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Can You Keep A Secret?

April 21, 2014

“Can you keep a secret?”

That question always seems to grab my attention like a bad joke I always keep falling for. I’m not in the business of keeping secrets. That  just  goes against the grain of what I do in the world of distributing information in the form of imagery to the public.

So, of course I responded, “Sure. What is it?”

The voice on the other end of the conversation was Glen Campbell’s publicist.

Kim and Glen cutting his birthday cake and then cleaning up.

“Glen is turning 60 next week and Kim (his wife), Debby (his daughter) and some of his family and some folks in the business are throwing a surprise birthday party for him there in Branson. We need some photos of the party for distribution and for the family.”

This was a happy time for Campbell following a less than productive period when his music sales seemed to have fallen off the public’s radar. He had a theatre in Branson (The Glen Campbell Goodtime Theatre) and ticket sales were strong. He had a home in Arizona for the off season and golf in his off time. And, he had a wife that he often credited during backstage dressing room interviews with helping him to turn things around.

Glen and Andy and Debbie Williams

Andy and a very excited Debbie Williams wish Glen a happy birthday.

The surprise party was to be at a Branson restaurant that had been closed for the event on a Sunday afternoon the day before his actual 60th birthday on April 22, 1996.  The three or four dozen invited guests huddled in the dark as Campbell and his wife arrived for what he thought was a quiet Sunday afternoon dinner.

GlenJimmyCompilation
Among some of the guests he seemed particularly surprised to see was Jimmy Webb who wrote and collaborated with Campbell on many of his hits including, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. At one point Campbell and Webb took to the microphone and keyboard and entertained the guests with songs from some of their collaborative work.

Jimmy Webb and Glen

Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell entertain guests at his surprise 60th birthday party.

Guests who couldn’t make the trip to Branson sent video greetings. Campbell and his family watched and enjoyed with much laughter on a big screen. The only subdued moment came when Campbell watched a video greeting from Annie Denver, John Denver’s ex-wife. Campbell had recorded “Annie’s Song”, a piece Denver wrote and also recorded as an ode to his wife in the early 1970’s.

Glen and Kids

Glen and family members watch video greetings from friends who couldn’t make the party.

I remember Campbell and his wife watching her greeting and responding to himself, almost inaudibly, “Annie, Annie…awe Annie.” Perhaps he was remembering the same demons in his life that had plagued John and Annie Denver. Little did anyone know that a year and a half later, John Denver would die in a plane crash.

Good times can be fleeting for anybody as the Campbell family all too well knows. As his 78th birthday approaches on April 22, 2014, he has been moved to a care facility for Alzheimer’s patients. The seconds in his own “Goodtime Hour” may have ticked away but he leaves behind a treasure trove of hauntingly beautiful songs for the rest of us.

John S. Stewart

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Mobsters, Terrorists and Shell Games…Oh My

January 6, 2014

The Ozarks isn’t known for producing high profile mobsters and terrorists but by way of the Federal Medical Center for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, we have hosted a number including Robert Stroud (Bird Man of Alcatraz).

THE TERRORIST

More recently, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman the blind sheik who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing spent some time in the Ozarks in 1995.  His move here was orchestrated under extremely tight security and of course without advance notice.

Security was extremely tight at the Springfield-Branson National Airport when Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (The Blind Sheik) was moved to the Federal Medical Center for Prisoners in 1995. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Security was extremely tight at the Springfield-Branson National Airport when Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (The Blind Sheik) was moved to the Federal Medical Center for Prisoners in 1995. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

But, information like that tends to be pretty slippery and hard to keep bottled up. So, when I showed up  at the airport’s general aviation terminal I was greeted by a woman who told me she would have me arrested if I did not leave. This terminal is not where commercial flights arrive and depart but where business and private aircraft come and go and is open to public access. In fact, there were several people  coming and going who probably had no idea who would be arriving within the hour.

It would seem my camera bag on one shoulder and a very long lens hanging on the other was my offense that screamed, “Arrest me!” Looking to one side and then the other and then back at the woman, I feigned ignorance and said, “I’m sorry. Are you speaking to me? I was looking for the restroom.”

“I will have you arrested if you do not leave,” she said again.

