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.

Ohio University Post

Layouts of Ohio University staffers in 1968There’s a big Ohio University Post reunion in Athens, Ohio, this weekend.

I was photo editor of the paper from the fall of 1967 through the summer of 1968, when I went to work for The Athens Messenger. I won’t make it back for the reunion, but I put together these layouts of some of the student newspaper staffers from 1968 – 1970 to display at the Athens County Historical Society Museum. For you folks who ARE in Athens, here’s a sample of what you’ll see. Curator Jessica Cyders said the museum, at 65 North Court Street, will be open Saturday morning from 10 a.m. until noon, so you can slip in before the formal reunion activities begin.

The museum will also have photos I took during the Martin Luther King National Day of Mourning on April 8, 1968. Some staffers like Tom Price, Clarence Page, Lew Stamp and others appear in the pictures.

And, finally, you can see protest photos I shot from 1967 through the close of the school on May 15, 1970. Rudy Maxa and others show up in them.

Photo Gallery of OU Post Staffers

The museum will have prints of these for sale. The prints are suitable for framing. I don’t know if that means you can frame the pictures or frame the people IN the pictures. Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the picture to move through the gallery.


I Only Need Them to See

I stopped by Son Matt’s house a couple of days ago to drop something off and arrived just as Grandson Malcolm was getting home from the second grade with his new pair of glasses. From the outside looking in, they are pretty spiffy. From Malcom’s perspective, they make the world a lot sharper.

“I can read that sign over there now,” he said proudly. It was just a blur before.

Poor boy didn’t have a chance

I got my first pair of glasses in the fifth grade. My teacher ratted me out. He couldn’t figure out why I could read really well, but had trouble with board problems when I wasn’t sitting in the front row. It turned out that I was horribly nearsighted, particularly in my left eye, which tested out at about 20/200. Ironically enough, I’m left-eyed, so that’s the eye I use to shoot a camera or a gun.

(Want to know which is your dominant eye? Extend your arm and point your index finger at a distant object. Close one eye, then the other. The eye that is looking where the finger lines up is your dominant eye.)

The good news for both of us (he’s nearsighted, too) is that it’s one of the few things that gets better with age. The bad news is that your eyes get worse and worse at focusing at close things when you get older. I had to admit to slipping over the edge when I was working on a construction project that required me to work in 3/16 scale. I just couldn’t make out the measurements no matter how much light I threw on the drawings. It was bifocal city.

I carry two pairs of glasses

I carry two pairs of glasses. One pair is ground on the top for distance; the bottom focuses at 19 inches for closeup work. My “computer glasses” are set for 27 inches at the top, which is the distance to my monitor, and for 19 inches at the bottom for closeup stuff.

Strangely enough, my distance vision – once 20/200, if you remember – has improved enough that my latest driver’s license doesn’t have a glasses restriction on it. I still wear them all the time, but I can get by if I have to.

It’s nice to know that I could probably pass my draft physical now. When I went in 1969, the guy giving the vision test told me to take my glasses off and read the third line. “If I take my glasses off, I can’t see the CHART, let alone the third line.” He thought I was being a wiseguy, but I was telling the truth.

The farm boy behind me failed the test, too. Until, that is, he told the examiner. “I want to be a Marine.” The examiner said, “In that case, you pass.”

[That’s not me in the picture, by the way. It’s Ohio University Post Editor Andy Alexander in 1969.]

We all passed the hearing test

I still haven’t figured out the hearing test. We were all herded into a dimmed room and given black boxes with a button on the top. “When you hear a tone, press the button and hold it until the tone stops,” we were told by a guy who must have been used to dealing with the hard of hearing because he was yelling.

We sat there for a few minutes. Nothing was happening. Guys were looking around the room at their neighbors, exchanging quizzical expressions. After a few shrugs of shoulders, we all started poking the black button randomly.  After about five more minutes, Loud Guy came back and proclaimed that we had all passed.

Ohio University Post

I’m going to stray off the Cape Girardeau reservation to run some photos of folks I worked with at The Ohio University Post in Athens, Ohio, in 1967 and 1968. April Fool’s Day is as good a time as ever to publish them. The student newspaper is celebrating its 100th year with a special alumni reunion April 13-15. Despite what some folks might think, I was NOT around in 1912 when the paper launched as The Green and White.

The event organizers are looking for photos of old staffers (old as in age AND as in former). You regular readers can tune out for a day while I wallow in Ohio nostalgia for a day or so. Click on any photo to make it larger.

The OU Post saved my college career

I was woefully unprepared for life in a big, impersonal university when I transferred in as a junior. It was a good thing my first stop after unpacking my bags in the dorm room I shared with two freshmen was The Post.

See, regular students in the Fine Arts program worked in gang darkrooms using chemicals mixed by other students who may or may not care if they got it right. The darkroom equipment was old and abused. I was used to working in my own darkroom where everything was well-maintained and everything had a place.

Post photo editor Walt Harrison saw my portfolio and hired me on the spot. He saw I was an experienced newspaper photographer, but didn’t know that I was a lousy technician with no formal training. When you print for newspaper publication, for example, you print differently than you do for prints that hang on the wall. Newspaper photos are made up of tiny dots that transfer ink to the equivalent of splintery toilet paper. The process causes the image to pick up contrast, so you have to print “flat” when you send it back to the engravers or it won’t reproduce properly.

Tiny, but efficient darkroom

I couldn’t understand why my instructors kept kicking my prints back for being flat. Fortunately, the folks on The Post and the Athena yearbook gave me the help and criticism I needed to understand what I needed to do. One night I went to cover a routine assignment, then made the first “good” print of my career to that point. A light went off in my head and I suddenly got it. My work steadily improved from that point as I grew in confidence. I cleaned up in the Ohio College Newspaper Association contest that year because most student photographers don’t have as much hard news in their portfolios.

When Walt stepped down as photo editor, I took over his job. I didn’t even know it was a paid position until I got a check at the end of the school year. It didn’t make any difference to me: all I knew was that I had a darkroom shared with only two or three other shooters, a boundless supply of film and paper, and a bunch of accomplished photographers who weren’t shy about critiquing my work. I learned more from them than from any of my classes.

“Radical” Editor Andy Alexander

There are lots of photos of Andy Alexander because I had a freelance job from The Dayton Daily News to illustrate a story former Postie reporter Carol Towarnicky wrote about him. (I always called Carol “CT” because I couldn’t spell, let alone pronounce Towarnicky.) CT’s story said “Andy Alexander never marched in an anti-war demonstration. But he has marched through a few rice paddies, which would explain why the ex-Eagle Scout something talks about the United States in four-letter obscenities. And why the short-haired radical sometimes disparages the New Left.

Because Andy Alexander has a jump on most college students. He’s been there. He’s seen Vietnam. And it appalled him.”  Here’s CT’s story on Andy Alexander.

Andy financed a trip to Vietnam the past summer out of his own pocket. “I went to make a name for myself,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I doubt I found any newsman who was there out of dedication… Everyone wanted to make it big, fast. Some of them died trying.” He spent two summers reporting for the Melbourne (Australia) Herald. A year before he found himself in Prague, reporting the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

I liked Andy. The Dayton Daily News might think he was a radical, but I found him a solid, steady pro who ran the student newspaper as well as any paper I’ve worked for.

Clarence Page like you don’t see on TV

When you see Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize winner Clarence Page as a frequent talking head on the news shows, he doesn’t look like the Clarence I knew. Here, Clarance points what I hope is a toy gun at Mark Roth. Unflappable editor Andy, with his back to the camera, ignores the tomfoolery going on behind him.

Clarence was a solid reporter who was always ready to push the boundaries. One night he used the F-word in a story and The Athens Messenger’s production crew almost didn’t publish the paper that night. The fact that The OU Post has been in existence was in spite of Clarence, not because of him.

I heard Clarence pontificating about something on NPR the other afternoon and had the same sense of unease as when I heard that classmate Jim Stone was trying to explain science to politicians and that Bill Clinton had been elected president. I mean, aren’t they supposed to have adults doing those jobs?

Expectant fathers

This was the first edition of the new school year to come rolling off The Messenger’s presses in 1968. Jesse Rotman, Bill Sievert and Tom Hodson were pacing the floor like fathers-to-be in a delivery room.

Other Ohio-era stories

Ohio University Post photo gallery

Here’s a collection of photos of Ohio University Post staffers at work (mostly). Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.