Portraits of a Pandemic

My former Palm Beach Post Chief Photographer is going to be disappointed. Every May 4, John J. Lopinot sends me a cryptic two-word message: “Never Forget.” He and I both know what he’s referring to – the killing of four students at Kent State 50 years ago. I haven’t forgotten, but this might be the last post on the topic.

Bear with me. I’ll get around to the point in a bit. With advanced age comes forgiveness for meandering.

2015 The Sky Has Fallen exhibit

Sky Has Fallen exhibit opening 04-17-2015

In the spring of 2015, Curator Jessica and I put together a major photo exhibit on the protest era at Ohio University for the Southeast Ohio History Center. The title of the show came from what has become Ohio University Post legend.

After a night of rioting two weeks after Kent State, the decision was made to close the university. The student newspaper, The Post, was on a hard deadline to get the story in print. Just before it hit the presses, someone said, “We don’t have a weather report for tomorrow.”

Editor Andy Alexander, a darned good journalist then and now, said, “Just write, ‘The sky has fallen.’”

A journey to Kent State

Kent State 08-25-2014

Jessica and I paid a visit to the Kent State May 4 Visitor’s Center to see how they handled the event and to see if there was any way we could collaborate with other Ohio museums for the 50th anniversary.

‘I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died’

Our guide was a fellow in a wheelchair who could glide up the hills of the grounds as fast as I could walk up them.

We were halfway through our tour when I realized the man was Dean Kahler, one of the students who had survived being shot that day. I hadn’t prepared to shoot a video, but I managed to capture his haunting tale. It was one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever done.

“I knew I had been shot because it felt like a bee sting. I knew immediately because my legs got real tight, then they relaxed just like in zoology class when you pith a frog,” he said. He never walked again, but he has turned into a highly competitive wheelchair athlete.

After the shooting stopped, he called out to see if there were any Boy Scouts around who could turn him over. “The only thought that came into my head was if I was turned over, would I bleed more internally than externally? I thought (shrugs shoulders) there’s a 50 / 50 chance that you’re going to die one way or the other. I knew I might die. I had a really good chance of dying, so I wanted to see the sky, the sun, leaves, peoples faces. I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died.”

What are we going to do for the anniversary?

Ohio University Protests

Jessica and I wondered how we were going to mark the 2020 anniversary of the event. What could we do that would add a new dimension to what we had already done?

I suggested reaching out to some Athens county residents and assembling a panel to talk about what they remembered. Not long after that, Jessica became a new mother, and we didn’t talk as often as we once did. I suspect she had barely enough energy to take care of ONE baby.

When the world changed because of COVID-19, I said, “I guess I don’t need to work to get a 50th anniversary show catalog to the printer, do I?”

1970 and 2020

She said she didn’t have any idea when they’d be able to open the museum, but it certainly wouldn’t be by May 4.

Then she said something that gave me pause: “There are a lot of similarities between 1970 and 2020. In both years, the university closed, graduation was cancelled, and the town emptied of students.

How about I come back to Athens?

After thinking about it for a couple days, I tossed out an idea: how about I come back to Athens to shoot a Portrait of the Pandemic? I will have missed the mass evacuation, but I could still document the empty streets, people in masks (or not), signage, anything that will help paint the picture of 2020, much like I had done with the turmoil and teargas of the ’60 and ’70s?

I still have the gas mask

I mean, I still had the gas mask Ed Pieratt shot my photo wearing during the riots. I could dust it off again.

I’m in the middle of reading John M. Barry’s excellent book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. (He also wrote Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, a book I’ve read three times, and learned something new each time.)

Sign in Jackson, Mo., funeral home

That book has scared the bejeebers out of me because I’m in at least 2-1/2 of the high-risk categories. The more and more I read about governors opening up their states before we are anywhere near sure we are out of the woods, the more uncomfortable I became with the idea of driving 528 miles one-way to photograph people on the street.

When I was trying to justify the idea to some friends, I said that I had spent most of my life running into places other people were running out of. I may have made some bad judgments in retrospect, but I never made them without considering the risks.

It was time to do some serious risk analysis before jumping into this project.

In the end, I told Jessica that I’m not 21 years old anymore. I’ve dodged bullets in my life (literally), but I didn’t think it was prudent for me to risk what’s left of my days. I still have lots of film to scan.

I’m practicing social distancing

I’m trying to limit the number of places I shop, I wear a mask, and try not to have much contact with other people. The latter reason is why the only person I photographed wearing a mask was me at the top of the page.

