Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” Genesis 22:13-14
What did you want for Christmas when you were 11 years old? After all these years, I can’t really say I remember exactly what I wanted, but I know what I received was not something I had thought about. I was so surprised to see a gift-wrapped box under the Christmas tree that was much smaller than the thing I wanted. I thought maybe it was a part of something that would lead to a bigger prize in another room or outdoors, because that was sometimes what my parents did. Little did I know the contents in the box was actually the perfect gift for me. Inside the box was a camera. Not just any camera, but a Kodak Instamatic 100, cartridge-loading, flash-cube-popping camera. As I said, I was surprised, but not disappointed. The idea of a camera settled in quickly because of the intriguing possibilities of what I could do with it. I didn’t realize it then, but that gift would change my life!
For almost 10 years I took that Instamatic camera with me everywhere. The problem was that it was a film camera. The kind of film it took to operate was in cartridges . . . that cost money . . . and then more money to get the film in those cartridges processed and printed. My parents paid for most of the first few cartridges and film processing, but that quickly waned when they saw how many pictures I was taking. They told me to only take photos of the special things and people I wanted to remember. Eventually, they told me to save my allowance to buy and process the film with my own money. I did just that. Then I saw how much it costs to take pictures. From then on, I didn’t take a lot of photos, but I took as many as I could afford. I’d had a part-time job as a paperboy since before I was twelve years old that helped me feed my new hobby addiction. My interest in photography never faded because my desire to want to preserve more memories grew exponentially. At the time, I had no idea how photography worked. Looking back now, I realize that the memories I was capturing usually came from a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second.
Over the next eight years or so, I continued to take as many pictures as I could afford. I have an album of photos from my youth, and some of my favorite memories are captured in those small, square-format, poor-quality prints. Yet, the value of that photo album is like a vault of gold to me.
I attended York College in York, Nebraska, for two years of my college experience. I started in the fall semester of 1972 and finished in May of 1974. My work-study job was in the media center, delivering and setting up projectors and such for classroom use. One cold Nebraska winter morning in early 1974, while I was at work in the media center, somebody came in franticly stating that President Larson needed a photographer to come his office immediately to get a photo of a donor presenting a check to the college. The student photographer, Randy Moody, and media center director, Bruce Tandy, both of whom happened to both be there at the time, had to be in class or somewhere, and couldn’t go take the picture. They asked me to take the photo.
I stuttered and stammered a bit, claiming, “I don’t have a camera that can do this kind of photography.”
“Here, use this,” Bruce said, handing me a 35mm camera. It was a Pentax Single Lens Reflex, which I had never used.
“But I have no idea how to do use this camera,” I said. It looked really complicated.
“It’s easy--watch this.” Then Bruce showed me all I needed to know, at least for the moment, to get this single picture.
When I returned to the media center, feeling like I had something inside the camera, I handed the SLR back to Brice and said, “I hope they turn out alright.”
“Well, let’s see.” Bruce then directed me to the photography darkroom where over the next 20-30 minutes he also showed me how to process film and make a black-and-white print. It was like a light bulb went off above my head, even though the lights were turned off in the room. I had seen photography darkrooms on TV and movies but had never actually been in a real, functioning darkroom. The soft, red glow of a light bulb made for photography rooms was so intriguing that I wanted to learn more. For the rest of the semester, I took as many photos as I could with that borrowed SLR camera, and burned up and processed a lot of school-supplied film.
Looking back now, I realize the training in camera and darkroom procedures was just another “slice of life” (at shutter speed) and was one of the greatest turning points of my life. As the semester unfolded, I was able to take a few photos of campus groups and club activities that allowed me to charge and make a few bucks along the way.
As the summer of ’74 approached and I was making plans for a summer job, I was offered a preaching internship at the Tomah Church of Christ, in Tomah, Wisconsin. The pay wasn’t very much, but they offered a free apartment with utilities and the opportunity to have another part-time job while still preaching on Sundays. I did find another job: at the Bandbox Cleaning Company, which paid better than minimum wage. With the combination of two paying jobs and a no-expense living arrangements, I was able to tuck a few dollars away for my potential transfer to Harding College.
