Saying goodbye to Sara

For my final post of 2015 I thought I’d share a reminder of how precious life can be regardless of the body it inhabits.

A member of our family, little Sara, passed away on Christmas Day.

Though Sara was officially my youngest son’s dog, and the little girl tried my patience and caused me to lose a lot of sleep through the years, I still cried silently, as did my wife, when the little dog passed.

20150427_131404 2.jpg

Sara was mischievous, selfish, required a lot of attention, often had an attitude, and continually led Gus, our Jack Russell, into harm’s way with her behavior.  She taught him how to dig under fences and escape yards, to run recklessly through dangerous neighborhoods and across traffic- filled highways looking for handouts or cat food left on back porches.

She could have been a circus dog.  She could stand on her hind legs pawing at the air like a bear when she wanted something.   And she could balance herself on her two front legs when she had to tinkle.  Suffice to say, she had personality.


Sara, photographed by Erin earlier this year

Henry, who has never met a dog he didn’t love, even annoying ones like Sara, was always quick to defend her actions.   Even after Sara did something destructive, he would hold her beady-eyed face in his hands and say, “Isn’t she cute.  Don’t you just love Sara?”  Henry, now 14, can be impatient with people but has endless patience with dogs. He reminds me to love all animals; even little “needy” alpha dogs who try to control everything and everybody.


Henry with Sara  (photo by Erin)

Though I often threatened to give high-maintenance Sara to an older woman who would let her jump on her furniture or sleep get in her bed, secretly I liked the annoying little pest.  Often, when I took her out in the morning and fed her while others were sleeping, I patted her, scratched her back and told her I loved her, in spite of her challenging behavior.

Henry took her passing hard.  Sara was his dog, rescued from a nursing home as a puppy in Kentucky when he was about five.   When he realized she was gone, he posted a picture of her on his Instagram page with the note: Rest in Peace.



Sara and Gus from Erin, the dog walker’s view.

I miss the little pest.  And even Gus, who was the recipient of most of her bossiness, misses her and is quietly grieving as dogs often do.

I guess what I’m admitting is I loved the little dog because Henry loved her.  Sara brought him joy and comfort.

Sara, for better or worse, was family.

We will all miss her.



Partners in Purpose

By David LaBelle

I meet too many people, often late in their lives, who have quit dreaming. Victims of apathy and void of purpose, they sit idly, wasting precious life while bitterly awaiting the shadow of death to crawl over them.

But thankfully, this profession also leads me to vibrant people immersed in altruistic causes that lift them from beds each morning with purpose and a sense of urgency.


Bill and Gwin Stam are such people, and theirs is a love story worth sharing.


Bill, 80, and his bride, Gwin, a handful of years behind him, found each other when Gwin, an artist, answered the ad Bill placed to sell a horse, a Paint stallion. Stam, a cowboy and also a gentleman, was hesitant at first to sell a woman the stallion, fearing she might get seriously hurt.

But he soon realized the petite yet feisty woman wasn’t going to be put off.

He also learned Gwin had an uncommon way with animals, especially horses.  She spent years raising orphaned animals for zoos.

Because her money was tight after an unexpected divorce, Bill sold her half ownership in the stallion, which meant the cowboy and the artist were business partners.

They hit it off immediately, realizing how much they had in common.Both are talented artists, Gwin does beautiful bead and leather work, among others things.  Their home feels like a Native American museum full of beautiful items they have made by hand.  Both are lovers of animals, particularly horses.  Both have walked tough life roads lined with many heartaches.  And both have Native American blood flowing in their veins: Bill is Lakota, Gwin is Apache.

Bil and Gwen.jpg

Bill, widowed after his wife died of cancer, was immediately drawn to the strong-spirited woman, who has endured several life-threatening bouts with cancer herself.

He also realized his interest in the beautiful artist was more than financial.

“I was afraid to ask her out, she was too pretty,” he admits.

Within two years, the couple married, and the former cowboy and Marine got to keep the horse and the woman.  They have been married 18 years.

By the way, they still have the stallion.


Not only did they find love and support in each other’s company, they found a common cause and a mission – to build the only Native American Veterans Memorial in the world.

Both feel it a divine call, something asked of them by the “Creator.”

Creating a lasting memorial that honors the hundreds of silent heroes from the past has become a calling, if not an obsession for both.  Each recognizes they have a small cup of time to complete their dream.  Like two powerful draft horses yoked together to pull a heavy load, each admiringly challenges the other.  Bill is determined to get all the Indian Nations flags and all of the names of the code talkers on plaques before he meets his Creator.

“I thank the Creator,” Bill says, “and I praise the Creator every morning.”

Statue.jpgI love these people.  And watching them stirs my spirit and challenges me to reevaluate how I am using my own precious time.

Like my wife has said, “our subjects are often our greatest teachers.”

Visit the memorial

If you are ever driving from Eugene/Springfield towards Portland on I-5, I suggest you make a small diversion and go see Bill and Gwin and the All Nations Native American Veterans Memorial near Jefferson, Oregon.

You will be received warmly and treated to an education not found in textbooks.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day.

Following are links to a story I wrote about the Stams last year and a newly-created facebook page.







An update on brothers Dan and Dustin Ripley

Last January, I shared the story of two amazing brothers and their loving parents, Dale and Debbie Ripley. After receiving many inquiries about the family, I have decided to post periodic updates.

Dale helping Dan to bed.

Dale helping Dan to bed.

There was a scare last winter for Dan and his family when food became trapped in his throat resulting in a two-day hospital stay.   That ordeal and a long, hard winter making it difficult for the boys to get out was challenging for everyone.

“It is getting harder by the day,” Dale confessed after the scare with Dan.

“The trips to the hospital are becoming more frequent.  We are trying to prepare ourselves,” he says with a combination of anger, worry and gratitude so tangled together they are impossible to separate.

But things are looking up.

Dustin can now see better

Dustin turned 28 in April and was fitted with glasses.  He can now see the television better.

Dustin turned 28 in April and was fitted with glasses so he can now see the television better.

Continued fundraising efforts have netted $25,000 toward the $82,000 goal.

Continued fundraising efforts have netted $25,000 toward the $82,000 goal.

Dale has been able to return to limited construction work.

And Dan celebrated his 30th birthday last week – a monumental milestone for a young man with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Most with the disease do not live past the age of 20.

With a little help from mom, Dan blows out candles.

With a little help from mom, Dan blows out candles.

Turning 30

“So, how does it feel to be 30?” I asked Dan on this special day.

“Great!” He squawks.

“Uh, you think you might add a little more,” I teased, reminding him that good sports interviews usually require more than one word answers.

“I can’t believe I lived this long, with this disease,” he says, his eyes widening. “I am thankful I lived this long.”

“And I am just grateful for the technology now,” he adds.   “My mom’s brother died when he was 19, 36 years ago in 1979 on December 15th

Debbie nods silently, seeming to remember her brother and think about her boys suffering from the same disease. From his wheelchair, a few feet away, Dustin chimes in, agreeing and expressing his thankfulness for the technology that keep both he and his brother alive, and for his parents and caregivers.


“Did you do anything special for your birthday? I ask, prior to the Superman cake and ice cream served that evening.

“Yeah, I watched TV.”

“You watch TV everyday,” I say.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“So did you watch anything special today?”

“Days of Our Lives,” he gurgles.

“You watch soap operas?”


“How long have you done that?”

“Twenty years, since 1995.”

Again, his mother nods in agreement.  “I guess so, that’s about right.”

Debbie feeds Dan birthday cake and ice cream while Dustin patiently waits his turn.

Debbie feeds Dan birthday cake and ice cream while Dustin patiently waits his turn.

Changing bodies

As the disease progresses, the bodies of both boys continue to change.

I photographed Dan’s twisted body one night as he was being put to bed and showed him the picture.

“What do you feel, when you see yourself?” I asked.

Despite a twisted body, and a hatred for his disease, Dan is positive and thankful .

Despite a twisted body, and a hatred for his disease, Dan is positive and thankful .

“I am amazed how my body looks, how terrible this disease is,” he said.

I also asked Dan if he feels comfortable with me sharing the revealing picture that shows the shape of his deformed body.    He immediately said yes.   He wants people to know about this disease.

As I prepare to leave, I tell Dan I hope I am still around in 30 years so I attend his 60th birthday party.

“I’ll be here,” he chirps confidently.

Then realizing he might have been a bit presumptuous, he calls to me.

“David, God determines how long we will be here.”

Once again, he is right.


Meanwhile, here is a link to the Ripley’s fundraiser page:

Also, here is an acclaimed small budget film about another young man with the same disease making a road trip west.

Serendipity or Providence?

by David LaBelle

Many friends claim there are no “coincidences,” that every moment of life is orchestrated by a master choreographer.

I’ve not subscribed to this belief because accepting this would eliminate both my choice in life and responsibility for my actions, as if we are all pawns on earth’s chessboard being moved by a larger hand.  That is not to say I deny our Creator’s involvement in our everyday lives.   On the contrary, I believe God’s presence is constant.

Still, that leaves me without an understanding of certain seemingly impossible events.