I said, “For…???…is there some reason I shouldn’t be here?” trying to get her to spill the beans. With that, she turned and walked hurriedly toward a uniformed city policeman standing outside  on the tarmac side of the building.

Federal Marshals escort Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (The Blind Sheik) to a waiting car at the Springfield-Branson National Airport in 1995. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Federal Marshals escort Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (The Blind Sheik) to a waiting car at the Springfield-Branson National Airport in 1995. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

I really wasn’t worried about the “arrest” part of her threat but I was concerned that I could be “detained” until it was all over and I would end up without any photos. To use my very long telephoto lens, I needed the unobstructed doorway to the tarmac or even a window to shoot through. Outside the building was eight foot high chain link fence that ran for blocks in both directions. So, it was looking like I was going to have to use a shorter lens that could shoot ‘through’ the holes in the chain link but wouldn’t get me that up close and personal view of the sheik I had hoped for.

The now alerted police officer looked my way standing at the fence and seeing no sinister threat, gave me a nod and resumed his duties.

THE DAPPER DON AND THE SHELL GAME

When the Gambino crime family boss John Gotti died of throat cancer in 2002 as an inmate at the Federal Medical Center, the New York newspapers, for whatever reason wanted wall to wall coverage of  his final trip home. The Gotti family, for whatever reason, was bent on foiling that plan.

Funeral home personnel and members of the Gotti entourage load an empty casket into a hearse as a decoy for the media who hoped to photograph it being loaded onto a plane for the trip to New York (Photo Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Funeral home personnel and members of the Gotti entourage load an empty casket into a hearse as a decoy for the media who hoped to photograph it being loaded onto a plane for the trip to New York (Photo Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

At the site of the Nixa, Missouri funeral home that was handling the

John Gotti's son spent a considerable amount of time talking on a cell phone outside the funeral home before his father's body was flown to New York. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

John Gotti’s son spent a considerable amount of time talking on a cell phone outside the funeral home before his father’s body was flown to New York. (Photo Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

arrangements for the family, Gotti’s son would often come outside and chat with the members of the media but was elusive about specific details regarding plans to take his father’s body back to New York.

Following one of his curbside chats, the funeral home’s garage door opened and a hearse drove out and stopped in front of the line of  waiting media. The back of the hearse was opened and funeral home staff as well as some family members carried a noticeably low end model casket from the building and loaded it into the hearse. The hearse drove off with Gotti family members following in a limo.

It looked pretty staged to me and just didn’t feel right but I was told by the editor I was in touch with to follow the hearse to the airport. Half way there the call came that we had been duped. The casket containing Gotti left in a van by a different route. The one in the hearse was empty. Score one last one for the Dapper Don.

John S. Stewart

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A Silent Bond

October 24, 2013

Can you imagine not speaking to your spouse…the one you live with…for a week? Well, OK…how about a month? Or decades…OR EVER?

Through their courtship and through four decades of marriage that produced three children, Teddy and Nora Welch never spoke a word to each other.

Nora and Teddy Welch. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Nora and Teddy Welch. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Oh, they communicated alright and when the did, it was often very animated and impassioned. That’s what fascinated me enough to seek them out and convince them to let me do a photo story about them.

Teddy and Nora were both 100 percent deaf, unable to speak and Teddy had been blind since childhood. They met some forty years earlier at a school for the deaf and blind and the rest is history as they say. Except their history included raising three children who were sighted and not hearing impaired in a world geared for the sighted and hearing.

They were now senior citizens coping with that same world determined to manage on their own with each other for support.

I first met Teddy and Nora when they walked into my portrait studio I owned for a few years. After a quick hand wave that was her “hello”, Nora began making writing gestures in the palm of her hand indicating she wanted something to write on. After that first meeting to our last one years later, I always made sure I had a pen and writing pad. That was how they communicated with the rest of the world they lived in.

They wanted a portrait of them to send to their children who lived some distance away. We made an appointment for another day and when the day arrived, so did they and a portrait was done. When I showed the prints to them, Nora would look at each one and then describe it to Teddy by holding up her hand and “signing” the letters that make up the words that make up the sentences that express the thoughts in her head.