Here are some images from stores in the Cape Girardeau area (plus some masks a friend left taped to my front door). You can click on any of them, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery.

Vistors DO come by the house

Phoebe – Deer 05-02-2020

I’m not completely isolated. I parted the curtains to see Phoebe the feral cat and a couple deer visitors the other night. They weren’t wearing masks, but they were observing proper social distancing.

Previous May 4 posts

Here’s a list of stories and photos I’ve posted about the Kent State and protest era over the years. I’m not sure if I’ll be adding to it. Sorry, Lopi.

Pat Stephens: 51 Years at The Post

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008Pat Stephens started at Palm Beach Newspapers in 1965, the year I graduated from Cape Girardeau Central High School. My first newspaper photo was published April 18, 1963, so I started in the ink-slinging business a little before her. The main difference is that I took a buyout in the fall of 2008 and put the newspaper business behind me.

Two days before I walked out the door for the last time, I wandered the building shooting pictures of the people who were special to me. Pat was at the top of the list.

Pat, 69, was on The Post’s payroll right up until the day she died, Thursday, April 7, 2016. That’s 51 years working for the same company. In contrast, I passed through nine papers (counting high school and college pubs) in four states in 45 years.

Post reporter Sonja Isger wrote an excellent obituary that Pat would have thought was “too much.” [I hope it doesn’t get trapped behind the paper’s paywall.]

The headline was appropriate: “Remembering The Post’s Constant Caretaker.” She was one of those unsung heroes the public never knew about, but was a big reason your paper hit the stoop in the morning. Reporting, writing and editing the paper is all well and good, but if the ink doesn’t get squirted on the toilet paper, it doesn’t matter.

An early member of the 20-Year Club

PBNI 20-Year Club members 08-17-2008She started in the production department back in the days of hot type, and shepherded it though several confusing iterations of publishing and pagination systems.

Pat shows up in the middle of the middle column listing the earliest members of the Twenty Year Service Club. Click on this, or any of the photos, to make them larger.

Pat became office Mac expert

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008When the paper transitioned from manual to electric typewriters; from hot type to cold type and then to computer-output pages, Pat went along with the ride. The editorial and advertising systems were on Macs, and she became the office expert on them.

As a PC guy, I would mock Macintosh computers (Know why a Mac mouse has only one button? It’s because that’s as high as a Mac user can count.), but never to Pat. It just wouldn’t have been right. She took pride in her equipment.

She loved her one-eyed horse

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008She loved her aging, one-eyed horse, Baxter, and would talk about him often when things were quiet.

Winner of the Purple Cow

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008Her hard work won her the company’s Purple Cow award, displayed proudly on her bookcase.

I worked a lot of long hours at weird times, but I don’t think I was ever in the building when Pat wasn’t. If some department manager (usually a new hire with all the answers) would decide that all the world’s problems could be solved by shuffling workers from one cube to another, Pat would show up with her gray rolling cart to swap pieces-parts and huge, 24-inch monitors that were so big that you could put four wheels on them and they’d pass for Volkswagens.

At times like this, she might be heard uttering her opinion of such tomfoolery, but then she would mock-slap her face twisting her head from the “force” of the blow.

The pressure relief valve

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008Every paper I worked for had one place and one person you could visit when the pressure lid was about to blow off the cooker. Judy Crow’s morgue was that place at The Missourian. (In these more sensitive times, the morgue has been rebranded “the library.”)

Pat’s office was the relief valve at The Post. Pat would listen patiently as you blew off steam, nodding appropriately at the right times, all the time plying you with her ever-full candy dish. Her office was full of plush animals and pictures of horses and wildlife that would have been kitschy in any other context, but were oddly comforting in Pat’s Place.

I always liked this shot of Pat’s menagerie keeping an eye on her.

Heaven’s candy jars will be full

Pat Stephens in her office at PBNI 08-29-2008Pat Stephens was probably one of the last generation that could go to work at a newspaper right out of high school and stay at the same place for 51 years. I am proud to have been her colleague and her friend. Heaven will be a better place now that there is someone there to ride the horses and keep the candy jars full.

