I miss him.
It doesn’t seem right that I should be writing about Larry Powell this Veterans Day. Instead, we should be making plans to meet and photograph an event, maybe visit the wall in D.C. as we have in the past. Besides, we were supposed to check ourselves into the same nursing facility when we got too old to chase the news. We often kidded we would continue photographing and compete for “nursing home photographer of the year.”
Larry’s wife, Betty, said he tried to call me, tried from his hospital bed to contact me when he realized he had only hours to live. But through a series of unfortunate communication breakdowns we never spoke before he left.
I was on my way to Italy to teach a semester in Florence, when Larry died. I didn’t hear of his death until I returned to the states in May, six months later, when a teacher and friend from Western Kentucky University called and asked if I would write something about Larry. He said a scholarship had been created to honor him.
At first, I didn’t believe it, sure I had misunderstood. Frantically, I began making calls hoping I had heard wrong, hoping it was a prank.
It wasn’t a prank. Larry was gone.
I never had a chance to say goodbye or thank him for friendship or tell him how much he meant to me and so many others. I didn’t get the chance to tell him one final time how much I loved him.
Had I known he was that ill, I would have postponed my travel and been at beside.
A time to write
Sometimes the closer I am to someone, the more difficult it is for me to write about them.
Since hearing of Larry’s passing, I ached to write what I felt about him but the words were stuck, buried beneath a thick blanket of dull grief. Now, two years later, my gratitude for those fun years we shared is greater than my heartache, and those “stuck” words seemed to have gotten “unstuck,” set free by a cleansing tide of thanksgiving.
A place to belong
A Vietnam veteran, severely wounded in an explosion just days before he was scheduled to come home, Larry lost his hearing in one ear from a severe head injury. He struggled for years with his health and finding a life mission beyond caring for his family, especially after his children were grown and left the house. I still remember Betty, who had returned to college en route to earning her Phd, asking if Larry could attend one of my photo classes. She shared how worried she was about him and how she hoped he might find a purpose with photography, something that might interest and challenge him. She knew he needed a place where he could give and use his heart and talents. It didn’t take long to realize we needed to find a way to use his “can do” spirit and leadership skills. Within a few weeks, Larry Powell was running the student photo lab and had found a home in Western Kentucky University’s Photojournalism program.
Against many odds, Larry became an accomplished photographer, produced gut-wrenching audio-visual slide shows, and along with Betty, published a book about the Vietnam Wall. Even more impressive, he became a caring and respected teacher and a quiet cornerstone to Western’s success. For more than a decade, he worked tirelessly as an unpaid volunteer running the photo lab, helping with our annual print auction, setting up and trouble-shooting with the mountain workshop and doing literally anything and everything the photojournalism program needed. Everything. Larry never saw problems as obstacles or walls, rather challenging hurdles to climb over, which he always did.
Whether photographing road kill or documenting two old sisters living in a chicken coop, Spring Break in Daytona or the Vietnam wall, Larry always gave his all. Always. Apathy was not in his vocabulary. Nor was pretense. Larry was authentic, and made no apology for who he was and what he did.
Different, but alike
It is often said that opposites attract, both in marriage and friendships. This was certainly true with our friendship.
Larry was everything I am not: brave, deliberate, organized, mechanically-minded, good with his hands, political, and combing a full head of hair. He could drive a tractor, build a house, fix anything and even embraced the computer age, learning complicated programs. No job ever seemed too big.
But we shared a loved for photography and teaching students. No sacrifice was too large when it came to helping students succeed or growing the program.
Five years older than me, he was like the big brother I never had, a best-friend sibling with a great sense of humor. We were always playing pranks on each other and had such fun together traveling to photo seminars or photographing crazy events like Spring Break in Daytona or KKK rallies. Everybody liked and respected Larry and gave him exceptional access, including Klansmen, who believed he was one of them.