Last year, while en route from Cleveland to Seattle to conduct a photography workshop, I experienced one of those serendipitous encounters that defy the odds. It left me wondering if this was an accidental meeting or a providential appointment with a deeper purpose.

Ann Saunders

Ann can’t believe the odds of a stranger on the flight knowing and teaching her former daughter-in-law.

There was one stop on the flight from Ohio to Washington. After the Nashville passengers deplaned, those of us remaining waited in our seats for the Seattle-bound passengers to board.  I was in an aisle seat on an empty row towards the back of the plane, reading C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.

Now, those of you frequent travelers know about holding the hope of some nice, quiet, small, fairly clean person occupying the next seat allowing arm and leg room and a pleasant ride.   Sometimes you avoid making eye contact, especially if the interested party has a half shaved head, a nose ring and wears a “kill the President” T-shirt.   Even worse, they are coughing and sneezing or have a frightened, yapping dog in a carrier.


This day as the plane filled, I spotted a grandmotherly woman with a man that looked to be her husband, searching for seats together.  I made eye contact and smiled.  She asked if they could sit next to me.

We made small talk, her husband sat closest to me, while she took the window seat. She noticed my camera and excitedly said, “My daughter-in-law is a photographer.”

I shared my current role teaching Photojournalism at Kent State in Ohio.  I told her about conducting a photography seminar in Seattle.  Her eyes became glassy.  “She is a photojournalist, too.   She went to Western,” she added proudly.

“Where does she work?” I asked.

She worked in Nashville and in Bremerton, Washington, the grandmotherly woman advised.

I felt goose bumps crawl up my arms.

“Was her name Lynn?”

Her eyes about leapt from her surprised face.

“Did you know her?” She asked as her eyes began to fill.

“Yes, I was one of her teachers.”

Joe and Ann Saunders

Ann and Joe Saunders on the flight to Seattle to visit Martin.

She reached over and grabbed her husband’s forearm.

“ Joe, he knew Lynn.  He was one of her teachers.”

I have also met your son, Martin, too,” I shared.  “Did he stay in Washington or return to Nashville?

“He knows Martin, too.” She said in disbelief.

“My wife worked with Lynn in Bremerton,” I explained

“We are on the way to visit Martin now, to help him.  We are meeting our daughter at the airport in Seattle.  We go each year,” she explained.

I shared I had talked briefly about Lynn and another WKU grad, Mark Gruber, during closing remarks for a print exhibition at Western Kentucky the previous October.

“I can’t believe you knew Lynn and were one of her teachers,” the woman said again, wiping her teary eyes.

Ann Saunders

Lynn Delaney Saunders

Lynn Delaney Saunders

I met Lynn Delaney Saunders in the late 80’s while teaching at Western Kentucky University.   By then she had worked as a photographer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center but was determined to pursue newspaper work.  Lynn went back to school for a second degree in Photojournalism.  She ended up working for newspapers in Florida and Tennessee before ending her career at the Bremerton Sun in Washington.

Lynn’s road was never easy.   She suffered several operations, including one to remove a brain tumor that left her beautiful face scarred and her balance compromised.  Because of her limited mobility and continued medical problems, most of us felt Lynn was chasing an unrealistic, if not impossible dream.  The life of a photojournalist was far too demanding.

She proved us wrong.

As if her role as a mother of a teenage son and wife to a man with limited mobility wasn’t tough enough. Her husband Martin was paralyzed in a construction accident in 1990.   Had it not been for his brother Bill hurrying to his rescue and uncovering his face so he could breathe in the collapsed ditch, Martin would have surely perished.

Lynn never took life for granted and shared with my wife the awareness that each day could be her last.   Her body continued to produce tumors.  She kept her closets organized so she would not be remembered as a slob and people would not be burdened with going through her belongings if she died suddenly.

In 1995 Lynn chronicled a young woman’s last year of life, a single mother of six with breast cancer.  The two became friends and Lynn was at the woman’s bedside when she died.

Four years later Lynn’s own life ended when her car struck the center support of an overpass.  She was only 46

As hard as Lynn’s life was at times, she was a picture of gratitude.  I never saw any self-pity and she didn’t allow her numerous hurdles to become obstacles to keep her from doing what she loved.   After struggling to keep the pace as a shooting photojournalist, she finally found true peace in her profession as a picture editor for The Bremerton Sun.

I still wonder about the meaning of the unlikely encounter with Lynn’s in-laws.   Maybe time will reveal a deeper purpose?

Since I haven’t been able to let it go, I decided it was worth sharing.

