The unselfish connector

By Dave LaBelle

Sometimes our eyes are set so far from home we fail to see beautiful truths close to us.

This week my wife finished a meaningful print exhibition titled We the People. The powerful group of refugee portraits – individuals who have enriched Northeast Ohio communities – is on the esplanade at Kent State University through May.


Erin’s images are not over-glamorized with harsh or garish flash lighting, but straight forward available light portraits which allow the viewer to look deep into the eyes of fellow human beings without distraction.  There is a quiet power and grace in each face.  This is her authentic style.  It is evident she feels a genuine compassion for each person she photographs.  As a friend said, when she first saw the refugee  faces, “Erin’s pictures have a warmth and humanity.”

And as I watched Erin enthusiastically embrace many she had photographed, I witnessed the magical goodwill bond she had created with individuals.  Refugees hugged her, thanked her, even fell into her arms and cried.  It struck me then how much my wife gives to make so many lives better.   And unlike a lot of photographers who make compelling, even compassionate-looking photographs of suffering faces, but lack a sincere heart for their subjects, Erin cares deeply about those she photographs regardless of their background or circumstance.


But she has a special heart for refugees.

And those photographed by her, usually from a distance of less than five feet, will tell you they felt a sincere and authentic connection with her.  Strangers feel safe with her, share personal stories and secrets because they sense she truly cares.  She remembers everybody’s name, their story, even the names of their dogs or cats.


So often after photographing, she would proclaim, “I just love these people.”

Erin’s mission with portraiture has always been to make images that celebrate the value of other human beings.   She works tirelessly, often shooting hundreds of frames to capture a face, an expression that shares human dignity.  And I have never known her not to care about how a person’s image is shared.



Service minded, my wife lives to make other people’s lives better.   She is a bridge, a connector always looking for ways to unite those in need with people able to help.   While I read fiction, Erin stays up late devouring books about health and wellness.  She never tires of reading about the brain or ways to help people live healthier, more productive lives.  Her true desire is to “make everyone well and thriving.”  And whether working to make our community better, or the lives of individuals healthier, Erin continually gives without fanfare.  She helps for the right reasons.


Erin comforts a subject whose husband died less than a month earlier.

The concept of compassion, most fail to recognize,  is not just feeling sympathy for someone. It is more than empathy for those whose stories we listen to and whose images we make.  At the core of compassion is a true desire, an aching to help, to lift the burden from a suffering soul.

Last month while visiting another city, Erin engaged a young woman trying to get a ride to a park a few miles from a coffee shop we were visiting.  As we drove her to her destination, we learned of her drug addiction and scrambled life.   Erin stood on the sidewalk talking to her, comforting her, and looking for ways to connect her to people and places which could make her life better and more manageable.


Comforting a woman struggling to put her life together as someone watches behind closed doors.

Erin has always been a compassionate photographer and human being.  She lives to make other people’s lives better.  I cannot count how many times she has said, “ I just wish someone would pay me to go across the country and make people’s lives better and healthier.”

She is also an activist.

If you follow Erin’s facebook posts, you will see she has strong opinions on several subjects, especially health.   She doesn’t hide her distaste for Big Pharma and lifeless, institutional education.   Erin is a continual learner, a forever student of the world who believes learning happens everywhere, not just in financially-driven classrooms.


“I understand by human beings talking to me, listening to their stories,” she insists.

“If I want to learn, all I have to do is listen to people. I really didn’t learn much before becoming a photojournalist,” she says, speaking of her formal education.

Her facebook introduction says it all: good news content creator, photographer, writer, teacher, observer, storyteller, witness.

Unlike so many who use social media solely as a tool of self-promotion, Erin doesn’t write about herself.  Her posts are not “look at me, what I am eating, winning, or exotic places I am visiting.”

She posts opportunities for others, or ways to encourage or connect people.

Erin is the “great connector.”

Whether buying food for people who have little or volunteering to pick up food from  a local from Coop to help offset food costs for those in need, she is always looking for opportunities to help others.  Always.

My wife is a beautiful woman, talented photographer and gifted writer, who pretty much put her rising career as a photojournalist on hold when she married me and became a mother and unschooling teacher.  Only recently has she started rebuilding her photographic career.  It is her turn to shine, and shining she is.

Finally, if this post sounds like a love letter, it is.

Links to learn more about the We The People project:


A friend, closer than a brother

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.

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Larry and me. He is the handsome guy on the left.

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.

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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.

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Doing a selfie (before they called them that) with Kim Hughes as Larry photo bombs us

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.

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They called us the “Dream Team,” led by our captain, Mike Morse.

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 patriot

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:









A voice for the voiceless

I heard about Agnes Baker Pilgrim, better known as Grandma Aggie, years before I finally met her.  Once Chairperson for the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, 93-year-old Native American spiritual elder continues working to make the world a better, more loving place.  Following is a story I wrote about this colorful activist published in Ruralite Magazine.

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93-year-old Agnes Baker Pilgrim 

by Dave LaBelle

An unfiltered sun beats down on 93-year-old Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who sits in her wheelchair near horse stalls at the Albuquerque, New Mexico, fairgrounds waiting for riders to put the finishing touches on their regalia.

The aroma of hot dogs, Indian tacos and bread, alfalfa hay and anxious horses wafts across the arid earth.

Recognizing Grandma Aggie—as she is known worldwide—a man reverently approaches, kneels and asks for prayers and a blessing from the spiritual elder.

Aggie has traveled from Grants Pass, Oregon, to Albuquerque with her daughters, Nadine Martine and Mona Hudson, and dear friends Bill and Gwin Stam, who founded the All Nations Native American Veterans Memorial in Jefferson, Oregon, in 2013.

They have come a long way at great expense to ride in the Horse and Rider Regalia Parade and show the regalia Gwin has made by hand.

Aggie is the oldest living member of the Takelma tribe of Oregon, which may date back 20,000 years.

She descends from Native American royalty. Her grandfather was George Harney, the first elected chief of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. He was part of the Oregon Trail of Tears: a 200-mile forced march north and resettlement in 1856.

A living treasure and cultural legend, Aggie has traveled the globe as an ambassador for Mother Earth, speaking, teaching, praying and sharing the stage with world leaders, including the Dalai Lama.

She was elected chairwoman of the International Council of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers at its founding in 2004.

A Difficult Upbringing
Though she is a calm, grateful grandmother now, Aggie’s path has not been easy.

Delivered September 11, 1924, by her grandmother in Logsden, Oregon, at the head of the Siletz River, much of Aggie’s childhood was spent caring for her little brother and sick mother while her father and older brothers were away logging.

Growing up in a house without running water or electricity, she hauled water from the creek for garden plants, cleaning, bathing and cooking on the wood stove.

Near age 8, Aggie recalls standing on an apple box, cooking for her bedridden mother. She also remembers her mother’s death. She was 12. An Indian woman, Mother Pearl, came to help.

“I was crying and trying to fix my mom, bathe her, wash her up and dress her and put her in a new nightgown,” Aggie writes in “Grandma Says: Wake Up World.”

After her mother’s death, Aggie and 8-year-old brother Lloyd Harney, known as Gib, stayed in the house alone about a year, while their father worked. They then moved in with an older brother.

“I had a mean dog, a .22 at one door and a shotgun at the other,” she writes. “Nobody messed with us.”

Aggie faced racism and prejudice, with signs in some business windows saying, “No dogs or Indians allowed.”

“It didn’t make me bitter, didn’t make me hate the white race,” Aggie writes. “What was is what was. I can only change right now.”

Aggie remembers girls from Switzerland being bullied on her school bus.

“I didn’t like two or three people beating up on one, so I put a stop to that,” she says. “I duked it out with those that were picking on them, and they stopped.”
Aggie has been fighting ever since, using her voice and knowledge to fight for those unable to fight for themselves.

She has been a stock car driver, logger, musician, jail barber, bouncer, minister and author. She returned to college at age 50 after receiving a scholarship, earned an associate degree at College of the Redwoods, then a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Native American studies at Southern Oregon University.

“I was the only one in my family that ever went to college and graduated,” Aggie says.

She was the first, but not the last. Thirteen family members and counting have graduated from college now.

In the early 1980s, Aggie had two bouts with cancer—first in her colon and later her breast, which she eventually had removed.

“I am a survivor,” she says. “I had months and months of chemo and radiation. My hair nearly all come out. They call me a miracle patient, the doctors. God healed me and I am still doing good.”

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Grandma Aggie blesses a man who approached her during the Gathering of Nations Powow

Walking the Spiritual Path
Aggie says the moment that defined who she is now and how she should spend her time came at about age 40.

“Spirit talked to me, God talked to me years ago, calling me to walk the spiritual path,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t do it. I am not worthy. I haven’t lived a good life for you.’ He said, ‘You are going to walk this spiritual path!’ He kept coming and kept coming, speaking to me in dreams. Finally, I said, ‘All right.’

“When I accepted to follow the spiritual path, I went to all of my children and I told them, ‘I may have hurt your feelings at times, and I am about to do the spiritual walk, but I want you to forgive me before I start this.’”

Aggie uses the terms Spirit, Dearly Beloved, Grandfather and God interchangeably in referring to the Great Creator.

She learned in time Spirit wanted her to become a voice for the voiceless.

Albuquerque, NM 2018 © Photos by David LaBelle

A cherished medallion given to her by Masaru Emoto

“God told me, ‘I don’t want you getting mad at anything you see, anything you have heard or anything you have read,’” she writes in her book. “‘That’s hard on your heart. That’s too much tension, so don’t do that. You got other things to do.’ I said, ‘Yes, God.’ I’ve been minding God all these many years.”

For Aggie, the voiceless extends beyond the poor, young, old, compromised, forgotten and even the animal kingdom. It includes the elements: trees, grasses, earth, lakes, rivers, oceans, air and fire. The calling has led her around the world.

While Aggie cares for all living things, her concern for water has drawn particular attention. Masaru Emoto, who taught that human consciousness has an effect on the molecular structure of water, asked her how she knew water could hear.

“I said, ‘God told me that long time ago,’” Aggie says. “We were all water babies and water could hear and we should thank the water for our life. I said, ‘You can’t live, just a few days, without water.’

“We don’t thank the water as the ancients did. We don’t talk to it. I am always thanking the water. When I take a drink, I say, ‘Bless you, I love you and take care of me, wash out all of the baddies inside.’ I don’t drink water until I put it up to my heart and I say, ‘I love you.’ I don’t take a shower before I tell the water I love it. Or flush the toilet or wash my hands.

“If I am riding in a car and there is a river, I bless it. If I’m riding over a bridge, I bless the water. If I am in an airplane and look out and see water, I bless it. Because I am grateful.”

A Lasting Legacy
Beneath the kind, content grandmotherly disposition is a fighter with a fiery spirit who cannot stand by idly and watch injustice without jumping into the fray.

A tireless worker, Aggie continues as an ambassador for peace. Her message is uncomplicated, yet challenging: Be honest. Be kind. Be thankful. Take care of the natural world. Thank the Creator. Honor and listen to your elders. Don’t take more than you need. Try to make the world a better place. Become a voice for the voiceless.

This has become her gospel.

“It’s been an amazing life,” Aggie says with gratitude.

She has buried three husbands, her parents, all of her brothers and sisters, and three sons. She still has three daughters: Sonja, 71; Nadine, 68; and Mona, 66.

“God is good to me,” Aggie says. “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t bless the Creator for giving me one more day. And through it all, my God has helped me with it all. God has helped me over the hard places, that’s for sure.”

As Aggie nears her 94th birthday, her family believes it may be time for her to slow down and enjoy her golden years. But getting her to sit still will be a challenge.

“She is phenomenal,” says Nadine, who lives with her mother. “She is the Energizer bunny without batteries. I can’t keep up with her. She says yes to everything—to anybody, anything and anywhere. I’m the bad guy who has to say no. I am her paper brain.

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Grandma Aggie . 

“It has been a blessing being with my mother through all of the good, bad and ugly. Together, we are like yarn making a sweater.”

The mission of Grandma Aggie may best be expressed in comments she made at a gathering of the indigenous grandmothers, which she recounts in her book.

“We are all colors,” she writes. “Everything that you’ve been doin’ is what the Creator is wanting us to do—to help people to grow and care about themselves, to be happy with who they are, to accept life and to care about themselves so that they have a purpose in their community, to be a voice.

“God is in everybody’s heart if they will just listen. We are all connected. We are all from the same God. We just walk different paths.”

For more information about Grandma Aggie and her work, visit and





Saying goodbye to my father, a colorful character.

© David LaBelle

There are things we know.

Things we think we know.

And things, many things, life teaches us we do not know.

My father died last Tuesday morning at the age of 89.

After months of suffering and clinging to life, mostly without complaint, he breathed his last and left this world.

I thought I knew how I’d feel when he finally passed, and thought I’d made peace with his dying. 

I was wrong. 

I’m still wading through waves of conflicting emotions.                                                           


Charles LaBelle in early 2018


I loved my father deeply and unconditionally.  But sadly, for much of my young life, it wasn’t so. 

With narcissistic tendencies, he was a hard person to live with, for my mother or any other woman who tried to keep company with him.  If someone didn’t do a thing the way he thought it should be done, in the time it should be done, he often flew into a rage.   

For most of his life, my father was difficult for anybody to live with.  He was quick tempered, easily-offended, demanding, insensitive and insulting, threw violent tantrums and could be unapologetically cruel and cutting with his words.  In short, he could be unpredictable and scary.  As a child, I lived in continual fear of him and often wished he would leave or die.  I couldn’t see the good, the caring and the sacrifice he brought to our family, only the selfishness and aggression.

Like many of us, my father was a puzzling contradiction.  He could be crude and insensitive, but he could also be tender, funny, charming, compassionate and giving.  I often wished he would be consistent, one way or the other.

Like most children, I wanted his love, his affection, his approval.  I wanted him to go fishing with me, play baseball or show interest in my dreams.  I played baseball for 10 years and only once did he show up at one of my games, for two innings. In contrast, my mother was always there. 

But there were good times when taught me to shoot, hunt, body surf, drive a car at 13 or find and dislodge abalone from rocky ocean ledges in low tides.  And I have fond memories of sitting behind him, my arms wrapped around the waist of his leather jacket during overnight motorcycle excursions to places like Death Valley or Lone Pine, Ca.  In my teens, I rode along side him on my own Triumph motorcycle. 

I loved those times.

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My dad around the age of 19.


Chuck LaBelle was a maverick, a curious risk-taker, a gambler with the courage to buy a frog farm and load his wife, three children, dog and a goat in a truck for a move 130 miles away from the security of city and home parents, siblings, friends and job in Costa Mesa, California – to the unknown in rural Oak View.  Never lazy, he worked tirelessly disking and plowing the rocky soil, lifting boulders, pulling tree stumps and planting gardens and a small vineyard.

He was endlessly curious and resourceful.  He dried fruit, made beef jerky, raised bees, seined crawfish from rivers and creeks to feed frogs, learned to weld and repair anything needing to be fixed, and with help from his father, added two rooms on our small house, then built a 100-foot-long steel Quonset hut which mostly housed tools, machines and motorcycles.  He even made and poured the cement for a work area in front of the building, then poured cement for and built a front patio with flagstones he found.  And a good mechanic, he could pretty much fix anything.

My dad was always a practical, “get things done” guy, who often abandoned caution. I remember being asked, along with my siblings,  to sit on the back of disk while it bounced and dug into soil.  I had a few close calls.   Several times, when I was probably only 13 or 14 years old, I was expected to drive a disabled car many miles while my dad pulled me with a towing chain.  Sitting on pillows, so I could see over the dashboard, all I had to do was steer and keep a slight touch on the brake pedal to avoid slack on the taunt chain or crashing into the back of him.   

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Even when forced to use a walker, he still love to target shooting with his grandchildren

As long as I can remember, my father abhorred authority or any type of government interference. He despised “foolish” codes, permits or regulations.  Without a seatbelt, he’d drive 80 miles per hour with a tall, open can of beer in one hand. He didn’t have patience for slow restaurant service, cold food or lukewarm coffee and often got up and left angrily before any food arrived.


And he hated traffic, which is one of the reasons he left southern California and moved to Concho, Arizona, the middle of nowhere.  “I don’t want to live in any town that has more than one stoplight,” he assured.

Never one to sit still, until the last year of life when walking and even standing became nearly impossible, he made a living buying and selling at swap meets his last 40 years.  He was a serious packrat, a hoarder, filling sheds with tons of “good stuff” he planned to sell but never did.  It will take months to sort through the tons of decaying items he has squirreled away.

My dad was intelligent, hard-working, resourceful, quick-witted and possessed a great sense of humor, to the end. (It was both a blessing and curse his mind remained sharp while his body deteriorated.)

He loved old cars, old westerns, old music, and mysteries of the heavens and oceans. Always curious, always swimming against conventional thinking, he believed in UFOs and extraterrestrials, and vehemently asserted our government kept evidence of their existence hidden from the public.  His face would redden and veins on his bald head bulge if he sensed any sign you doubted him.  A lifelong fan of Edgar Cayce, he also believed in reincarnation, sure he would live again, and come back in some other body or form.  As a child, I remember him trying to hypnotize my mother and me, separately, hoping we might reveal details of our former lives. 

He was nothing if not colorful. 

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For most of his life, my father was fiercely independent. His life was on his terms and he didn’t seem to understand the effects of his behavior on others.  As he aged, I saw a different person, a vulnerable, loving, more accepting soul who realized he needed help, learned to ask for it and even sincerely thanked those who helped him. Though he still had his moments and could be quite demanding, he became a kinder, more gentle soul, a father I learned to appreciate and love deeply. 


Bracing himself for the end 

Though he could be difficult and unpredictable, one thing he never wavered in was his acceptance of me as a documentary photographer.  Not once in five decades did he ever ask me not to photograph him, regardless of how uncomfortable or embarrassing the moment might be.  I always appreciated this because it allowed me to record real, unrehearsed storytelling moments. 

When I last saw him in June, I made few pictures.  In fact, several times I need to turn my eyes and the camera away because the scene was too painful.  But I wanted to record this vulnerable moment, this summarizing contrast to most of his independent life. 

Knowing he approved of me photographing gave me the freedom and courage to make difficult pictures during sensitive times in his life.  It was one of his gifts to me. 


Never one to openly share deep emotions, you’d have to ask and then tactfully fish for personal things you wanted to know.  It wasn’t until his 80’s I learned much about his childhood, his teenage years or his love for my mother.

A few months ago, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do or accomplish before he left this life.   He smiled and said, “I just want to live longer.”

