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.

Louisville’s Museum Row

Louisville museums 11-05-2014Curator Jessica and I were killing time before meeting up with Jon Webb, the Athens Messenger photographer who originated the Picture Page concept before I started working there. She enjoys sewing period costumes, so she was quivering with excitement when she saw the Frazier History Museum had an exhibit Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Art, Fashion and Luxury in the Gilded Age.

While we were walking down Museum Row on Main on a cold, windy, drizzly day, I thought it was going to be a long time before anybody swings the bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum.

Better choke up on it

Louisville museums 11-05-2014Based on the the size of the man standing next to the 120-foot tall, 68,000-pound steel bat, I’m pretty sure you’d have to choke up on it when you got to the plate.

Looking for the secret password

Louisville museums 11-05-2014I watched Jessica when we went to the ticket counter to see if she gave any secret curator handshakes or whispered any passwords to get us a discount, but I had to pay full price to get into the Frazier.

Why the Can-Can was scandalous

Louisville museums 11-05-2014Spend enough time in a car with Road Warriorette Jessica and you’ll find out more about period underwear than you ever wanted to know. I’ve gotten pretty adept at the head-nod and “Uh huh, that’s really interesting.”

I DID learn why the Can-Can was so scandalous (but I’m not telling).

Here’s Miz Jessica is counting the whalebone stays that made up this corset. I observed that anything that compressed the waist that much surely must have made the woman’s toes swell. When you squeeze a balloon in one place, it HAS to bulge out somewhere else. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)

Do you think I’m crazy?

8x10 Jessica KS1_4420Along one was was a bunch of silhouettes that showed the shapes of womens fashion over the years. Miz Jessica backed up to the display and asked me which silhouette most closely resembled her profile.

I’ve been married 45 years. I knew better than to answer THAT question.

I found my gas mask

Louisville museums 11-05-2014While she was hustling amidst the bustles, I wandered over to a display that showed a World War II gas mask just like the one I wore when I was teargassed covering student protests at Ohio University. At some point in my Boy Scout career, I carried a canteen that looked like that, too.

I hope it worked better than mine

Ken Steinhoff at OU Riot Photo by Ed PierattI hope it worked better in combat than mine did in riots.

Friend and photographer Ed Pieratt shot me in my riot gear. I had to wear my glasses on the outside of the mask because I was blind without them. The old WWII mask kept the gas out, but the lenses fogged up so badly I couldn’t see WITH the mask or WITHOUT it. (By the next riot, I had a state of the art M16 mask courtesy of a policeman who “liberated” one for me. I had it fitted with prescription lenses and used it for another two decades.

I told Curator Jessica that I thought I could lay my hands on the mask, helmet, press card, camera and strobe for an exhibit she’s planning for May. The only thing missing is the jacket and the skinny guy wearing it.

Martin Luther King National Day of Mourning

President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed Sunday, April 7, 1968, as a national day of mourning for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wrote back in January about a class project at Ohio University that put me in an ideal position to cover the event in front of the John Calhoun Baker University Center as both a student and photo editor of The Ohio University Post.

Next weekend is the 100th anniversary of The OU Post and some of these photos have my colleagues in the background. I won’t be able to make it to Athens for the reunion, so this is my contribution to being there in spirit.

Students filled the street

Hundreds, if not thousands, of students filled the street in front of the student union and spilled out onto the Main Green.

OU President Vernon Alden spoke

The Kennedyesque OU President Vernon Alden, center, wearing a black armband, spoke.

Religious leaders were present

All of the local faiths were represented.

Crowd was solemn

I was struck by how seriously everyone took the ceremony.

A salt and pepper group

The front ranks were heavily represented by black students, many wearing signs that said “In Mourning.”

Not your normal gathering

Most of the white students in the back were dressed more casually, but this wasn’t your normal student gathering.

The mood was solemn and there was no laughing or calling across the group.

I had been to many protests, concerts and gatherings on the Main Green, but this one had a feeling of dignity about it.

It brought to mind the spontaneous gathering the day of the Kent State shootings.

Instead of being your normal batch of campus radicals, you had a mixture of jocks, sorority girls, frat boys, professors and townspeople all coming together to try to make sense of what had happened.

The racial mix on this day was probably proportional to the school’s makeup.

The ceremony ended

After the formal ceremony ended, the crowd started to disperse. Many of them walked a block north to Court and Union, the main intersection in town.

A small group of students sit down

A small group of students sat down in the middle of the intersection.

The crowd grows

More and more students joined the sit-in. Again, uncharacteristically, this wasn’t your normal group of rowdy drunk students who block this intersection on the first warm spring night after a cold winter. You can tell from the expressions that this is a serious occasion.

All of downtown is blocked

Finally, the whole intersection for at least a half-block in all directions was full of students.

James Steele addresses crowd

James Steele, who was one of the speakers at the formal ceremony, addresses the crowd.

I should explain something before we get to the part where things turn ugly. Ohio University was founded in 1804, so the local police have a lot of experience in dealing with unruly students.

Usual procedure was to see if they’d break up on their own. If not, a half-dozen cops would show up in “bats and hats,” somebody would read the riot act over a bullhorn, then there would be some pushing and shoving, followed by everybody heading back on campus.

Rarely were any arrests made. Some bricks and bottles might get thrown and a few windows could get broken, but I never heard of any looting of the downtown stores. The police didn’t even use teargas at any event I covered until the spring of 1970.

Captain Charlie Cochran didn’t follow script

Athens Police Captain Charlie Cochran, always a hothead, didn’t follow the script. Instead of giving the normal order to disperse and having enough officers present to enforce it, he waded into the demonstrators and literally threw them off “my street.”