Jacob’s Ladder

By David LaBelle

Last week, I met an interesting man who found purpose and meaning for his life through an uncomplicated routine of service and acceptance.

Sixty-five-year-old Jacob Jones wakes before dawn, rolls his wheelchair out of the enclosed patio he currently calls home and boards two city buses each morning leading him to an asphalt parking lot behind Starbucks in Midtown Nashville.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Jones arrives early in the morning.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Armed with a jar filled with salted peanuts bought in bulk and bags of discarded baked goods gleaned from restaurant trash bins, he wheels to his regular spot, arriving just after 6am. Soon, the still landscape comes alive.   Squirrels inch down from nearby trees and flocks of birds, waiting on wires, descend for a morning meal.

“When I began four years ago, there were 6 squirrels that showed up, now there are about 60. And 500 birds turned to 10,000,” he laughs.

Jones began this routine over four years ago after literally falling off a train near Nashville.   Originally from Cleveland, the cross-country traveler said he rode boxcars coast to coast. Then one fateful day, he recounts, “I got up and it was early in the morning and I went to the door to take a wiz. And sure enough the train lunged around a corner and I fell out of the door. Yeah, so I fell off the train and couldn’t get back on and had to walk 10 miles into town, once I stopped somebody and found out where I was. I have been here ever since. “

“But it is a blessing from the Lord, “ he insists.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Jacob Jones, 65.

Jones accepts donations and tips to buy food for his little friends, mostly salted peanuts, and gathers discarded bread products from nearby establishments.   He buys only salted peanuts in bulk then fills the jar he carries. “That way they get the salt they need,” he beams.

“Knowing that my little birds and squirrels are waiting on me, that gets me up in the morning,” Jones says with a smile stretching across his bearded and weathered face.

Besides feeding “God’s creatures”, Jones, who claims he is a cousin of the famous retired Dallas Cowboys’ football star “Too Tall” Jones, also directs traffic, watches out for seedy characters and helps limit the mischief in nearby parking lots.

“It’s a great arrangement,” he assures. “I watch out for the cars, make sure people don’t break in or steal and they let me gather tips to feed my birds and squirrels and get bus fare back home.”   He proudly wears an official badge claiming it was a gift from Vanderbilt Hospital.  “It cost them one-hundred dollars to make,” he assures, “The cop shop, they made the badge.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Squirrels and birds enjoy a morning feast.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Since embracing a nomadic life at the young age of 15, the self-proclaimed world traveler is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. He says he only can stand and walk a few steps with the aid of a cane, after slipping on the ice two years back and breaking his leg in several places.

“After two operations, I am lucky they didn’t just cut it off and give up on it. I’m just lucky what little bit I can do. That’s a blessing,” he assures. “And it’s a good thing they haven’t chopped it off yet. I could imagine trying to walk with only one leg; it would be a hopping situation,” he laughs.

A generous friend, a widower, allows Jones to sleep in his enclosed patio in exchange for watching over his place.   He says there is even a wheelchair ramp the man’s deceased wife once used.

“It’s a blessing”, Jones insists. “I even have electricity so I can use a heater in the winter and a box fan in the summer heat. Yes, it’s a blessing.” he smiles.

Jacob Jones is nothing if not thankful and appreciative.   He believes, “everything is a blessing from the Lord.”   And much like the creatures he feeds daily, his is a modest life dependent on the “The Lord” and the goodness of friends and strangers.

“We are all the Lord’s creatures,” he smiles.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Few of us, if any, know where our life road will lead. We have youthful dreams – professional aspirations that seldom turn out the way we imagine. Jones says his dreams started at the age of 12. “I wanted to start my own business, so at the age of 13, I started a private contracting company. But not just in any area, in Millionaire’s Row, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Yeah, I got a lot of contracts doing the landscaping on their lots, big lots. I had been learning how to do that since the age of nine. I stayed there until I was 15 when I started traveling around the world and ended up over in Europe. I started my own photography studios at the age of 16.”


Today, Jacob has more focused and much simpler, yet profound dreams. “My dreams now are to walk closer and closer and closer to God everyday. Yeah, that’s a blessing.   Because I know one day I see him again, meet him again. When death comes for me, I will meet him again. And I want to be right with Him when I am standing before Him because you don’t want to be wrong with Him. I mean the whole universe moved to obey his command when he sent me back.”

When asked what he meant about being “sent back”, Jacob, like a great narrator from a Disney movie, rewinds to the story of the day he died.

The way Jones tells it, he was on vacation while working with Gulf Oil in Houston, Texas in 1979, when a decision to sleep on the beach in Galveston after a day of fishing would alter his life forever. Because it was Spring Break and all of the motels were filled with students, he couldn’t find a room.