Three days before he died, I told him again how much I loved him and thanked him again for the rich life he had given me.

I miss him already. 

To be like thee

By David LaBelle

In high school he wasn’t an athlete, a member of student government and didn’t work on the school newspaper or yearbook.   In fact, Mark Steven went relatively unnoticed, like most in the choppy sea of teenagers trying to navigate their way through adolescence.



Two years younger than me, my brother has always been an animal whisperer of sorts, able to communicate with animals tame and wild.  Neighbors often asked him to care for their horses, dogs or cats when they were out of town.  In fact, most adults loved Steven because he wasn’t loud or often linked to mischief, like me.  Even now, when he speaks about his three dogs – Harry, Harriet and Harry Junior – his eyes twinkle and his voice dances with a paternal pride.   Steve, as he now prefers to be called, spends much of his hard-earned money feeding hundreds of pigeons, geese and roosters because he doesn’t have the heart to kill any of them.


Steve with Harry Junior

Steve hasn’t had an easy life.  Some might even say he’s been dealt a bad, even unfair hand.  Though life growing up was not easy for any of us, notably my mother and sisters, Steve’s road has been especially hard.

Because of his tender heart, many have taken advantage of him, including a company he worked for which poisoned and nearly killed him.  Steve contracted copper sulfate poisoning which exited his body in various places and eventually turned one of his ears green.  The ear became enlarged and infected.  Had he not performed surgery himself with a pocket knife, his ear could have been lost and perhaps even his life.  Like many big businesses with money, the company found a way to avoid fault and compensation.  Such is life when one does not have the means to challenge those who do.  To this day, the enlarged right ear causes Steve to be understandably self-conscious, especially around cameras.

In spite of many hardships, Steve maintains a great sense of humor, telling stories with such crazed, exaggerated animation few in his audience can keep from doubling over with laughter.  He has always seen himself more as a grateful survivor than a wounded victim.


In Concho, Arizona, a small hiccup of a town where the wind threatens daily to reshape the landscape, my brother Steve is beloved.

“I have never seen him unhappy; he is always clowning, that’s his way,” says neighbor Ron Aycox, who has known Steve at least 15 years.  “He is always there when I need him, and if you are down in the dirt, he’ll sure lift you up. He is very kind-hearted and a very good friend.”


Years ago with two goslings 

Like my father and youngest brother Brian, Steve can fix anything – a car or truck engine, fence, or broken water pipe. (I can fix nothing and loathe working on cars or anything mechanical.)

He is also an accomplished bowler. With just a little luck and sponsorship, he might have turned pro.

Steve also has a beautiful singing voice, like my big sister Faye Marie.  Had the pair hit the road as a traveling duet, they might have become a famous brother-sister act.


Faye Marie and Steve together in January

But perhaps my brother Steve’s greatest gift is his compassionate heart which genuinely cares for all living creatures – people and animals.

Though he seldom speaks the word “love” Steve lives the word by his daily example.


The tender-hearted animal whisperer

He has spent many of his nearly 65 years living with and helping my father – a symbiotic relationship that benefited both for two decades – but of late has become painfully challenging.


Checking on my dad in late March

Two years ago, my aging father fell and Steve lifted him and drove him to the doctor, despite his own excruciating pain.   He was kicked in the chest by a horse earlier that morning, breaking four ribs.

Along with Judy, my Dad’s sister, Steve has pretty much become an unpaid caregiver and taxi.   He is expected to fix anything that breaks and respond to every whim of my 89-year-old father, including the challenges of bathroom duty.  My father stays up late watching television and keeps a whistle, blowing it through the night whenever he wants or needs something.  My brother confessed he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, though he still rises before dawn to work on nearby ranchesAnd that was before my dad fell in January, fracturing his leg, beginning a spiraling health decline which now includes hospice intervention and even more around-the-clock care.

Recently, I posted several pictures on Instagram of my sister helping my dad during a recent visit, and she does have a way with those unable to help themselves.   For the past 15 years, she’s been a caregiver for her husband Jules who suffered a paralyzing stroke.  She is amazing.

But so are Steve and my Aunt Judy, who rents a room from my father.  They are the real heroes when it comes to caring for my dad.   Since the rest of my siblings live and work far from Arizona, caring for my father has always fallen Steve’s broad shoulders.


The loving, patient son holds his father while Judy, my dad’s sister cleans him.

Though my father is more gentle, thoughtful and less selfish in old age – a sharp contrast to younger years when a violent temper made him unpredictable and quite scary at times – he can still be incredibly demanding and unreasonable.

I have two brothers and two sisters, and I love and admire each of them.  Each has carved a successful life path after challenging beginnings.

But there is a special love and respect for Steve, coupled with a gnawing sadness for the way I treated him growing up. That I was not a better, kinder brother to this gentle soul still haunts me.  I picked on him, excluded him, bullied him, rolled him down a steep hill in a stainless-steel barrel, even stung a horse’s rump with a small stone while he was sitting on the animal bareback.  Though many apologies have been offered, and he has said he forgives me, deep down I know it still hurts him.


No doubt you have heard people foolishly and brashly say they wouldn’t change a thing if they had their life to live over.

I am not one of them.

\If only there was an adolescence “do over” or a magic wand to erase the many unkind words and selfish actions which have hurt others, beginning with my brothers, sisters and parents.

I thank God continually He blesses me with eyes to see how I have hurt others and enough time to become a better human being.

Each time I drive away from Concho, Arizona, my eyes fill with love and gratitude, thankful for the family I have been blessed with.

And for my crazy brother, Steve.


O to be like Thee” is a hymn we sometimes sing in worship.   Though written about Christ, some of the words are appropriate when I think about my brother.

“O to be like Thee! full of compassion,

Loving, forgiving, tender and kind…”




Small dances with celebrity

by David LaBelle

One of the bonuses of my profession has been brief encounters with famous people.

My son Tucker, who had accepted an offer to play lacrosse in West Virginia, went through a spell where he played John Denver’s Country Roads nonstop. He asked if I had photographed the famous singer.

“Yes, I did,” I answered.  “Matter of fact, I spent two days following him during a trip to Utah rehearsing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1981.”  I can still recall a conversation we had about creationism versus evolution while the two of us sat alone on the steps of Utah State University in Logan.  Contrary to the “country boy” image, Denver was a deep thinker, a philosopher.  It broke my heart when he died in the crash of his small plane years later along the California coast.