Teddy reads Nora's hand signing by feeling the signs in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy reads Nora’s hand signing by feeling the signs in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy "speaks" to Nora by signing in the air. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.COM)

Teddy “speaks” to Nora by signing in the air. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.COM)

Since Teddy was blind and could not see her hand, he would cup his hands over hers and feel the letters as they formed words and sentences and conveyed thoughts. Two or three times when I would push another of the proofs in front of her to examine, Nora would sit back, glance up at me, back down at the photo, and back up at me without the expression of approval I had seen. I took this to be a sort of “thumbs down” on that particular pose and slid it to the side of the table. Teddy was none the wiser.

I liked that about them. It was too much of an effort to beat around the bush so I always knew quickly what they wanted and didn’t want. I had the feeling that’s the way they were with each other. Direct. No time for the guessing game so many couples engage in. You could see it when they were walking on the street together. When they wanted to say something to the other one, they stopped on the sidewalk, faced each other and began signing. Teddy in the air so Nora could see and Nora in his cupped hand so he could feel. Then sometimes there would be an audible gasp of disagreement from Teddy followed by a firm pressing of Nora’s hand in his forming more words as if to say, “This is the way we’re doing it so get over it.”

One blazing hot July afternoon, I happened to see them walking on the street I assumed heading for home. I pulled up to the curb and motioned to Nora to get in. She didn’t hesitate and without any explanation to Teddy, guided him into the car. She seemed greatly relieved to be in air conditioning but a very confused and questioning Teddy began signing furiously as if to ask, “Where in the hell are we?” Nora formed the words in his hand that turned his face of despair to glee as he reached up to the driver’s seat and patted my head and shoulders as if to say, “Thanks.”

In time, I moved away from that little town but kept thinking what a remarkable story they are. So, on a return visit I decided to drop by their house and present the idea of allowing me to spend a day with them and do a photo story. They of course have no phone and I had taken them home once so I did know where they lived. “Drop by” was really the only option since I wouldn’t be in town long enough to exchange letters.

Grocery shopping can include some very animated discussions. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Grocery shopping can include some very animated discussions. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

They were happy to see me and after several pages of conversation on a legal pad, they agree that it would be OK for me to do a story about them. Their two biggest questions were, “How much will it cost us?” and “Why would anybody want to read a story about us?”. I assured them there was no cost and would in return, give them photos and copies of the publication after it was published.

Teddy handles the household finances including having the grocery store cashier use her finger to write the total in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy handles the household finances including having the grocery store cashier use her finger to write the total in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

I sold the story to a metro paper in a neighboring town and presented copies of the story and photos to Teddy and Nora. She was awestruck at seeing their new found but short lived celebrity displayed over a full page in the metro Sunday edition. Teddy ran one hand over the page as Nora signed into his other describing the photos on the page.

As our visit came to an end, Nora wrote a request at the bottom of a notepad filled with our conversation scribbles back and forth. She wrote, “Please learn to sign. It is so exhausting to write.” That seems like a reasonable request from someone who asks very little in a sighted and hearing enabled world.

A few years after their story was published, Nora passed away and Teddy followed less than two years later. They drew their strength from each other.

John S. Stewart

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Me And The KKK: close encounters of the strange kind

September 10, 2013

AWKWARD…is really the only way to describe my interaction with the Klan. It was the sort of awkwardness I remember having when, as a kid, I paid to see a lady with a beard at a summer carnival. I stared maybe a little too long. I wanted to see if she was really real. She stared back and gave me a look as if to say, “Ok, you’ve had your 50 cent look. Now move on.”

I’m glad bearded ladies have gained enough political incorrectness that we don’t see much of them anymore. Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan seems to be trying to re-brand themselves as neighborhood watch patrols.

KKK members carry torches across a field in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990's. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

KKK members carry torches across a field in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990’s. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

My first encounter came in the form of a business card placed anonymously
on my desk at the weekly newspaper where I worked as a summer photo intern in 1975. It read, “You Have Been Paid A ‘Friendly’ Visit By The American Knights Of The Ku Klux Klan.”

Most of the office staff, the editor, reporter and I had been at lunch so nobody had seen who left it. The reporter said, “Ohhh…I wondered about that.”

“Wondered about what?”, I said.

She replied, “The front page photo you took for last week’s edition.”

The photo I shot the weekend before at the Memorial Day ceremony on the town square showed two Boy Scouts holding a flag and a scout leader standing at attention. The scout leader was African-American and very respected in the community. Not everyone shared that view.