Seriously misread crowd

Charlie didn’t realize this wasn’t your normal unfocused mob of kids out for a good time. These folks had seen their national leader gunned down. They were hurting and looking for a place to direct their anger. They didn’t take kindly to being manhandled on a day of mourning.

Cooler head prevails

A friend grabbed the fellow who had been thrown to the ground just before he could retaliate. If the two had tangled, I’m convinced the whole crowd would have joined in and someone would have been seriously hurt.

Chief, James Walen works out compromise

Before things could get out of hand, Police Chief Fred James, left, and James Walen, university vice president for administrative affairs, right, worked out a compromise.

The chief agreed to allow the students to continue the demonstration for a “reasonable amount of time” and the students agreed to leave peacefully after that.

Charlie didn’t look happy to have me part of this confab, but this isn’t the first nor the last time that we’d have an awkward moment together. I’m not sure who the concerned citizen in the middle was.

Before long, intersection open

The bulk of the crowd retreated to the corners, then, after a “reasonable time,” everyone else moved on.

“Where do we go from here?”

A writer in The Athena, the university yearbook, penned, “The King is Dead! It echoed in microphones; and hearts were horrified throughout the campus, country, and world. Martin Luther King Jr. started a dream, but a bullet couldn’t shatter it. Now, where will his dream go?

“We talk about the coup d’etats of South America and the street riots in Europe, but when will we stop destroying our Kennedys and Luthers? Let us not scatter after the black arm bands have been put away.”

Well, that’s not exactly deathless prose, but it – and the scraps of posters in the middle of the street – raise an important question: “Where do we go from here?” Based on the headlines I worked on later, it doesn’t look like we learned a lot from 1968.

Photo gallery of King Memorial Day

I’ve included a wide variety of photos. If you were there that day, you might want to share them with your grandkids. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.

Post and Athena folks, I’m pretty sure I’ve spotted Clarence Page, Joyce Halasa, Ed Pieratt, Todd Schofer and Tom Price. (Now that I think of it, I think this is a class I flunked because I didn’t turn in an assignment. Wonder if I could submit this for extra credit 43 years late.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Gregory for President

 

With all of the controversy about whether or not Cape Girardeau’s Rush Limbaugh should be in the Hall of Famous Missourians, I stumbled across a Show Me state resident who deserves a nomination – Dick Gregory. I was looking for something else the other day and stumbled across these photos of Gregory speaking at Ohio University in 1968.

I was surprised to find that (a) he was from St. Louis and went to school at Southern Illinois University and (b) he was still alive.

The Black Mort Sahl

The biography on his website says that he was African American comedian and civil rights activist whose social satire changed the way white Americans perceived African American comedians.

He was part of a new generation of black comedians that includes Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge. They broke with the minstrel tradition, which portrayed blacks as stereotypes.

Gregory, who had a dry, satirical wit, came to be known as the “Black Mort Sahl.” (Friends of Gregory would refer to Sahl as “the White Dick Gregory.” I was fortunate to cover Bill Cosby when he played Ohio University at about the same time.

Nigger” was best-seller

I bought his autobiography, Nigger, when it was published in 1963 (when it was on its way to becoming the number one best-seller in the country), but I never felt comfortable walking around with the cover showing, even though he explained in his forward that he had written a note to his mother saying, “Whenever you hear the word ‘Nigger,’ you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”

Routine impressed Hugh Hefner

He got one his earliest breaks when Hugh Hefner heard him perform this routine in front of a mostly white audience when he had been brought in as a last-minute replacement:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you”. So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”

His temporary gig at the Chicago Playboy Club lasted three years.

Gregory changed my career

I was covering the event for The Ohio University Post. Much to my surprise, I got a call from The Athens Messenger, the local paper, asking if they could run my photo taken of Gregory while he waiting to go on. It was a surprise because I had seen photographer Bob Rogers at the press conference earlier that day, and I assumed that he must have covered the speech as well.

See, newspapers HATE to pick up something from a competitor. Now, The Post was the university student newspaper and The Messenger was the “real” paper, so we weren’t exactly competitors, but I always looked to see how I had stacked up against Bob or Jon Webb when we had been at the same event.

I was flattered that they wanted the art, so I offered it up quickly. I think that’s probably what led to them offering me an internship that summer. When they couldn’t find anyone who would work as long, hard (and cheap) as I would, it turned into a full-time job. When Bob moved on, I became chief photographer.

 Write-in Candidate for President

Gregory ran for president in 1968  as a candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. His button reads, “Write in Dick Gregory President for Peace in ’68.”

I guess I can add him to the list of presidents and presidential candidates I’ve covered.

Standing ovation

Gregory’s speech was well-received by the mostly white audience. Even though I was busy shooting the event from a multitude of positions, I heard enough to be impressed by the way he managed to get his point across without stabbing anyone with it.

I think he opened some eyes that evening. Most of us hadn’t heard that perspective before.

This site has an interesting collection of Dick Gregory quotes. In some he’s funny; in others he’s ironically angry; in others, he’s thought-provoking.

Interesting body language

I didn’t notice it when I edited the film in 1968, but take a look at the photo gallery. There’s an interesting contrast in body language between the white students and the black students at the afternoon press conference.

I see a lot of crossed arms and furrowed brows. I’m not sure the black students were as receptive to Gregory’s message as the white students.

Dick Gregory Photo gallery

I included a bunch of press conference photos in the gallery to show some of the folks I worked with in those days: Bob Rogers, Tom Price, Ed Pieratt and some radio and TV guys who look familiar (but we print guys didn’t bother pay much attention to them). Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side to move through the gallery.

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