“It can be warm in the day but at nights sheets of ice can form,” Jones remembers. “Unfortunately, it was one of those nights and I died of exposure. The police found me and I had been dead over an hour, no heartbeat, no pulse, no respitory [sic]; I passed on. And the doctors had been there and already certified me DOA. And they took my shoe off and put a tag on my toe. So I was basically waiting on an undertaker to zip me up in a body bag and take me away from the beach. But meanwhile, during that hour I was traveling through that tunnel of light everyone talks about.   And as I get closer to the end of the tunnel of light, all peace that surpasses all understanding overcame me. And I was feeling better and better the closer I got to that light at the end of the tunnel. And the light at the end of that tunnel, that’s God’s glory shining through. There was over 100,000 of us that had died that night; we were all traveling through that tunnel of light.   And just as I got ready to step out of the end, God spoke to me: It’s not yet your time. And I looked up and I said, Oh God. I recognized who He was; His voice filled the entire universe. And as soon as that last word was uttered out of his mouth, I jumped.   And I jumped and I was back in my body. The whole universe rushed to obey His very command. And in less than four seconds He singled me out and sent me back.   And it took me 30 years of traveling around this earth to find another He had sent back, so He doesn’t do that very often.”

When he “came back,” Jones claims his body was made new, renewed. All of those pains from former injuries were gone.

That event changed not only his life, but also his outlook. “I was a drinker back in the 70’s. I gave it up. Yeah, it wasn’t good for my health and it wasn’t good for my thinking abilities either.”

Jones smiles broadly and casts his eyes toward the heavens. “I can’t complain at all; anything the Lord gives me is a blessin’. He has been watching out for me since I died. All kind of good things have happened since he sent me back. I know he’s been watching out for me.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

John lends Jacob his umbrella while he repairs his friend’s leaking one.

Jacob was the first person John met, besides his housemates, when he moved to Nashville two years ago and they have been friends ever since. John, whose wife is a divinity student, stops by at least twice each week to give Jacob the weather report, which earned him the nickname of The Weather Man. Even on his birthday, John stops to warn his friend, “I looked at and there is red over all of Tennessee.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

“Oh, that’s not good,” Jones smiles. But once the downpour begins, he maintains his post for several hours.

The 44-year-old printmaker says he admires Jones.   “Jacob has such a positive personality. Practically every single day I see him, he asks what’s going on, and as I  am walking away, he always says, ‘have a blessed day.’ He has a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude, never negativity, never feeling sorry for himself for anything. You know he’s out here even if it’s about to flood. He sees what’s positive.”

John adds, “Jacob is the one in March who clued me in on what’s going on about this scammer who robs people. I went to the Vanderbilt Police and talked to them in April, and they said Jacob was their eyes and ears out back. They know who he is and appreciate what he does.”   And Jones appreciates what his friend does for him.  “When my wheelchair broke down, he came down and repaired it for me. And he’s letting me use his umbrella while he patches mine. Yes, it’s a blessin’.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Like the birds and squirrels in his care, Jones is dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers.

I asked this man with the smiling eyes and an unusually calm spirit of gratitude why

he continues to rise so early and ride two buses just to feed birds and squirrels and watch over parking lots?His eyes twinkle with genuine care. “It’s a blessing,” he nods. “And we are all God’s creatures. It gives me purpose and a sense of peace on this planet. I try to be a blessing to all. “


Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

An object becomes human

By David LaBelle

We pass by them every day on the streets of our great cities – those nameless forms. They shuffle about, asking for change or food or cigarettes.  Most sleep on sidewalks, in parks, in alleys, even dumpsters. Many are alcoholics or drug addicts, but not all. Some are physically sick, while others suffer varying degrees of mental illness. Some are drifters looking for something.  Many are alone, without family or friends.


Today, I saw a crumpled form on the sidewalk in downtown San Francisco.

Collapsed in front of a financial building, his legs and arms were being cooked by the harsh sun. I tried to engage him to see if I could help but he didn’t respond. I backed away and watched for nearly a half an hour as hundreds passed by, most without even looking down, though only a few feet away. I was sure any moment I would record someone stopping to help the man. But nobody did.

The familiar scene saddened me, as it always does.

John first


John 4

Finally, I couldn’t watch any longer and had to intercede.   This time I was able to arouse him, get him to his feet and help him into some shade.

He wasn’t drunk or stoned as I imagined, but said he had fallen and passed out.

He said his name was John Day, and had recently been released from the hospital following an appendix surgery. The plastic identification band was still around his wrist. He also said he suffers from narcolepsy and can fall asleep mid-sentence.