One of the part-time members of the congregation was an Army officer from another city who only attended during the summers. He only came to Tomah during the summers to conduct training maneuvers at nearby Fort McCoy. Fort McCoy is a United States Army installation on 60,000 acres between Sparta and Tomah. The post was primarily used as a military training center. My father was retired military, and as a result I had a dependent’s ID card, which allowed me access to military bases. When our summer member (I can’t recall his name) discovered this, he invited me out to the fort to show me around and have lunch with him and his family. Being largely by myself, I readily accepted this invitation. The bonus was that when I arrived to the fort, I realized I could use the Post Exchange. The PX was a general food and department store with substantially discounted prices for the benefit of military personnel and their families.
On one occasion while visiting the PX, I wandered past the photo and camera department. There it was! My first real camera. A Yashica 35mm SLR with a 50mm lens. It was silver and black, and it sparkled as it called my name. The price? I can’t say I remember, other than to say it would take most of the meager amount I had saved so far for my upcoming fall semester tuition and living needs. It wasn’t a lot of money then, and it is an even smaller amount now in today’s prices. The summer was about half over and there was still plenty of time to make enough money to more than replace what I would spend if I bought this camera, I thought.
I was always pretty impulsive when I needed to make a decision, especially when it came to spending money. But this gave me pause. I had to really think about this one. I left the PX thinking that it was just too much money.
For what seemed like several weeks, the agony of the decision about this camera never left the forefront of my mind. I could almost hear the voices-in-my-head arguments. In reality, it was the next day that I decided to go back and take another look at the camera. I ended up buying the camera! My first somewhat-high-end, professional camera. I was happy and scared at the same time. I had just spent a lot of money. Money I needed to go on to college that fall. The convincing argument to myself was that I would use this camera to continue my cash flow when I got to college in the fall by using it to take photos for hire for various purposes: portraits, candids, couples, and club banquets.
I lived just a few blocks south of downtown Tomah. The next week, on an early summer evening while it was still daylight, I could see smoke coming from the downtown area. Being the curious budding newsman that I was, I hopped in my car and drove to see what the smoke was. When I arrived, I saw that Bandbox cleaners, where I was employed, was ablaze and had magnificent plumes of fire shooting from the roof! I knew there was no hope of saving the building as I watched it burn to the ground. The next morning, I went back to the site and saw a lot of workers furiously cleaning up to see what could be done about continuing the services of this business. I knew my employment opportunity probably went up in smoke with the building. I was out of a job!
The next Sunday, I preached a sermon out of Genesis 22 when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son and then provided the fatted ram. My lesson was to do God’s will and God will always provide. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a lesson that I would soon learn was written just for me.
Another week or so of looking for replacement income that did not materialize made me feel defeated. So I decided to go home to lament my plans for the future. I went home more broke than ever. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I thought I would just live day to day and see what developed (no pun on my newly found camera hobby intended).
Onward to Harding
In August of 1974, I was driving my ’61 Volkswagen Beetle (with a ’66 engine) down the interstate from Vernon Hills, Illinois, to Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. I’d heard about Harding for years, maybe since I was in 5th or 6th grade. I had visited the Harding campus twice: once when I was in the 11th grade when my church youth group took a trip to visit campus and once in January 1974 while on Christmas break from York College. On that second trip, I was just passing through briefly to visit my brother for a few days because Harding started their spring semester sooner than York did. When I left Searcy, I picked up my girlfriend who lived in Dallas. After a few days at her house, we travelled on to York College, where we had met.
My brother, Dave, who was a year older than me, had attended Harding his entire college career. He was now starting his fourth year, and I was at Harding the beginning of my junior year. I planned to see whether I could make arrangements to enroll in Harding as a student and finish my college degree there. I was nervous, yet relaxed. Nervous because I didn’t know if I could get into Harding, and if I did whether I could work out the financial arrangements to stay. Relaxed because even though I wasn’t a good student and didn’t want to do what I needed to do to be one, I was OK with that. I thought if things didn’t work out, I would just go home and figure out what to do next. Perhaps what kept me striving at this point in my life was that there was nothing at home I wanted to go back to. I didn’t have a job, or a career trajectory, and very few of my friends were still back home. I wanted to be at Harding more for the social experience than to actually be a student.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the dormitory, I didn’t even unload my car until I knew I was going to stay. That night I stayed in my brother’s dorm room. The next morning, I went to the admissions office to finish the application process and then on to the financial aid office. I needed an academic path to success that I felt was doable for me, and I needed to figure out how to pay for this adventure. If I couldn’t work out the details, it was no big deal. Searcy was my 11th stop I would call home in the short 20 years of my life. I was used to moving on in a few months or a few years. After I arrived, met some of my brother’s friends, saw the campus, and saw all the happiness and excitement that comes with the first few days of moving in during a new semester, I wanted to stay. Getting accepted into Harding came first. I never really doubted I would be accepted, but knowing I was a poor student at York, I was relieved when I was. The financial part was a bit more problematic. I had a small loan from the Navy Relief Society, some money I had saved from my summer job as an intern preacher, and some payments promised by my parents. But all of that was not enough. I was pretty resigned to the fact that I would probably be leaving soon, but to where, I didn’t know.