The reporter explained to me that even though this was 1975, there was a town ordinance from the previous century still on the books, but no longer “officially” enforced, that stated, “…no negro man, woman or child would be permitted to stay within the city limits past sundown”.

These towns were known as “Sundown Towns” and there were many scattered throughout the Ozarks and parts of the rest of the country. They were officially outlawed in 1968 when Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Even an act of Congress has a hard time reaching into every dark corner of America.

She went on to explain that not everyone thought that was a bad law and were probably offended seeing someone of color so prominently displayed in the newspaper.

If the card was placed on my desk by a real Klansman or by a poser, I never knew because I never heard anything more.

KKK members try to recruit new members in a small Ozarks town. (Photo copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

KKK recruitment rallies had little success in the Ozarks. (Photo copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The next time they reared their head so publicly was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The KKK apparently saw the Ozarks as fertile ground for recruiting new members. For a period of a couple of years, they came from Atlanta and the Grand Dragon’s hometown in Arkansas and staged marches and gave speeches in a few town squares and parks trying to whip up support.

They were received by most localities as a sort of curiosity. Most had never seen the Klan except in movies and news clips. There were a few protesters at each event who resented their town being viewed as “hosting” the Klan and of course the media was there, but almost no supporters. Their last push was a night-time cross burning complete with Klansmen carrying torches circling three 20-foot high burlap wrapped fuel oil soaked crosses in a freshly mowed field they rented from a farmer west of Springfield, Missouri.

As in all counties where they put on displays, they did so under the laws

The KKK was more of a curiosity in the Ozarks towns where they tried to recruit members in the 1980's and '90's. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The KKK was more of a curiosity in the Ozarks towns. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

protecting free speech and assembly. The county would provide uniformed officers at the entrance of the field to reduce the risk of confrontation. The county would also require the Klan to buy a burn permit usually reserved for those wanting to burn large areas of brush.

The event started long before dark when the crosses would be set ablaze and

each of our news organizations wanted us there beginning to end. That meant an afternoon in the hot sun (hat, extra water…check) in a freshly mowed field with chiggers (ehhh…forgot the bug repellent) listening to hours of vile speeches blaming “The Cath-o-lics” and “The Jeeews” and “The lib-rals” and of course “The nigras” for all of their failures and shortcomings.

As Klan official after Klan official spoke and the initial shock of the language and outlandish claims turned to boredom, the sun beat down on our heads, chiggers feasted on our ankles and polite tolerance among the media turned to subtle displays of disdain. One reporter parked himself in a lawn chair a few feet in front of the speakers’ platform and opened up a newspaper well in front of his face pretending to read it.

Ku Klux Klan stages a cross burning in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990's. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Ku Klux Klan stages a cross burning in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990’s. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

To the side of the speakers’ platform was a table display of KKK trinkets and literature. I have a hat in my office filled with political pins from campaigns I’ve covered and other events and thought a KKK pin would fit in somewhere. A couple of other reporters had the same idea and we quietly discussed the ethics of giving money to the KKK even if it was only a couple of dollars for a hat pin.

Don, (I don’t remember his real name) the KKK member who was there to take your money, overheard the discussion and said, “Here, I can just give you one if you like.” As if that was our cue, the three of us responded in unison, “Oh, no. No thanks. No.” We decided a few dollars wouldn’t further their cause much and was better than accepting graft.

I talked with Don a while longer after we paid for our souvenirs. He was shy but friendly and didn’t seem to show the disdain for the media some of the leaders seemed to. He only looked at you briefly when he spoke which might have been to hide some badly needed dental work years overdue. He spoke with a slight lisp and his grammar indicated schooling wasn’t a high priority. I could see how these things would shut out many opportunities and a person might fall into the trap of blaming a group of people when you felt overlooked. So much for my amateur psychological analysis.

As dusk turned to darkness, the Klan members retreated to the trunks of their cars parked in a far corner of the field where they donned their white robes and pointed hoods. With torches lighted, the group walked back up to the crosses and set them ablaze. The Klansmen, now in a circle, turned their backs to the crosses, raised their torches and shouted, “White Power! White Power!”