I learned that John has been on the street for three years and has no family except a younger brother, which he worries about. Like me, he is a native Californian, born in 1951.

He said he “felt sad that most people were too busy to care anymore.”

In short, the bent and crumpled object became human.

And I found him to be delightful.

My Top 10 reasons for photographing

Because of great reader response to this month’s photography column in Ruralite Magazine, I decided to share my top reasons for photographing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 11.17.31 AM

Borrowing from CBS late-night host David Letterman’s “Top-10” approach, I have assembled my top-10 reasons for photographing.

I am only sharing numbers, 1, 5 and 10 – the reasons receiving the most comments.  To see all 10 reasons, please click on the link provided.  Hope you see yourself in this list.

No. 10 – I’m terrible at living or participating in my own life. Often, it’s easier to live vicariously through the lives of others.  A camera allows me to do this.  It’s less messy and painful, and it requires less introspective work on my part.

No. 5 – The camera is my Superman’s cape.  By nature I am cowardly, but armed with a camera and a mission, I am filled with a courage that washes away my fear.  My camera boldly pushes me to talk to anyone from Hollywood celebrities and homeless wanderers and make pictures in intimidating, sometimes dangerous environments.

No. 1 – But of all the wonderful gifts the camera has given me through five decades, the greatest blessing has been a powerful voice to speak to others who do not have a voice.  It is one of the greatest connectors. Nothing equals the euphoric sense of purpose I feel when photographs I have made somehow help others.  When people feel represented, understood; when the photographic image shines light in dark places and cleanses or helps us heal, I feel a heightened sense of life purpose as a bridge and a connector.

On that day and in this place

Chip Wood

Chip Wood

by David LaBelle

I remember that day – those graphic black and white pictures moving across the AP and UPI wires, most notably the now iconic image made by John Filo of Mary Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway bent over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller in horror.   I was a staff photographer for the Ventura County Star Free Press, my first full-time newspaper job.   I couldn’t have imagined the spring of 1970 that 40 years later I would begin directing a photojournalism program on the same campus, 2,400 miles away from my southern California home.

Since coming to Kent in 2010, I have walked the sometimes grassy, often snowy hill many times, usually alone, trying to understand how such a tragedy could happen.

Like so many others, I’ve touched the bullet hole in the metal sculpture made by a .30-06 round by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970.

I have drawn my face close and looked through the small opening, towards the infamous pagoda, as if hoping to see through to the past.


Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015- The 45th commemoration of the 1970 shooting.   © Photos by David LaBelle

The pagoda at the top of the hill near Taylor Hall, where National Guard troops fired into the crowd of students.   Bill Reynolds calls this place “the vortex of evil.” 

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015- The 45th commemoration of the 1970 shooting.   © Photos by David LaBelle

Chris Everett

Kent State Alumnus, Chris Everett, on campus the fateful day, says he thinks about Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, wondering what contributions they might have made to our world.   For the Professor Emeritus from Northern Arizona University, coming back for the 45th memorial reunion was emotional. “I cried, I laughed,” he said.

Like Everett, I have often thought about those young lives and how many experiences they missed the past 45 years. Each was near my age. Only 19 when she was gunned down, Allison Krause was six weeks older than me, and William Schroeder just six weeks younger than me when their lives were cut short.

For my generation, time is remembered and history marked by killings and assassinations.   John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and four Kent State students Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, not to mention Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, students killed with shotgun buckshot at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi 10 days after the Kent State Massacre.


Like most people my age, I remember that era well.   I remember the anxiety about being drafted and sent to Vietnam, just as I was starting my career. I remember the day I received notice that my draft lottery number, 169, was high enough to avoid being called to war. I believe they stopped that year at 150.

I try to explain to my children life was different in 1970.   Times were wild; people were smoking pot, burning draft cards, bras, even banks in protest.   People distrusted government, police, institutions and “the establishment.”   Our country was entrenched in a war in Southeast Asia few understood; a war on foreign soil that claimed thousands upon thousands of young lives.   There was rioting in the streets, looting and burning of buildings. There were beatings and killings of innocent people because of their color or race. There were radical hate groups with acronym names like the S. L. A. I try to explain people were afraid, and many of us truly felt the end of the world was near. I remind them when people are afraid, fear often pushes them to do crazy, even inhumane things.

“It was very complex, very complicated,” offers retired professor David Bachner, Scholar in Residence for the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. “The unmitigated tragedy of the event is overshadowed by the complexity. People romanticize that era – and the music helps – but the stuff that shouldn’t be romanticized is too often forgotten. For those of us who lived it, it wasn’t a cakewalk,” he quietly adds.
So why come back here, year after painful year? Why build a memorial to remind us of the shameful tragedy?