Another celebrity who has been on my mind this week is the late Gordon Parks.  I met Parks in 1996 when he spoke at Western Kentucky University.

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Gordon Parks, 1996 @ David LaBelle

I was familiar with Park’s work with the Farm Security Administration and his book The Learning Tree, which he later directed as a movie with the same name.  I knew he was the first African-American staff photographer to work for Life Magazine.

The ride to the airport

I volunteered to drive Parks to the Nashville airport after his lecture and luncheon.  One of my students, Kim Hughes, a big fan of the legendary photographer, joined us.

A few miles out of town I shared my disappointment, even embarrassment for the lunch the school served.  It is my habit to eat whatever is put in front of me but I couldn’t choke down that meal. Parks admitted he couldn’t eat his lunch either.  A true gentleman, he wasn’t about to complain.

“How about we pull off the interstate in Franklin and go get us something to eat at McDonald’s,” I offered.

“I’d like that,” he eagerly agreed. “I am pretty hungry.”

It’s not every day you get to take a true Renaissance Man to McDonald’s for lunch. I was giddy.


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Driving with one hand and shooting a picture with the other, a nervous Parks asked if I always make pictures while I am driving.

It struck me, as we sat eating lunch together at McDonalds, how much times had changed since Park’s segregated childhood in Fort Scott, Kansas.  If any of those serving us that afternoon had any idea who this man was and what he endured and accomplished, they likely would have lined up to shake his hand.

Some things are impossible to comprehend

I will never know the fear, anger, violent discrimination and frustration Parks endured because of the dark skin clothing his spirit, the skin he was born in. Try as I might to imagine it, I cannot put on black skin.

But I can recall the fiery hatred I saw burning in the eyes of grown men and women dressed in white robes and pointed hoods while covering Klan rallies in the South.  I can still smell the obscene scent of racism filling my nostrils and cutting my heart, and the tension while moving past teenagers brandishing automatic rifles across their chest, charged with guarding the entrance to a meeting spot.  “I smell a journalist and a Jew,” one of them growled as a Jewish reporter and I worked our way into the gathering.

I also remember the numbing fear of covering summer race riots in California and realizing enraged, irrational mobs were bent on killing me because of the color of my white skin and perceived privileged occupation.  I watched and photographed with disbelief as angry rioters tried to kill those they perceived different than themselves.  Those were dangerous times when I feared both the mobs and the police.

Yet, even those temporary fears are nothing compared to the continual, oppressive pain experienced and endured by Parks and so many others of his color and generation.

It’s hard to imagine a dozen winters have passed since making a long, overnight drive from Lexington, Kentucky to Fort Scott, Kansas to attend Gordon Park’s funeral.


Sunset over the Fort Scott, Kansas cemetery where Parks was buried earlier in the day. © David LaBelle

Why think of Parks now?

I have a delightful and talented photojournalism student from Chicago, an amiable young man whose infectious smile belies deep thoughts swirling within.  He recently shared with our class his dream of creating images showing black people in a positive light, instead of the many published pictures of people fighting, addicted to drugs or being arrested.

At 21 years of age, Jermaine Jackson is four years younger than Parks was when he bought his first camera.

Moved by his presentation, I asked Jermaine to expound on the thoughts and pictures he shared in class.


Jermaine Jackson

“Since my youth, I’ve always seen award winning photos that contained a person of color suffering. The earliest one I remember is the one with child with the vulture in the background waiting on the child to die.  Being from Chicago, all the media show is black people showing grief and trauma. A few years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times photos of the year included a photo of a mother crying over her dead child.  How many times have we seen that? The positives are rarely shown. That has inspired me to attempt to change the narrative by photographing people of color in a positive light, via celebration or any other time their suffering is not being exploited.”

Gordon Parks was a true Renaissance Man – Photographer, Songwriter, Pianist, Writer, Director, Composer and Filmmaker.  And he wore his celebrity with quiet poise and grace.

That he chose the camera and words as weapons of choice over his fists to fight prejudice, continues to impress and inspire.

I hope Jermaine follows a similar path.  Given his creative eye and infectious personality, the chances are good.

And may we all learn true love is colorblind.





Words to heal by

David LaBelle

I believe every community has one – a wizard, a medicine man or woman, a sage – a wise soul who sees with the eye of the heart.  Calm beacons in life’s many storms, they usually lead quietly, often in the shadows, avoiding the evaporating shine of fame.  We seek them out when building bridges, fighting battles or feeding the hungry.  Or when we need healing salve for our aching souls.

For my final post of 2017, I share with you a poet, author, teacher, counselor and friend to many, including me.


Major Ragain 2017

Polio stole Major Ragain’s happy, jumping legs when he was just an eight-year-old boy.  He learned to adjust, to drink from the cup life had given him and do so with gratitude. What his silenced legs could not do, his strong arms, muscled chest and hungry imagination could do and did. “Maj” as most call him, fed his curiosity with stories and life experiences.  His hungry, intelligent spirit led him across the globe.  He blossomed into an accomplished world citizen, respected teacher and honored poet.  Earning a PhD from Kent State and teaching since 1960, Dr. Major D. Ragain, was an instructor of English at Kent State since 1981.  But nobody I know calls him Doctor, nor does he encourage it.  He is Maj.

“For me, the polio was a splendid opportunity to be held in the fire,” Maj assures. “It took me in its tongs and held me in the fire and for that, I am stronger and more resilient and more forgiving of pain.”

Maj has many loves in his nearly 80 years – his wife LuAnn, his children and veterans.  But perhaps one of his greatest loves is story, particularly poetry.   He recalls when poetry’s arrow first pierced his searching heart.

“It happened very early. Poetry was alive and was part of the great continuity of things. And I was, as anyone, interested in that continuity, something much bigger than my own life.  Early teens when I started to dream that stuff.  And I began to see that imagination was a quickened form of spirit. And I began to read more.”

One of the first poems Maj really connected with was “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” by A.E. Housman.  Written in 1896, the words had a profound effect on Ragain.  He can still quote it by heart today.

