Reflections on a Career

In the 40 plus years I have made my way as a photojournalist, I have been blessed with opportunities so abundant that as I contemplate transition to some other yet to be determined endeavors, I am awash in memories.

Images and sounds and people and places play out in constant flickers in my minds eye like some modern mashup of old time movies. I have been a part of documenting events and telling stories for nearly all of my adult life.

It has often been hard and demanding work, work that requires skill and thought and attention to detail as well as physical exertion. But it is work that frequently overwhelmed its demands with a fascination that created its own focus, allowing me to lose myself in my quest to get it all just right.

My imagination was originally sparked by newspapers. As a young boy in 1958, I had a paper route. Every day when I finished I curled up at home and read the articles and poured over the photos. The world seemed like a faraway place, but the stories, and especially the images that accompanied them, left me wanting to be able to fill those pages rather than just drop them on a doorstep.

Building the necessary skill sets began in the 7th grade. We had to write a short one page paper every week. Initially my mother helped me to organize each piece: topic sentence, develop the thought, conclusion. As I went through school, I learned that writing was a powerful tool, integral to expression.

And then in college my imagination became dominated by film, stories told in sound and pictures. I used to watch the CBS Evening News each night after dinner, hoping to see a piece by Charles Kuralt ‘On The Road’. It was just another form of communication with its own language and syntax, another vocabulary to master. But the desire grew in me do just that.

My first employer, Bob Elfstrom, a documentary filmaker, taught me many things. First and foremost, “Keep it simple. Simple and direct.” Another lesson, an observation really, was that “Production is seen as a product, but to us it is a process.”

The stories and items presented in the news may be a finished piece to our viewers. But to those of us who have labored to gather the information and interviews, recorded the events, pictures, and sounds, then organized them into a coherent and meaningful narrative, they are just the end point, the terminal if you will, of our process. I began to grasp the importance of finding a focal point and then following it to its conclusion, its destination.

I have worked at 6 different newsrooms in 4 cities and 2 states. I started in Utica at WUTR. Then on to Binghamton and Albany for short stints. Next in Minneapolis I worked first at the CBS station WCCO.

There I was able to observe some consumate young pros, many of whom moved on to the network. Bob McNamera, Susan Spencer, Bill Stewart who was shot and killed in Nicaragua, Barry Petersen, all tossed their scripts in the trash, which I would pull out to see how they constructed their stories. Gordy Bartusch and Les Solin were photographers whose work I sometimes got to edit, which taught me how they gathered the “shots” and sounds they needed to illustrate the reporters scripts.

In 1979 I moved over to the NBC affiliate, which morphed from WTCN to WUSA to KARE. And there it was that I got the opportunity to travel and work with the best on a day to day basis: Bernie Grace, Ken Speake and Adlai Steveson IV. Those first few years were my Camelot: “for one sweet shining moment”. I had the time of my life witnessing and recording and collaborating to provide a product that was the pride of my life to that point.

I had a part in developing the collaborative and creative atmosphere which has become that shops’ signature. It wasn’t always smooth. Life has a way of intruding with inconvenient truths. But I hung with it and continued to practice my craft to the best of my ability. And I grew in the process. While there, that news operation became one of the iconic brands in the business. It was relentless, visionary, and determined to dominate the local conversation.

I roamed across Minnesota finding stories and recording events. The Boundary Waters Canoe area, the North Shore of Lake Superior, Red Lake Reservation, farms, weather events, disasters: I hopped on a charter or flew in a chopper then back to the Twin Cities to edit for broadcast. In 1983, I spent a week in North Dakota on a manhunt for Godon Kahl after he fled a shootout with US Marshalls.

I went to Juarez Mexico when Tonka Toys moved their manufacturing plant there from Minnetonka. I was witness to the seemingly incomprehensible devastation of tornados and grain elevator explosions. I wasn’t filling pages, but I was filling broacasts of local television news.

I traveled the country in 1984 following Walter Mondale as he won the Democratic nomination for President, only to get defeated in a landslide election. One impression from that experience that has stayed with me is just how different things look from different parts of our country. We are diverse in such nuanced ways, geographically, linguistically, and even culturally, that although we are one United States, we are very much a variety of Americans.

I see this understanding play itself out again and again in our politics, our religious and spiritual expression, and even our understanding of our common language. Words have different meanings for different folks. Values are NOT one absolute given. They are all deeply personal and vary regionally as surely as they do personally.

When I returned to the Mohawk Valley after nearly 25 years in Minnesota, it was initially to help with the family business, which I managed to sell before my father died. Then I had the good fortune to land at WKTV and work with a series of young men and women just out of college, highly motivated to develop the competence necessary to gather news and tell stories. They all brought an energy and desire to the job that gave me fresh perspectives and the privilege of sharing my experience. Each moved on leaving me with more than they took.

Of all the awards that I have won, the sum total of that recognition pales in comparison to any one of the young lives that influenced mine and the collegial relationships in which I have participated. Many continue today, maintaining contact even as they have moved on professionally, a joy and a comfort to me personally. There has always been an element of something magical in putting a good story together. I can still get lost in that excitement and the energy it generates. But the simple truth is: once the story is told all that remains are coworkers, friends, and those whose lives I may have touched.

A career offers many forms of compensation. I did have the opportunity to do a piece that Kuralt had done many years ago, giving my take on the annual Ice Harvest at Millers Mills with Dave Gaynes. I saw the Gordon Kahl story become a made for TV movie starring Rod Steiger. I experienced the vast sweep of our country during a presidential campaign, always an historic experience. Still the best stories may have been the ones forgotton, those about quiet ordinary people. Focusing attention on an element of the human spirit that may otherwise be easily overlooked has been especially satisfying.

Years ago when I was laboring to raise my son as a single parent, my mother told me to cherish the moment, that it would all pass by too quickly. From this vantage point, I see that as wisdom in reference to my vocation as well: so many special moments to savor. When all is said and done, I leave behind a body of work that I know is in most cases modest.

My best known piece of work, thanks to the viral power of the internet, will probably remain something I did to give perspective to a tragic fatal fire. And yet I believe if I have any kind of a legacy that endures it will be in the memories of the colleagues with whom I have collaborated over the years. But for any who are interested, I am attaching a list of a few of my favorite stories. I hope they remain of some passing interest even today.

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