Hundreds gather to remember a friend and photojournalist

The Register-Guard

A few hundred of Brian Lanker’s closest friends said a final goodbye Sunday afternoon in a memorial at Eugene’s McDonald Theatre with slideshows, videos, speeches and even a mariachi band.

Lanker, a nationally known Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, died at his Eugene home March 13 at the age of 63 from fast-moving pancreatic cancer.

“I am the only member of Congress to have a Pulitzer Prize-­winning photographer do his Christmas cards,” said a choked-up Rep. Peter DeFazio, a longtime friend. DeFazio went on to tell the story of Lanker’s delivering him a Christmas tree one bleak December when the congressman had mentioned he was too busy doing the work of government to decorate his Springfield home.

“I may not be tall and I’m certainly not straight,” a note affixed to the tree read. “But my spirit is good. Don’t let this be your first Christmas without a tree.”

Also offering a tribute — this one by video — was poet Maya Angelou, one of 75 black American women who was featured in Lanker’s Corcoran Museum photo exhibition and book “I Dream a World,” and who became fast friends with the photographer and his wife, Lynda.

“There is a world of difference between being a male and being a man,” Angelou said. “A man looks after people — and cares about hope. Brian Lanker was that sort of man.”

Included in the memorial was a black and white slide show that Lanker produced in the early 1970s for the Scholastic Concerned Photographer Program. In it, Lanker showed photographs he had been shooting as a staff photographer for the Topeka, Kan., Capital-Journal and talked about his life as a journalist.

McDonald Theater

Family and friends gathered to celebrate the life of Pulizer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker on Sunday at McDonald Theater. (Ivar Vong)

After making a careful distinction between the job of an artist and the job of a photojournalist, the young photographer talked about his love of the variety found only in newspapering.

“You might be out in a cow pasture one minute and in the governor’s mansion the next,” he said. “It packs so many different things in my life.”

The afternoon memorial was punctuated by the steady sound of camera shutters clicking. Many of his friends remain working photo­graphers at newspapers and magazines around the country, and many brought their Nikons or Canons to record the ceremony.

“Most of all I’ll miss Brian’s laugh,” said Mike Tharp, former Tokyo bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, who sent a video tribute for the memorial. “It was maniacal. It was freaky funny. It was contagious. There was nobody more fun that I’ve ever spent time with in my life.”

Lanker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for a series of feature photos of a woman giving birth by the Lamaze method in a Kansas hospital.

A few years later, he applied for a job at The Register-Guard, which was then moving to the forefront of color offset printing among American newspapers, breaking out of the mold of using small black and white photos merely as illustrations to stories.

Former Register-Guard sports editor Blaine Newnham, who was on the hiring committee, talked about getting a call from a young photographer wondering if the job was still open. “It’s kind of late,” Newnham recalled saying noncommittally.

Then he found out about Lanker’s Pulitzer and other awards. Lanker went on to send in the Scholastic slideshow as his portfolio. “It was no longer an interview,” Newnham said. “It was a recruiting venture when he came out here.”

Dustin Lanker, Brian Lanker’s son, closed the program by mentioning one final request from his father: “He wanted a mariachi band,” Dustin Lanker said. “He loved mariachi. He hired mariachi bands for several occasions. I don’t think anybody ever got used to it.”

The six musicians of Mariachi Viva Mexico took the stage and began to play, bringing one last smile to those hundreds of Lanker’s friends.

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