“I began thinking, what is that?  And in that poem, is a whole kernel of what’s sad and beautiful about being alive.  Youth, old age, the living fade out of it, but life goes on. We die but life doesn’t die. And there is beauty in it.”  He adds, “I didn’t write any poetry until I was about 35.   I wrote down my feelings and my thoughts, things like that, but they were just that. A poem is beyond that.  A poem has to have its own reason for being in the world, apart from you wanting it to be. It all comes from some deeper urgency, like it wants to be out with all other poems.”


Maj following a poetry reading in 2014

 In poetry, he wanders a magical, limitless landscape of imagination and emotion, always searching in that deep lake without bottom.  The poem allows him to drink from his own soul, see his own moving reflection, and the reflections of others who have come to drink with him.

The Circle.

Maj, a man who wears a deep sadness, even when he laughs, has a special love for veterans and has given to Warriors Journey Home and The Veterans’ Writing Circle, sponsored in part by Wick Poetry.

I watch him, painfully, as he grimaces while trying to lift his large chest and twisted body from his car to his wheelchair in bitter cold.  His loving wife LuAnn patiently awaits, helping only when he asks.  It’s an arduous process which often leaves Maj gasping for breath, and lately he “totes around a dandy little device that makes its own oxygen” to the meetings.

He doesn’t complain because he believes his mission is worth the pain.

He uses words as medicine,

“There’s something spiritual in gathering with Maj, to read and listen,” says Douglas Kulow.  “He gives me courage to write more.   And when he shares his words as fertile gifts he nourishes our imagination to grow. I always leave with more than I came, a seed bag full of new ideas.”

Once a week, for the past 8 years, Maj has pulled himself up to a table with up to 12 souls, the numbers vary weekly, and for two hours, listens and shares and encourages.


Maj and wife LuAnn during poetry night at Last Exit Books in Kent, Ohio

Though I am not a vet, the group has adopted me into their family.  For two hours we read and share, led by our word Yoda.  Several members drive an hour each way to commune, often in bad weather.

Composed mostly of veterans from wars in Vietnam, Beirut, Afghanistan – some with reoccurring nightmares and PTSD from the killings they have seen and perhaps contributed to –  The Veterans’ Writing Circle is a therapy pool for the mind and heart.  It’s a safe place where honest and comforting words massage deep emotional wounds and where grown men can cry.   A safe place where one is able to drink from his own soul, see his own reflection as well as those about him who have also come to drink.

Says Jill, “Maj has a way of reading between the lines and seeing what a story or poem is really saying through the person that has written it, sometimes seeing more than what the writer realized they were expressing. Maj is a gift to all that know him.”

Andy adds, “Maj is a wise and noble Chieftain, with a penetrating gaze that sees deep, and a gentle heart behind his words. I am honored to know him.”  –

The power of poetry to transform and heal.

Maj David.jpg

David Hassler, Director of Wick Poetry Center shows his affection for his fellow poet and friend during a reading in 2014


Using the healing power of placing words on paper, Maj gently encourages each member of the circle to reach into his or her own soul and liberate painful emotions with written words.  It’s a magical, healing process, allowing some of the poison to escape.

“One word: trust,” says a decorated veteran who has battled PTSD since being sent to Vietnam in his twenties.

“It has taken me 40 years to talk about this,” he confesses.  “Maj taught me to put my feelings in words and those words on paper.  He told me to focus on one or two words at a time.”

Another vet, Dave Agard, says, “Maj is a beacon seeking stories.  If you sail to his light, telling your story along the way, you will find yourself there.”

Though the group meets in a church building, the gathering doesn’t open with prayer. Instead, Ragain will offer updates on members who may be ill or off on some adventure.  Sometimes he shares poignant words from a poem another has written.  Or, he shares a slice from his life, perhaps a lesson from a haircut given him by his wife, Lu, in a cemetery.   It’s evident Maj needs to give, to share, as much as we need to catch his wisdom in whatever containers we bring each week.  His is one of the few voices that can silence the room.  He chooses his words carefully, as if each a rare coin from a limited collection.

I sense it is sharing that keeps him alive.

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Family and friends gather at Maj and LuAnn’s home for a celebration of life after Maj’s dear mother passed away.

One night, while sharing his struggle with growing health issues, he groaned, “I don’t want to lose you.”   Warning the time was coming where he could no longer make it to the church building, especially on snowy days, he asked if we could meet in his home during bad weather.  “I don’t want to lose you,” he repeated again, this time nearly choking on his words. “It took me too long to find you.”


In an era when so many doctors have neither the time nor interest in listening to patients, and when many teachers suffer under the weight of apathy and state regulations, we gravitate to the “unofficial” counselors and healers in our communities.  After all, there is a beautiful purity when money isn’t the motivation for action.

They are angels without wings.

Maj has learned to see love and kindness when others saw hated and judgment.  He drew strength from personal grief to ease the suffering of others.


The back porch of The Wick Poetry Center

“Words can’t sit on my lap and give me comfort the way a child can.  They don’t smell, or wriggle or ask innocent questions.  But they do help, when they come from sweet fountains.”

– Maj Ragain




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Maj’s latest book of poems

To learn more about Major Ragain, I have attached a few links.

Also, with his permission, here is Maj’s email address:


What legends are made of

by David LaBelle

We all need heroes, guideposts who show us the way through this world of tangled paths.

Tuesday, one of mine left this earth.

Bobby at 96.jpg

I never saw Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr play baseball, since he retired in 1951, the year I was born.  Though both of us were raised in southern California, less than 60 miles apart, I wasn’t even aware of Doerr until The Teammates by the late David Halberstam introduced us.

After this discovery, I began a mission to find him, hoping he was still alive.   It took some doing, but eventually I met the legend and was blessed to spend a few hours with him over a couple of days in 2014.   At 96, Doerr was the oldest living member of National Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

“Beloved,” is a word often used to describe him.

In his later years, he was known for being prickly Ted William’s lifelong friend and the greatest second baseman in Boston’s storied history.  Few individuals could navigate William’s fiery personality with the grace and forgiveness Doerr could.  When asked about William’s documented tantrums, he smiled and softly shared, “Ted had a tough childhood.”

If Bobby Doerr ever said an unkind word about anyone, nobody’s sharing it.