Palm Beach Post Turns 100

Palm Beach Post - America's Fastest Growing Major Daily Newspaper 09-30-1988The Palm Beach Post is giving itself an extended pat on the back for surviving 100 years. I logged about 35 years there, stretching from the early 1970s until I took a buyout in 2008. I congratulate the publication on surviving, even if it’s a shadow of its former self. It was billed as “America’s Fastest Growing Major Daily Newspaper” on a coffee mug dated September 30, 1988.

A recent house ad bragged that “The Post’s newsroom has more than 100+ Journalists…” (They must have laid off the copy editor who would have known that “more than” and “100+” is redundant.) In 2007, the newsroom had three times that many staffers, but, who’s counting?

Clatter, clutter and ringing of bells

Palm Beach Post newsroom Election Night 1976Here’s what election night looked like in 1976, an era when reporters used typewriters (mostly manual), election results arrived by telephone and were tabulated by hand by scowling reporters and editors keeping an eye on the deadline clock. News came in on a bank of wire service teletypes with much clatter, clutter and ringing of bells.

REAL cut ‘n’ paste

Palm Beach Post newsroom Election Night 1976You can see glue bottles scattered all over the newsroom, from an era where “cut” was done with scissors or the edge of a pica pole. The “paste” part was done with homemade paste or – in the case of the upscale Post – rubber cement.

OSHA doomed the “spike”

Palm Beach Post newsroom Election Night 1976OSHA must have put an end to another old newspaper standby, the “Spike.” When I first got into the business, almost every desk had a wicked-looking spike attached to a flat base. When you were through with your notes or other paperwork, you’d “spike” them on the sharp thing that looked like a long needle. It screwed into the base so you could remove the oldest stuff from the bottom when the spike got full.

With practice, you could hold a paper flat in your palm, and slam it down on the spike without getting speared as it passed between your fingers. I punctured a finger from time to time until I mastered the technique, but I never heard of anyone falling across a desk and impaling himself on one.

The terminology outlasted the tool. If an editor decided to kill a story, he or she would “spike it,” just like you’d drive a stake through a vampire’s heart.

A photo gallery of characters

I’ve held these photos for a couple or years thinking I’d get around to telling the story of some of the characters who inhabited the newsroom in the days before the office and its denizens were domesticated. The folks who wrote the stories were often more interesting than their subjects. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery. Posties, feel free to leave comments with your memories of this fascinating crew and era.

Depressing Press News

Palm Beach Post house ad 10-04-2015Flipping over to Page 2A in my old newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, while munching on a bagel loaded with cream cheese I almost knocked over my cup of coffee, when this house ad jumped out at me. The paper was bragging that it “has more than 100+ journalists reporting the news for you every day in print and online.”

Reminds me of the Good Ole Days

Palm Beach Post - America's Fastest Growing Major Daily Newspaper 09-30-1988Back almost exactly 27 years ago, on September 30, 1988, we were handing out mugs that crowed that we were “America’s Fastest Growing Major Daily Newspaper.” Now, to be honest, I think there should have been some asterisks surrounding that claim, but it was mostly true. We were growing staff, circulation and revenue like there was no tomorrow.

The treasurer said, “We could park a wheelbarrow out in front of the building and people would throw money in it.” (In fairness, in 2008, he added, “One day we went out and the wheelbarrow was empty. The next day when we checked, the wheelbarrow was gone.”)

WE had bragging rights

The 2015 Post is proud that it has 100+ journalists.

Here’s the editorial makeup of the paper on August 28, 2007, a year before the first 300-person purge took place and before our production and circulation departments were outsourced. Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc., had 1,414 employees in all departments at that time.

The newsroom had 317 employees in 16 departments. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 401 News Admin – 12
  • 402 Metro – 62
  • 403 News Desk – 28
  • 404 Sports – 42
  • 405 Features – 33
  • 406 Business – 16
  • 407 Community News – 22
  • 408 Wash Buro – 1
  • 409 Library – 11
  • 410 Graphics – 10
  • 412 Opinion – 12
  • 414 Media – 1
  • 415 Arts & Entertainment – 10
  • 416 State – 19
  • 417 Web – 13
  • 419 Photo – 25

We might have had some fat

PBNI 20-Year Club members 08-17-2008We might have had some fat in 2007, but I can’t believe that you can cut two-thirds of your news-Hoovering folks with centuries of institutional knowledge, then brag about your “more than 100+ journalists” in an advertisement. (When I posted this to Facebook, someone pointed out that “more than 100+” is redundant. Maybe that’s what happens when you get rid of copy editors.)

Click on the photo to read my name as part of the Class of 1972.