‘As it turns out over time, I was wrong. You weren’t the worst staff ever’
By MIKE THARP
EUGENE, Ore. — A tear fell on the last page.
At least it might have been a tear. And it might have fallen on the last page.
With Rich Clarkson, it’s difficult to tell. Difficult to say whether all those hawk-eyed photographers he had trained for decades at The Topeka Capital-Journal had finally seen him cry.
Clarkson, former director of photography at The Capital-Journal, had just fingered his way through a 250-page, 6.8-pound book of photos. All had been taken by graduates — or survivors — of Clarkson’s Topeka boot camp.
They all came together for three days last week in this city where two former C-J photographers have made their own legends — Brian Lanker, a Pulitzer Prize-winner in Topeka, and Carl Davaz, who left Topeka for Missoula, Mont., and is now deputy managing editor of the Eugene Register-Guard.
Some are retired. Some, like Lanker, Davaz and Chris Johns, a former intern and shooter at Topeka who is now editor-in-chief of National Geographic magazine, are still mighty active. National Geographic helped underwrite the picture book that so moved Clarkson.
Among them they’ve garnered four Pulitzer Prizes, six Newspaper Photographers of the Year awards and a Magazine Photographer of the Year award; authored numerous books; and led their own darkrooms at some of America’s best newspapers.
They came from across the country to honor the man who helped launch their successful careers. From Clarkson’s first hire, Bill Snead, to his last, Thad Allton, now The Capital-Journal’s photo editor, they were all represented in Oregon.
The three-day “Topeka Family Reunion” was organized by Lanker; Davaz; Gary Settle, Clarkson’s second hire at Topeka; Lanker’s wife, Lynda, a regionally prominent artist; and Lynne Lamb, Lanker’s charge d’affairs.
As you might expect when more than two dozen gifted photographers get together, a lot of pictures were made. David Alan Harvey, who spent two and a half years in Topeka, intends to produce his own book about the reunion. John Chao, at The Capital-Journal from 1978-79, shot a documentary that will be handed out to everybody who showed up.
They told story after story about their time together in Topeka. The two constants were Clarkson and the late Delmar Schmidt. Others came and went, to bigger, if not better, places.
The photographers presented Clarkson with the book at the King Estate Winery outside Eugene. That night at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum on the University of Oregon campus, they screened a documentary made by Lanker that features Clarkson, his photographers and their art. They also gave him a wooden board holding the personal stamps that each photographer used to make his mark on the back of his thousands of prints.
The man who was as famous for his temper as he was for the quality of his work and teaching was clearly moved.
At some point in each of their careers, they were told by their boss they were part of “the worst staff ever.” As he stood in front of the cheering, applauding crowd, he rubbed the bridge of his nose — a trademark gesture like stroking his tie or nibbling his wrist.
Then in the silence that followed, he said: “As it turns out over time, I was wrong. You weren’t the worst staff ever.”
More cheers and applause.
Settle then stood and read a letter Clarkson had written to his parents after Settle had interned for a summer at Topeka. Clarkson sent it to them in Hutchinson in September 1958. He wrote: “We are trying to create the best picture operation in the United States. Our success will depend on new ideas by people like Gary Settle and Bill Snead.”
Clarkson left The Capital-Journal in 1981. He went on to the Denver Post and National Geographic, and he now runs his own multimedia operation in Denver.
But for three days last week in Oregon, his legacy once again was fresh and new.
And Richard Clair Clarkson learned that you can go home again.
Mike Tharp was a copy boy, darkroom boy, reporter intern and environmental writer at The Capital-Journal. He now is executive editor of the McClatchy-owned daily in Central California, the Merced Sun-Star.