Vietnam veteran Bill Reynolds, one of those holding vigil in the parking lot the commemoration morning says “ It’s important to keep the memory of Kent alive. It is easier to avoid a mistake then to repeat it,” he assures. Then he warns, “We are on the verge of a race war, economic war.”

Bill Reynolds

Bill Reynolds

“Everybody comes here for their own reasons,” offers Chip Wood, 68, from Tallmadge, as he quietly sits against a tree, a distance from the activities below. Wood, who completed two tours in Vietnam, said he has only missed a few of the May 4th gatherings. He takes comfort in believing “What happened here helped stop the war.”

Like most I talked with about the tragedy, I cannot say with certainty why I am drawn to this spot, but I am. Maybe Bob Dylan had it right when he penned the words, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind?

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015.

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015.


by David LaBelle

That God cares deeply about all life is evident.



It is also evident that He has put into the hearts of individuals to do different things and dream different dreams.

While some labor tirelessly to find cures for diseases, others are preoccupied with discovering ways to better grow food and feed the world.

And then there are those who seem blessed with hearts of compassion for animals, all animals. My brother Steven is like this, so also is my youngest son Henry. And no canine ever enjoyed more love and respect than those blessed to be cared for in the homes of my dear friends Penny Harvey and Greg Cooper.

During this coming year, I intend to introduce you to a few dedicated people who sacrifice much to preserve life and offer dignity to creatures large and small. They’ve made caregiving for our hairy, furry, feathered and finned friends a life mission and purpose.

These caring souls feel a charge, a responsibility, to guard and protect those animals unable to care for or protect themselves, especially victims of men’s reckless intervention or greedy poaching. Some even risk their lives to defend God’s creatures. In oceans, barren backcountry, dense forests, or in populated neighborhoods, most of these dedicated humans work quietly, out of the spotlight.

Connie Michaels will lead the way for this compassionate group.



Michaels is a park naturalist who has worked primarily at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio since 1989, when she began as a volunteer. For the past quarter century Michaels has cared for injured or relocated creatures and educated the public about turtles, snakes, toads, mice, fish or any other small creature that finds its way to her. But of all the animals residing at Quail Hollow, her greatest love is for the birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors.

In a sense, the birds are like children the unmarried Michaels never had. She has known them that long.

Like any good parent, Michaels knows each bird’s personality and habits.   She grows concerned when their behavior changes or if they don’t eat.   She worries about their health and finding and maintaining food sources that provide them with enough nutrition. She monitors and keeps detailed records on each animal.

Though she is paid only seasonally, Michaels cares for the animals at Quail Hollow daily and organizes an army of volunteers year-round.

“When I first started as the seasonal naturalist there was a full time naturalist who had the responsibility of overseeing the care of the birds,” offers Michaels. “The steady reduction of park personnel caused the elimination of that job as well as many other positions at the park leaving only a seasonal staff.  Animals however are still there requiring year round care and while they are attended to by a dedicated staff of volunteers, someone has to make sure there is adequate food and supplies, that they are eating as they should, and if they are in need of veterinary care.  I have hope that this will soon change.”

Michaels, who does other volunteer work at the park besides animal care, says she probably “devotes about 8 to 12 hours a week just to the care of the birds.”

“Fortunately, I do not have to pay out much of my own money,” adds Michaels. “The Quail Hollow Volunteer Association has established an account for the care of the raptors and the other animals at the nature center.  Each year they budget a certain amount of money and along with this I receive donations from some of the organizations I present programs to.”

Michaels, who has two dogs and two cats at home, says her relationship with the birds is different.   “Dogs and cats have learned to interact with us and respond to our care and affection. That is why we call them domesticated,” insists Michaels.

“I have grown close to the birds emotionally, but as they are still wild animals, I don’t expect them to want to be close to me. They will take food from me because they can’t hunt for themselves and perch on my arm only because they have been trained to do so, not because they have a desire to be near me.”

That said, Michaels has known Skye and R.T., two red-tailed hawks, Chopper, a Bard owl, a peregrine hawk named Fury, and her personal favorite, Blink, a six-inch-tall eastern screech owl, for years. She’s known RT since 1998, Skye since 2000, Fury since 2002, Blink since 2008 and Chopper since 2010. They have traveled many miles together performing educational sessions for school children and adults.

Though she is reluctant to admit, little Blink, who she has known the past seven years, is her favorite.

“He’s just such a personality and such a favorite of everybody,” offers Michaels.

True indeed. Even my wife said, “Blink is the only owl I have ever wanted to hug.”