The hooded figures were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. A few seemed “fancier” than the others and some had their faces covered except two holes for the eyes. From one, I thought I detected a familiar lisp in his speech.

“Don…is that you?” His eyes shot me a glance and the material covering his mouth popped in and out as his adrenaline induced heavy breathing struggled to move air through the fabric of the hood.

“Yeah…WHITE POWER!…Yeah, it’s me.”

I wouldn’t have guessed. He didn’t seem like the shy retiring “Don” I met a couple of hours earlier.

John S. Stewart

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Chained Smoker

March 24, 2013

The subjects of my photographs are often taken aback at the fifteen seconds of fame they often come into when the photos and story about them are distributed nationally and in some cases worldwide. Such was the case with “Rick” (not his real name–I’ll explain).

A man goes to extreme measures to kick his smoking habit

“Rick” sits on the front porch tethered to his house with a cable to prevent him from leaving until he has kicked his smoking habit. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Rick had a heavy smoking habit and like many people he decided it was time to quit. After several failed attempts, Rick decided to take one last drastic measure.

The chain smoker would chain (cable) himself to his house for a specified several weeks after which he assumed he could return to society without feeling the need to light up.

He removed all tobacco and tools he might be able to use to release himself and instructed a friend to check on him, bring him food and to not…under any circumstances…listen if he asked the friend to release him early.

(Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

(Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

Rick had enough cable that allowed him to walk around his house freely, sit on his porch and for safety, even walk some distance from the house should it catch fire.

So, with his non-chained up dog as his only companion and a telephone as his only link to the outside world, Rick began his self-imposed Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde sort of confinement until the nicotine demons were gone.

A few days into the “period of therapy”, the local news media got wind of the story and from there a national news outlet decided to follow by sending a reporter and me to get photos.

The story moved across the national wire and then went worldwide. That’s when Rick’s fifteen seconds stretched to fifteen minutes of fame and not all of it was pleasant. Radio talk shows called to interview him and check on his progress. One particular talk show from Australia would call every day not caring that their live mid-day program call came in the middle of the night for Rick.

His new-found fling with fame turned particularly sour when the host of one show made sucking sounds as if he were inhaling smoke from a cigarette and asked, “Does that make you want to light up?” Rick said he could hear laughing in background.

In spite of the rudeness Rick endured because of his temporary celebrity, he wanted to capitalize on it and maybe extend it for another fifteen minutes. He pitched story idea after story idea to me mostly about his passion for dogs and training them. As noble and appealing as dog stories are, there just wasn’t an angle I could see that would call for pitching the story to an editor.

Cabled to his house without access to tobacco or tools to release the cable, Rick attempts to kick the smoking habit. His only companion is a dog who is free to roam. (Copyright John S. Stewart LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Cabled to his house without access to tobacco or tools to release the cable, Rick attempts to kick the smoking habit. His only companion is a dog who is free to roam. (Copyright John S. Stewart LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Unfortunately, the public’s taste is more for the somewhat bizarre nature of his attempt to kick the smoking habit. It is for that reason I did not use his real name.

John S. Stewart

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When “Funny” Throws Its Hat Into The Political Ring

February 6, 2013

I was rarely the “pool” photographer during political campaign seasons. Those coveted spots are usually assigned to the staff photographers of the major news outlets. They travel with the candidate in the motorcade and are generally granted closer access resulting in better photo opportunities. At least that is the conventional thinking.

In the days when news organizations’ budgets were bigger, those major news outlets (The Associated Press, The New York Times, etc.) would hire freelance photographers like me as support for their staffers during campaign stops. I would carry out tasks like taking their film, processing and captioning a couple of their best images and a couple of mine and transmit them. With shrinking budgets and advances in digital cameras, those types of assignments went away. Now, staffers can have an image into newsrooms around the country or their editor’s computer long before the event is even over.

I liked being the support photographer. I had credentials which gave me access to most places but also the freedom to explore photo possibilities without fear that I would miss “THE” shot because I wasn’t right with the candidate.

One of the best opportunities to “explore photo possibilities” came in June 1996 during the Clinton-Dole presidential campaign. Sen. Bob Dole was on a campaign swing through southwest Missouri and was to overnight in Branson, Missouri the country music tourist mecca. I parked myself at the hotel where Sen. Dole was to stay. A couple of hundred tourists had gathered on one side of the parking lot and a handful of local VIP supporters were in a roped off holding pen on the other side.