I loved teasing Larry. Deaf in one ear, I often sat on his deaf side, and to the horror of those watching, would call him all sorts of names. Shocked faces always wondered how I could be so insensitive. They didn’t know he was deaf. Eventually he would see my lips moving and turn and ask, “What?”
When we weren’t sneaking away from school between classes like mischievous schoolboys to “suck some mud” (coffee) or slurp down Wendy’s Frosties, we were aggravating our visionary boss, Mike Morse. It must have been challenging trying to direct us, as well as Jack Corn and Michael Williamson, two other “lively” personalities. All in all, we were a serious, fun-loving team for a time and together accomplished much at Western Kentucky University.
There were plenty of other pranks I will spare telling you.
A man without pretense; A man to be respected
A man’s man, Larry didn’t put on airs for anybody. He said what he meant and meant what he said. As photo lab manager, if a student showed up in a nice dress on cleaning day expecting to be excused, they soon learned they were expected to get on hands and knees and scrub like everybody else. No exceptions. He was fair and fatherly, but he wasn’t a pushover. I never saw Larry act unkind, nor did I ever see him back down from a fight. I always felt safer with Larry in rough or questionable environments because I knew he always had my back.
And he was a great mediator for the students. “Do it again,” he would insist in the printing lab, “you can make a better print. Mr. LaBelle isn’t going to accept that.”
He always called me Mr. LaBelle in front of students and insisted they do the same. “It is a matter of respect,” he taught them. Chad Stevens, David Stephenson and Rick Loomis, to name a few, still call me Mr. LaBelle.
A good provider, supportive husband and caring father, Larry was also a patriot who loved his country as deeply as his wife, children and grandchildren.
He read the news. Listened to the news. Talked about the news.
“What is going on with this country,” he would often grumble rhetorically after some political decision or non-decision. A staunch democrat, I chuckle when I think of what Larry would say about our current administration. I would never hear the end of it.
Though he didn’t like it and wouldn’t do it, he even respected the rights of those who burned the flag he loved because they lived under a constitution that allowed it, a constitution he fought for, a constitution that gave them the right to protest and speak freely.
He lived full throttle
I loved traveling with Larry, though he often scared me with is fast driving. I remember coming down the mountain from Chattanooga, near Monteagle when I was sure I would not make it home alive. Larry hadn’t slept since leaving Florida and he needed toothpicks to keep his eyes open. We were doing at least 80, downhill, kicking up grass and gravel from the side of the road and following a car in front so closely I could see the driver’s lips swearing in their rearview mirror. I was gripping the grab handle above my window, also called the “chicken handle” for obvious reasons, when Larry squinted at me, one hand on the wheel the other holding a cigarette.
“What’s wrong over there, Farmer, am I scaring you?”
He had little patience for anybody daring to drive the speed limit.
He seldom slept
Because of injuries suffered in Vietnam, Larry always struggled with sleep. I remember once while documenting Daytona Florida’s Spring Break waking up early and finding Larry already gone from the room. (We often roomed together during out-of-town photo shoots because both of us were early risers.) I found him at an event, up on the stage acting like he belonged, which was normal, photographing a bevy of female participants in a wet T-shirt competition. Red-eyed, he had been up all night.
“Did you get any sleep I asked?
He laughed and shook his head. “Too much going on, I can sleep when I am dead.”
Larry lived perpetual motion, like a burning star in the heavens racing toward the earth.
But during our last conversation, he told me he had slowed down and was enjoying his life, his family. “I am more deeply in love with Betty now than ever before,” he shared.
A friend, closer than a brother
I have thousands of friends and yet only a few.
The Bible says, “there is a friend closer than a brother.”
If we are lucky, or blessed, most of us will have at least one such friend in this life.
Larry was one of those friends.
On this day, when flags are at half-mast and banners wave honoring those who served our country, I think of Larry Powell and how blessed so many of us were to know him.
I hope you are sleeping deeply, my friend.
I miss you.
Following is series of pictures I made of Larry during his first visit to the Vietnam Wall with his beloved wife Betty.
To read more about Larry, please see: