To understand how much Fred Bischoff loved to figure out how things worked, consider when he had surgery for a pacemaker at age 35.
“He asked if he could be awake while they put the pacemaker in and they let him,” his daughter Lisa Higginbotham said. “[It] was absolutely crazy.”
Bischoff was born in Birmingham and later settled in Montgomery where he and his wife raised three children. He died in June from COVID-19, one of more than 2,200 Alabamians who have died during the pandemic. He was 79.
He came from a long line of mechanically-minded men in his family and his curiosity started early. As a kid he wanted to figure out how the wringer of a washing machine worked. But in doing so, his right arm was pulled in and his mother had to rescue him. He had scar for the rest of his life.
Bischoff spent 44 years as a field engineer for General Electric. At one point, he worked on the launch sequence for the Saturn V rocket and later in the company’s medical division. He did not shy away from hard work. While still recovering in the hospital from that heart surgery, he put on a hospital gown so he could go to another part of the building to fix a machine that had gone haywire.
He didn’t just want to know how things were built. Bischoff wanted to build things, anything from a TV to a tree house. He taught himself how to repair his grandmother’s player piano and eventually fixed three of them. They went to each of his children and Lisa Higginbotham still has hers.
“There’s a running joke in our extended family that if Fred’s gonna fix it, it’s going to be right,” Higginbotham said.
This perfectionist played hard and was fun, too. He rode roller coasters well into his 70s and would do a headstand if a grandkid asked him to.
When his nephew won a scholarship to play football at Auburn University, he didn’t just buy a t-shirt and watch a few games. He bought season tickets for the entire family.
Bischoff was also a rascal who enjoyed playing practical jokes. When he was young he would disconnect the phone line if he felt his sisters were talking to their boyfriends for too long. And then there was the time he set off firecrackers in the garden, freaking out the gardener.
“Freddy had some kind of a fuse where he could remotely light ‘em. And he lit them and they went off and blew up parts of the garden and of course scared Earnest half to death,” his sister Jean Turner said.
Family always came first. After all, he was one of nine children, and his own mother died when he was seven years old. He showed his love through helping people and fixing things for them. He built houses with Habitat for Humanity and was a faithful member of his Roman Catholic parish.
Married to his wife, Paula Bischoff, for 55 years, they never had to call for a repairman. He took care of everything until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Trust me, he did a thousand things that I never even knew he did that I have learned in the last two years,” Paula Bischoff said.
To his family Fred Bischoff was larger than life, but he was not showy.
He was quiet and had a calm presence. One of his sons-in-law wrote that “he was a man of few words – most of those low and mumbled.”
Jean Turner said about five years ago, the cleaner for her backyard pool wasn’t working properly. Bischoff looked it over, made a few adjustments and it’s still working to this day.
“When I asked him how he figured out what to do he just kind of smiled at me. No words. Just smiled at me,” Turner said.
Understanding what made Fred Bischoff work came not through his words, but through his actions.
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