Monica and Bob

With a faith in God, this steady, generous man led by quiet example. Whether playing the game he loved with unequalled passion or caring for his beloved Monica, who suffered with multiple sclerosis much of her life and died in 2003, Doerr was a sober guidepost and contrast to the loud bravado of so many undisciplined and selfish athletes.  He viewed his baseball life as a true privilege and proved it by his actions.  Doerr believed so strongly in giving back to the game and his fans. Hours were spent daily, autographing whatever was sent to him, without charge.  This was a lifetime habit he maintained, even towards the end of his life when his unsteady hands struggled to scribble his own name.  I watched in amazement as he pushed his wheelchair up to a table in his modest room in the assisted-living facility, and sat signing photographs, cards and baseballs.  Who does this anymore? I thought.


I’ve been blessed to meet and photograph many incredible people and listen to their stories.  Other than the late John Wooden, a great basketball player and coach, no other sports figure has left a deeper, more positive and lasting impression on me than Bobby Doerr.   Much like the sober Wooden, Doerr was a picture of faith, contentment, grace and humility.

Both lives challenge me to be a better person.

I pray, as I age, I can carry myself with the same dignity and peace I witnessed with these two amazing individuals.

I may never live to see another Halley’s Comet, nor another professional baseball player with the integrity of Bobby Doerr, but I can tell my grandchildren I have met one of the greatest baseball players and gentlemen ever to put on a uniform.

Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr represented everything good about baseball.

Junction City, Oregon-July 4, 2014. Bobby Doerr, 96,Everything.

Thank you, Bob, I am a better person for knowing you.

Our world is one soul less gentle.





From a column written for Ruralite Magazine, October, 2014

Most of us have heroes— people we admire and sometimes even seek to imitate. I have a few, most from a time long before I was born, but occasionally I discover a contemporary whose courage or character beckons me to learn more about them.

Three years ago, while reading “The Teammates” by the late David Halberstam, I was introduced to Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman who played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox. A quiet leader on and off the field, his role-model character seemed too good to be true. Of the many people Halberstam immortalized with his writing, perhaps none was dearer to his heart than Bobby Doerr.

The more I read about the man, the more I hungered to meet him, and I wondered if he was still alive.

Thankfully, he was.


I wrote to Doerr, hoping for—but not really expecting— a reply to my request for a visit and interview in Oregon. To my surprise, within a week or so I received a handwritten note and a signed Hall of Fame card from the famous ballplayer. He apologized for having to decline my request and explained that his beloved sister, Dorothy, had just died. Since he had been living with his sister, he felt unsure of what the future held for him.

I was stunned and impressed that he wrote back to me, especially during a time of grief and uncertainty. This guy is too good to be true, I thought to myself.

While in Oregon this past summer, I decided to see if I could locate Doerr. I arrived in Portland late, but before dawn the next morning I began an Internet search, hoping to locate baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer.

I was greeted immediately with the headline: Bobby Doerr dead at 96.

My heart dropped.

Not again, I thought. I had waited too long.

In past years, I have planned interviews and photo shoots with famous people, and they died before I could meet them.

I called my wife, almost in tears, sharing what I had learned. I told her I was going to drive to the small town where Doerr last lived and see if I could interview people who knew him.

As I pulled into town heavy hearted, I was surprised to find no signs honoring the famous ballplayer. In fact, there was no visible evidence of his passing. No farewell messages. No flowers at the ballpark bearing his name. Nothing.

Bewildered, I spotted a mailman and asked him if he knew where Doerr had last lived. At first he didn’t recognize the name.

“The Hall of Fame baseball player,” I said. “I know he lived in town or near here for many years.”

Busily sorting mail while walking his route, he stopped and said, “five on six,” then ducked into a building to deliver mail.

Five on six?


I looked up at the street signs and realized it might be some sort of code, so I indulged my hunch and followed the street I was on. Across the railroad tracks and at the end of the road, I found a beautiful retirement and assisted-living complex.

I went inside with camera and notebook, introduced myself and said I had just read that Bobby Doerr had passed. I expressed my condolences and asked if I could talk to somebody who knew the ballplayer.

They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.

“I just had breakfast with him,” quipped a caregiver.

An assistant quickly called for an aide and whispered something to him. The man nodded.

I told them about the website, and they called it up.  Sure enough, it proclaimed Doerr dead and even had a quote from someone speaking about the beloved player.

A prank, acruel hoax for sure.

By midday, I was finally able to meet and interview the baseball legend I so admired.

Sometimes the stars seem to align and you find yourself in exactly the right place at the right time. This was one such time.


Bobny and ShureeT.jpg

I want to thank Bob’s son, Don, for sharing his father with the me and the world. And Shuree Sleeper, the Doerr family’s longtime aid and friend, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.  I know both are grieving.

If you’d like to know more about this beloved man, I’ve attached a link to another story I wrote about Doerr and his longtime caregiver.

I’m also including links from current articles.




A tribute and visual love letter

Since learning about a dear friend’s passing recently, I have wanted, needed, to write something that expressed how much I loved and appreciated Carolyn Monaco.   But nothing I wrote seemed to fit.   But then I thought about an article I had written which was published this month titled, “A Visual Love Letter.”

In honor of my friend and sister in Christ, I share with you the column and a picture I shot of Carolyn with her husband, Frank, the first day of this year.


By David LaBelle

For 50 years, I have dreamed about photographing God.

In the past, I even kidded that when I died, I wanted my family to place a Nikon F camera loaded with 100 ASA film in the casket with me.

I figure I won’t need a fast film with a high ISO because there will be plenty of light, and I’d sure like to be the first to photograph heaven.

Indirectly, from the first days I picked up a camera, I have tried to photograph God by photographing His creation—be it the natural wonders of the world or the wonders of human creations.

Just as we photograph stunning rock formations in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or South Dakota—whose majestic cliffs have been shaped by countless years of breathing winds—we photograph an invisible God by photographing the influence of His Spirit on His creation.

Each of us carries the genetics—the DNA of our father.

I realize I must walk softly and carefully with this subject, and do so with sensitivity, recognizing there are many who do not share my beliefs. Please accept that this column is not meant to be a sermon, but a personal observation and ambition.

I do not mind admitting that when I witness humbling acts of altruism and love, my throat tightens and my eyes fill. In these quiet acts of compassion, I see my God every bit as much as when I behold a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I have always been drawn to these genuine, not performed, moments. In them I see the goodness of mankind and the loving influence of God. In these mini stories, I feel the greatest joy and hope for humanity.


