby may never remember or see the stranger again, he has his life to thank to the quick action of the Fresno City College student.
1971 Fresno Bee story about Richard Freund saving Robert “Bobby” Magee
She hoped Freund might see her thank you in The Bee if he still lived in Fresno. Instead, The Bee found Freund for her.
She and her sisters met Freund late last year at his Fresno home. It was the first time since July 2, 1971, and Magee and his family later met with Freund at a restaurant. The visits were filled with gratitude, gifts, and Freund happily answering their questions about what he remembered from the night of the blaze.
The eldest of Magee’s sisters was just 10 years old at the time. Freund, a former military policeman for the Army who owns a trucking business, was then a student at Fresno City College and working as a supervisor for a company that manufactured farm equipment.
Magee’s mother, Carol Magee, died in 2003 without being able to personally thank the man who rescued her son. But her gratitude was printed in a 1971 story about Freund being nominated for a meritorious service award.
Carol Magee wrote her thank-you letter in her son’s name, who was just four months old at the time:
“You brought me to safety and disappeared before my parents could express their gratitude,” the letter reads. “But heroes don’t want to be thanked.
“Thank you is too inadequate for saving my life. But I know that mommy and daddy will do their best to teach me right from wrong and to do just like you did. You saw it had to be done and you did it.
“We will never forget you.”
Minutes after the rescue, the ceiling collapsed and flames engulfed the child’s bedroom.
Freund’s heroic actions that day were far from his last. He’s since performed the Heimlich maneuver on a stranger choking on food, and administered CPR on an elderly woman who had a heart attack at a funeral, and later, on a dog injured during a hunting trip.
Magee describes those good deeds as “deep-breath moments.”
“You see something,” Magee explains, “and you take a deep breath and no one else is going to (help) so – boom! You go and do it.”
A simple act of kindness can mean so much.
Magee hasn’t had deep-breath moments quite like Freund’s, but he can relate.
“I have to take a deep breath moment when there’s a fight between parents at the bounce houses (at the Pumpkin King),” Magee says with a laugh. “I’ve just lived a nice quiet, peaceful life hiding in the mountains. My wife finds it very convenient.”
Magee lives in Coarsegold’s Yosemite Lakes Park. When he’s not at the Pumpkin King in the fall, he’s working as a carpenter who delights in being “a craftsman, not a handyman.”
He and Freund plan to keep in touch and might go hunting together soon. Freund says he’ll certainly be making a trip to the Pumpkin King each fall, where he plans to buy his Halloween pumpkins for the rest of his life.
Farr-Gutierrez says it was a blessing to finally be able to thank the man who saved the brother she loves so much.
“When someone does something like that,” she says, “I don’t know if they know how much it means to somebody else and the lives they change by a simple act. … A simple act of kindness can mean so much.”