Ken Kendall-Ball was friend of my brother. He had recently graduated and was last year’s editor of Harding’s yearbook, the Petit Jean. Ken had heard of my plight and casually mentioned that the Petit Jean was looking for a scholarship recipient who could be their photographer. The photographer who had been awarded this position had chosen not to come back to Harding that year. Or, more than likely, he may have been drafted or joined the army to help in the Vietnam War effort. Either way, it was an opening for me to pursue, and they were frantically looking for a quick replacement.
I interviewed with Dr. Joe Pryor and was informed that the job carried a full scholarship! After a few questions, he asked if I owned a camera. I held up my recently purchased Yashica 35mm SLR with the 50mm lens. I was offered the yearbook position, but I could tell the faculty advisor was a bit reluctant about my qualifications. Dr. Joe assured me that he would get me some help when I needed it. I left his office knowing it was God who was providing for me, and the fact that He did so by allowing me to own and use this camera was just a bonus.
I was probably not qualified to do the job, but I thought I was. I needed the money, and I figured I would learn on the job to do what I needed to keep the scholarship. I may not have been a good student at the time, but I was always a bit of an entrepreneur and hard worker. The job ended work up being a lot of work. It wasn’t difficult, but it took a lot of time. It was more time than I ever dreamed it would be.
A few weeks into the semester, there was a knock on my darkroom door. When I opened the door there was a tall, skinny man standing there. He had dark hair and a crooked smile. His eyes squinted, but even more so when he smiled. Mike James had a warm and helpful visage. I wondered, Who is this guy and what does he want?
He said, “Hi, I’m Mike James. Dr. Joe sent me over to see if I could help you.”
At first, I felt defeated because I thought I must not have been performing my job very well to the point that Dr. Joe had to send someone to help me. But then I remembered that he had said he would send some help, and I needed some help. My second thought was that I was very relieved to see him. Mike was an employee of Harding College, working as a full-time photographer in the Public Relations office. He taught me many things about the art and science of photography. Mike became one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and a mentor in so many ways. Little did I know, but the fall of 1974 was definitely a turning point in my life.
As the semester proceeded, I met a lot of people because I was usually pretty visible at any event or activity. I was there to take photos for the yearbook. My work as a freelance photographer picked up--and I started charging more people for their photos. Between my scholarship, my small school loan, my parents, and my side work as a photographer, I was able to navigate my way through my various financial needs for the semester.
The yearbook photography work was exhausting, but the book went to press near the Spring Break and the workload dropped off dramatically. There were photographs and darkroom work that needed to be done for the benefit of next year’s Petit Jean, but the pressing deadlines were behind me.
Near the end of spring semester, Mike James came to see me to congratulate me because he had received word that my work as a photographer for the 1974-1975 yearbook had placed first in the Arkansas Collegiate Press Association’s yearbook competition!
In the fall of ’76, I was assigned as an intern in the news department of KATV. There had only been one other intern at KATV from Harding (or anywhere else for that matter), but I was the first intern to be placed in the news department. This gave me the opportunity to be exposed (no pun intended) to the area of photojournalism that used 16mm film. Because I knew the principles of exposure with shutter speeds, f-stops, and film processing that I had learned from Mike, I was able to pick up the needed skills to be a valuable asset to their work. In the spring of ’77, KATV offered me a job as a full-time photojournalist. Even though I was primarily used for news and motion pictures with film, I was also the station’s still photographer whenever they need someone.
I never lost touch with Mike James. Every time I came back to Searcy, I made a dash to his office to say hi and visit with him. He always welcomed me warmly with that same squinty-eyed expression and crooked smile that I had come to love.
In the fall of 2008, 34 years after I had started as the Petit Jean photographer, I was hired as an assistant professor of Mass Communication at Harding by the chairman of the Department of Communication, Dr. Mike James.
Steve Shaner, is a professional storyteller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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