It’s been a rough and bitter winter for Michaels.   First, Blink, the popular little owl with so much “personality,” disappeared in late fall.   Sure her feathered friend had been stolen, Michaels took Blink’s disappearance especially hard.


Flyers with the little owl’s picture were posted about town and online. There was even a reward offered for the return of the tiny raptor.

Michaels placed a small wooden transport/carrier box outside the compound with a note attached asking the small owl with the big voice be placed inside.

A cold hope

A cold hope

With Blink’s fading picture attached, the box sat silently through fall and a bitter, snowy winter, as if holding vigil for her feathered friend. The box still sits empty at the gate of the sanctuary, an emblem of hope against hope somebody will return the six-inch-tall eastern screech owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink's disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink’s disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

And then, amidst the icy gray of winter, Fury, the feisty falcon who Michaels had known for at least 8 years, died, apparently of old age.

Added to these losses, Michaels’ 94 year-old-mother died in January.

As a naturalist, Michaels is also a realist and understands biology. Animals and people die.   Death is very much a part of life in her world.

“I will continue to supervise their care until someone else becomes available to step in and take responsibility for them,” says Michaels, who turned 70 last October.

“At the present time, I am the only employee at the park who has the experience and knowledge to do so. It concerns me that if I should become unable to do this, there is not anyone at this time to take it over.  Not that there aren’t potential candidates, but there needs to be someone hired full time. “

“It’s a long-term commitment,” she insists. “You get very, very much attached.”

“I love them and I can’t just walk away and leave them, not knowing whether or not they are being cared for.”

With Chopper

With Chopper

I know the feeling.

After five years guiding and strengthening a photojournalism program at Kent State, and shepherding many young lives, I, too, am having a hard time letting go.

But as it will be for Michaels and anybody who gives of their heart beyond a paycheck, the time comes when we must trust others will continue to water the seeds we have planted.

In the end, all we can hope for is that those who take the reigns will care as much as we have.

In This Face

The human face is a vessel capable of carrying the weight of a thousand experiences, and a myriad of subtle, even contradictory, emotions even the best poets would be hard-pressed to describe.

When we study another’s face, search another’s eyes, each of us sees something different, maybe even a reflection of ourselves.

I am not a photographer who seeks peak action or overt emotion. I am drawn to the quieter, more complex expressions.

Recently, my family and I listened to a young man named Bol Aweng tell the story of being separated from his family and fleeing his village in Southern Sudan while under attack by government troops. Aweng was just six-years-old when he ran for his life and began a trek to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. He spent 14 years in various refugee camps before arriving in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and said “it was the first time he felt he had an identity.”

Bol Aweng

Bol Aweng

Now living in Ohio, Bol Aweng is one of the 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan.

I watched the kind face and contagious smile and shot about 30 frames during the hour-long presentation, watching intently for one frame, one expression, that might summarize what my ears and my heart were hearing. But nothing I saw through the viewfinder matched what I heard in his voice. And then, for a half-second, it was as if a veil covering the past was lifted, and an expression as deep and complex as any I had ever seen emerged.

Hidden beneath the warm smile, I saw a shadow of the frightened six-year-old separated from his family by war. I imagined the cruel memories Aweng must have of the 18,000 countrymen who were slaughtered, starved to death, or killed and eaten by lions and other wild animals while walking 1500 miles in search of food and safety. I saw a young man living in refugee camps for more than a decade, wondering if his parents and siblings were dead or alive; a family he would eventually see again 24 years later.

In this proud face I also saw faith in the God who led him to America.


“I started feeling that God is here and if there is something bigger, then I need God to be the one to help me in that,” Bol said of his time in the refugee camps.

“I was so excited when I received the letter,” remembers Bol. Finally, after a long wait, he was going to escape the horrors of war and finally realize his dream to come to the United States, “a safe place.”

His face held the story of finally escaping the horrors of war and realizing his dream to come to America, only to be delayed en route to New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bol said he questioned himself, “Is it me following war, or war following me?”

But also in this wise face I saw an educated man, a soul tempered by gratitude and filled with guarded hope for peace and the future of his countrymen, especially the mothers and children. His eyes spoke of quiet strength, purpose and a steel resolve to help his family, bring healthcare to his people and continue rebuilding the village of his childhood in South Sudan.

I saw a talented artist, able to communicate in colorful paintings the scenes from his incredible journey.

Above all, in this amazing face, I saw an incredible tapestry of sadness, joy and hope woven so tightly together they are inseparable.

To learn more about this amazing soul, please see the following links.

Bol Aweng’s Story

The Lost Boys of Sudan