Tucked in among the VIPs, I decided this was the best bet for a close encounter with the senator. But, across the lot in the tourist sector there seemed a slight disturbance. An older gentleman holding a sign on a stick was talking excitedly to a couple of younger men in suits who were in turn talking up their sleeves. This could only mean one thing: There was an incident and the Secret Service was involved. I was on the move to see what this was about.

Pat Paulsen asks Sen. Bob Dole to talk

1960’s comedian Pat Paulsen holds a sign asking Sen. Bob Dole to talk during a 1996 presidential campaign stop. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The issue was not his sign that read, “Bob, Let’s Talk…Pat.” It was the stick on his sign. The Secret Service has a “no sticks” rule when you…anyone, including media…are near a candidate. Sticks of the literal kind like the one on the sign and “sticks” of the tripod kind that photographers use, are banned when in striking distance of the president, vice-president or wannabes.

While the agents were insisting the stick be removed and the man was proclaiming his rights as a citizen, the mood didn’t seem particularly tense. In fact, I thought I could detect suppressed grins on the normally stony faced Secret Service agents.

Who is, “Pat”?

Then it hit me. Pat was the “Pat Paulsen for President” from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. He was a semi-regular on  Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that earned him an Emmy in 1968.

I stood back and watched as Pat obediently removed the stick and handed it over to the agent who retreated from the scene. Pat continued with his stick shtick to the delight of the tourists within earshot.

I called out, “Pat…Pat…Pat Paulsen.”

He looked at me and pointed to the bling of media credentials and cameras hanging around my neck and said, “You’re with the press! I need to talk to you.”.

Before he could get started, I urged him to come stand with me in the VIP section explaining that Sen. Dole might work (shake hands) the tourist crowd but would for sure work the VIP area where the moneyed donors were penned up.

For the next couple of hours Pat, his wife Noma and I stood and waited for Sen. Dole to arrive. We talked about his past television experiences and when I asked him about his almost 30 year campaign for president, the straight-faced and never out of character Paulsen said, “I am a serious candidate.” That might not be too far from the truth since he did end up on several states’ primary tickets.

Pat Paulsen and Bob Dole in stare down.

Comedian and tongue-in-cheek presidential candidate Pat Paulsen engages in a stare down with 1996 for real presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Finally, the motorcade arrived, the senator stepped out, waved to the tourists and was ushered over to the VIP section. Upon seeing Pat, Sen. Dole said, “Hello. They told me you were in the crowd.” With that, the two assumed sort of “stare down positions” like two boxers sizing each other up at the weigh-in.

Sen. Bob Dole says, "I don't really know what to say."

After a few moments of staring at each other in silence, Sen. Dole turns to me and says, “I don’t really know what to say.” (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The senator showed he was no match for the king of deadpan when Dole broke the silence turning to me (for whatever reason) and said, “I don’t know what to say.” The two then joked and talked for a few more minutes and called it an evening.

After the stare down ran its course, the normally deadpan Paulsen and usually subdue Dole share a laugh. Paulsen's wife, Noma is at far left. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

After the stare down ran its course, the normally deadpan Paulsen and usually subdue Dole share a laugh. Paulsen’s wife, Noma is at far left. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Pat provided much-needed comedic relief during sometimes tense election seasons. For me, he provided an evening of entertainment for what is usually a tiring several hours of standing around. We communicated a couple of times after these photos were taken and I sent him the one of  them staring at each other. Unfortunately, Pat passed away from cancer less than a year later.

His gentle humor is missed in a time when so much humor has a sting to it.

John S. Stewart

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Death Sentence Commuted: An Epiphany For Me

October 24, 2012

WARNING: No graphic photos but the following does include a graphic description of a crime scene. LEFTeyeSTORIES after all, are those personal experiences…good, bad or ugly…that happen during photo assignments.

A boy grieves under the stress of the fast approaching day when his father will walk from his prison cell for the last time and put to death by the citizens of the state of Missouri. His schoolmates taunt him with, “Your daddy’s gonna die soon. He’s gittin’ what he deserves, ya know.” A mother sits in her rural Ozarks home reading the Bible, praying and wondering how her son whom she raised in the church, was well liked growing up and had even wanted to become a preacher before serving in the military in Viet Nam, could come to this. A former county prosecutor takes at least some degree of satisfaction as the last chapter of this capital murder case comes to a close. He was successful and successfully prosecuting cases like this helped to advance his career from county prosecutor to Associate Circuit Judge. An ailing and very frail Pope leans forward and whispers a plea in the ear of a Missouri governor and the wheels are put in motion that ultimately put me on the back roads of Taney County Missouri to meet up with some of these folks. The story of how convicted murderer, Darrell Mease ended up on Missouri’s death row reads like a chapter in Daniel Woodrell’s novel, “Winter’s Bone”. While the book does not parallel this particular crime, it does profile the meth culture that pervades so much of the rural Ozarks. Much of the 2010 movie by the same name was filmed in Taney County where Mease lived and committed the triple homicide more than two decades earlier. In 1987, Darrell Mease began working with Lloyd J. Lawrence to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. The relationship soured and Mease left the area, but not before stealing some of the drug. Lawrence made it known he intended to kill Mease so Mease decided to strike first. Mease and a female companion returned to Taney County in May 1988. He formed and then carried out a plan to ambush Loyd Lawrence while Lawrence and his wife, Frankie and their 19-year old paraplegic grandson, William were riding their four-wheeled all terrain vehicles near the Lawrence home. The three were shot as they drove past where Mease lay hidden waiting for the opportune moment. Each was then shot at point-blank in the head with a shotgun. Lawmen followed the trail back to Mease and he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. After years of going through the appeals process, a date was set for his execution: February 10th, 1999. During that time, Mease claimed to have undergone a jailhouse conversion even though he had come to accept his destiny on earth. In a letter he wrote, “I had gotten saved when I was ten and backslid when I was 19 and then ran with Satan and his own for many years.” Mease’s original execution date was January 27th but was changed when it was discovered that date coincided with a visit to St. Louis by Pope John Paul II. During that visit, the Pope approached Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and asked that Mease’s life be spared. The next morning the governor signed an order commuting the sentence to ‘life without parole.’ That’s when photo requests started coming in. News outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Times wanted photos of Mease’s mother, the Taney County prosecutor who put him on death row and any other players. The Pope had requested clemency for other death row inmates in Missouri and in other states, but without success. So, this is suddenly a national news story and I’m on the road to meet reporters from the Times and the AP and Darrell Mease’s mother, Lexie Mease at her house.

Typical of many rural Ozarks’ homes, Lexie Mease’s home is in Taney County, Missouri. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Late January in the Ozarks is not particularly picturesque. In fact, most of us who live here are beginning to feel the effects of the gray landscape, gray sky, short days and like today, cold rain that sum up most winters in the Ozarks. As I drove past familiar summer tourist spots and turned on a gravel road, I passed small vacant A-frame shaped chicken coops. I have seen these coops on past trips down this road when each miniature A-frame housed a single rooster tethered to a stake. I am reminded of just how close the family oriented summertime touristy Ozarks and its seedier cock-fighting meth making kin are to each other. The gravel drive up to her house just sort of petered out into an undefined area of parking and yard. Lexie Mease’s house sat at the bottom of a hill with no neighbors close by; not close by like we have in town. I could see a faint ribbon of blue smoke rising from the chimney through the cold windshield wiper drizzle. Two dogs lounging on the front stoop were now on high alert deciding if I was friend or foe. When I am travelling separately from a reporter, I like to arrive a little early. It gives me a chance to get oriented before the reporter/subject conversation moves into high gear. I have less of that, “got in on the middle of the conversation” feel that makes it hard to feel like you are at your best. Lexie answered the door with, “Oh, come in. I just have to finish dressing. I’ll be just a minute.” She was pretty much dressed except for changing out of a terry cloth wrap and house shoes. The small shy, almost timid woman seemed like the type that would bring a plate of cookies over if she knew you were having a bad day. On the wall hung a cross and picture of Jesus. On the table lay a Bible. In the corner near the door was a wood burning stove that are still the primary source of heat in many rural Ozarks homes. “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just warm up by your stove. I love the smell of wood smoke and there’s nothing like wood heat.” She looked back, smiled and said, “You know, this has all happened so fast. My grandson, Darrell’s boy, was here but I sent him away. He’s had such a hard time and has been so stressed. The kids at school have been so cruel. I just didn’t think he needed to have to talk to the news people.” Before she made it to the bedroom, the phone rang. “Hello. Yes. Darrell! Yes, honey.” Then to me, “This is Darrell. This is my son, Darrell. This is the first I’ve talked to him since…” Turning back to the phone, “Yes, it’s wonderful. I’m so happy.” Sorry lady. Terry cloth wrap or not it’s picture time. As compelling and dramatic as stories like this are, they are visually slim. They are best told by the wordsmiths with quotes from those involved and as a photographer, you hope to get photos of the people being quoted so the reader can put a face with quotes. When mom talks to her son for the first time since his death sentence was officially commuted, that’s worth a shot. Sometimes it pays to be early. The phone conversation ended and Lexie was euphoric having talked with her son who literally had a new lease on life. The reporter from the New York Times arrived and she began her interview and I took some more photos. It wasn’t long, however, before the mood turned as chilly as the cold drizzle outside. My pre-interview warmup rapport I had established was gone. The little lady I was sure would have brought cookies to my door if I was having a bad day had transformed into the ice queen. In the years since the trial, Lexie Mease had come to terms with the fact that her son had murdered three people. What she had not come to terms with or had just denied it to herself was that it was drug related. When the Times reporter brought it up, Lexie denied it was drugs at the root of the crime. When pressed on the issue, Lexie terminated the interview and invited us to leave. In the meantime, the Associated Press reporter arrived and was waiting outside for his one on one time. He had the awkward task of pleading my case to allow me to stay for photos for him since I wasn’t really with the Times anymore now that the interview was over and that I was with him now and that I was really a good guy. Lexie warmed back up, a little, and I got my photos. Next, I had to make a short drive to Forsyth, Missouri to get a photo of the former Taney County prosecutor who put Darrell Mease on death row. James K. Justus was now Associate Circuit Judge James K. Justus and he did not share Lexie Mease’s joy at having her son’s life spared. Justus greeted me in his office and invited me to sit down at a table. I did so and then with all the restrained anger of a husband who had just found out his wife had cheated on him and had the photos to prove it and wanted to show them in hopes of gaining an ally, he slapped down three crime scene photos one by one in front of me. They were gruesome. Two of the photos showed the bodies of a man and a woman with their heads blown into many pieces spread over several square yards of green grass like smashed watermelons. The third photo showed the body of the 19-year old paraplegic grandson with his legs still tied to the sides of the four-wheeled ATV so he could stay on. It showed his body thrown backward and severe head trauma. I looked at the photos for a time making a concerted effort not to recoil or show any emotion and then looked up at Justus. He said, “Why…why should a person who did this NOT pay with his life? What do you think? Do you have an opinion?” I looked back down at the photos and thought for a moment. Why should he not pay with his life? This is awful. If there were any “innocent victims” of this crime, surely it was the 19-year old or maybe his grandmother. They were obviously killed to make sure there were no witnesses. Then I began thinking about Mease’s own son. He’s a victim. He’s alive. He’s not been shot in the head but still he is a victim of this crime. This will affect him for the rest of his life; but how? That could depend on his father being allowed to live (not go free) or if we, the citizens of Missouri, decide to make Darrell Mease pay with his life. Would that de-victimize anybody or help ease someone’s pain in some sick fashion? Or, will it just create more victims in ways that are not as obvious and may not become clear for many years. I looked back up at Justus and responded, “I’m not really here…to give an opinion. I’m here to take photographs.” He said, “OK. Then let’s do what you’re here to do. Where do you want me?”

John S. Stewart

Link to the Associated Press Story:

http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1999/Mo-Family-Thankful-for-Pope-s-Help/id-cd9c705954dd59861c2f0a0c813fb117

Link to the New York Times Story:

http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/31/us/clemency-for-killer-surprises-many-who-followed-case.html?pagewanted=print

Link to an NPR  audio interview with Michael Cuneo, author of “Almost Midnight”, a book that  profiles Darrell Mease, the circumstances that lead up to the killings and the Pope’s involvement. 

http://pd.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/me/2006/08/20060816_me_03.mp3?dl=1

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