‘Heroes’ inspired local filmmaker Andre Degas

Andre Fuad Degas, a noted playwright and director who has worked with PBS, HBO and CBS News, had known his Bonita Springs neighbors – Navy Veteran Robert Vandegrift and his wife, Anita – for a decade before the pandemic struck. The disease changed social circles everywhere, including the community of Spanish Wells. Isolation made most groups smaller, but sometimes brought people together in ways they may not have imagined.

So it was with Degas and Robert Vandergrift, a subject of Degas’ latest film, “I Walked With Heroes,” debuting on WGCU PBS on Thursday, Jan. 26 at 8:30 p.m.

“Robert’s wife, Anita, knew that I was a journalist,” Degas said, explaining the origins of the documentary. “Anita knew that her husband was a great raconteur and she urged me to ‘get some of Bob’s stories down.’” Without delay, Degas started filming most of the documentary around Robert’s 98th birthday. “It was almost like a premonition that she had,” Degas said. “Time was running out.”

Degas discovered that his neighbor, Bob, was one of the few remaining veterans of World War II and he was suffering from PTSD. “He started opening up to me. And I was there every day with my camera.” Over time he filmed the lives of Bob and Anita and unearthed the healing power of love and service between them.

Veterans of World War II “are dying at an incredibly quick rate,” Degas said. “That’s how we start the documentary. These stories need to be told. They need to be heard by this generation, now. Some of the old veterans were only 17 years old when they enlisted and went to protect our country from the evils of fascism.”

There were snags in the production of “I Walked With Heroes,” but maybe not of the usual kind. For one, “I’m a Democrat and Robert is a die-hard Republican,” Degas said. “But I respected his patriotism and his love for our country, and he respected my opinions, so we put our differences aside.”

They not only put differences aside, but also Degas became like a son to the couple.

“I used to go over and dress him in the morning and as soon as he woke up and saw me he’d perk up, and give me a salute. … And then he would say, ‘Why are you wearing a mask?’ And I’d say, ‘I’ve been traveling all over the world and I don’t want to make you sick.’”

This way, they navigated COVID, illness, storms and political views – and created a film about heroes, expected and unexpected.

Degas’ films include “Condition Red” and “Kitchen,” streaming on Amazon Prime.