Frank and Carolyn Monaco.jpg

While some are drawn to photographing action sports, portraits or nature, I am drawn to quiet relationship scenes of love and compassion—things I often lack in my own life, but continually aspire to own.

My wife and I try to make pictures that reinforce the beauty and love of God on His creation, and try to avoid promoting the opposite.

For me, life looks very different at 65 than it did at 25. I’m confident it is a natural thing as we age to grow more introspective and more deliberate with what time we have left. In my youth, life was a smorgasbord and, like most, I wanted to sample everything.

I have loved many types of photography—from sports to nature, breaking news, celebrities and even some fashion—but lately, more than ever, my heart seeks to capture and share positive pictures that reinforce love and goodness and encourage hope, while glorifying our Creator.

It isn’t that I have not always tried to do this from the time I picked up a camera, but now with the acute recognition of the limited time I have left on this earth, there is an urgency not present 25 years ago.

I am forever reminded and keep this passage from Psalm 90 on the sleeve of my heart: “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”

I photograph God when I record the golden morning light raking across the red earth or prairie grass of Oklahoma, or when evening clouds turn from white to yellow to crimson. I photograph God when I see birds drink the dew of the leaves or eat the crumbs left by man.

Mostly, I photograph God when I see His Spirit working in the lives of His children.

I don’t always love as I should, but often what I see through my lens challenges me to love more purely.

I wish every photograph I make to be a visual love letter to my God.

“She was the love of my life. The best thing that ever happened to me. She was my strength, and blessed me with 3 great children and extended family. She was the most loving and thoughtful person and I look forward to seeing her again in a better place.”  – Frank Monaco




by David LaBelle


Preparing to navigate the narrow, stone streets between the apartment I’d called home the past four months and the Santa Maria Novella train station, I stood on the sidewalk with three large suitcases and a stuffed, 50-pound camera bag.  My situation suddenly felt hopeless.  Try as I might to stack and organize in a way I could pull everything to the station alone, I couldn’t make it work.  I sighed, considered I might have to wave the white flag and call a cab, then whispered my favorite Italian word, “Allora.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a homeless friend carrying a quart of cold beer on his way to a nearby park appeared.   He smiled and nodded.  “I’m going home, back to America, I told him, or at least I am trying to.”

In limited, broken English he asked if I needed help.  “I don’t have any money to pay you,” I explained.  “Oh no, I help,” he smiled, “no money.”

I could have kissed him.


I’m going to the train station, I advised.  “No problem,” he assured.  He grabbed two of the heavier bags, stacked them and realized he couldn’t carry his cold beer.

“I can’t let you do this,” I tried to explain.

He looked down, sat his beer behind a chained bicycle in front of the apartment and said, “It’s ok.”

I felt conflicted, fearing another homeless person would likely pass, see the cold beer and feel the windows of heaven had opened.

Together, on the warmest, most humid day since my arrival, we managed the awkward load to the train station.  At the station, I told him I wanted to make one more picture of him, which he allowed. I fished around and found about three euros and tried to give it to him.

“No, No,” he said, waving his hands.  He beamed with the opportunity to be of service.

I don’t mind telling you, my eyes watered as I thanked him and hugged him goodbye.  I reached into my bag and found a bag of peanuts I had bought for the trip and insisted he take them and the few euros.  “Buy yourself another cold beer, please.”  Grudgingly he accepted the small gifts and disappeared, heading back in the direction of the park where he would see friends and eventually sleep on a piece of cardboard.

One could easily be intimidated by this man’s wild appearance, but from the first pre-dawn morning we met and connected over a cup of coffee, there was nothing but tenderness and kindness in his dark eyes.

Like so many I met on the streets of Florence, he is trapped in a place and a system, unable to go home or get the documents to work legally.  He has been without shelter and a home of his own for 8 years and likely will be there many more.  But he is a humble, grateful man, who looks out for his friends, even those that do not speak his language or understand his culture.

On the steps of a museum, a bridge over the Arno, a street corner in Prato, and in front of a bustling train station, my eyes filled with each embrace and emotional goodbye.  These people, despised by some and clinging to shreds of hope for a better life, greatly enriched my life and I pray I did the same for them.

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It’s my nature to smile at people I pass on the street, regardless of where I am.  In some places, people receive a smile more warmly than in others.   Florence wasn’t a place where eye contact and smiles were often reciprocated or even appreciated, especially when the one smiling was an American with a camera.   More often than not, the lips on faces didn’t move and the eyes spoke of suspicion, fear and sometimes, even contempt.  Thankfully, there were exceptions, usually from the older folks, parents carrying children to school on bicycles or immigrants.

After all, appreciation for another human being, regardless of appearance, nationality or cultural background is far more valuable than the tourist euros exchanged on the street.  The warmth and comfort of a sincere smile transcends the barriers allowing friendship and connection. Many are afraid or too busy to engage a stranger with a smile, but some are trusting and realize, regardless of our many differences, we are born of the same Father.


Of those strangers on the streets of Florence who did make eye contact and return sincere smiles, several enriching friendships began that sustained me during my semester-long visit to this ancient city.   (I know there are a lot of people here – locals, immigrants and refugees –  who are not so kind, nor should they be blindly trusted.   A few sour encounters with unfriendly folks proved this to be true.  I was continually reminded how the camera is an enemy to those with something to hide.)

For the many who spend their time on the streets, it’s a tough and challenging life.  Most I spoke with are conflicted and homesick.   They are grateful to Italy for opening her arms and providing refuge, but they ache for their home country and families.

(Italy is known for many things – art, history, culture, automobiles, leather, wine, food, fashion – but it should also be known for its benevolence in accepting more than a half million refugees over the past three years, mostly from African countries. Italy has a big heart shown by accepting the burden many others have shunned.)


To say this issue is complex and complicated would be a gross understatement.  My heart hurts for the native Italians who have watched the face of their country change so dramatically over the past fifteen years, but also for the strangers, those souls fleeing danger, oppression and seeking a safer and better life.

I, too, was a stranger here, though not without hope of returning home.  Italy allowed me to live in her house and enjoy her beauty and culture, and she was a gracious host.

During the Kent State Florence student and faculty orientation, it was said we may leave Florence but Florence would always be in our hearts.  There was much truth in this prediction.  I will miss many things about Florence and Italy, but perhaps my greatest sadness will be for those people on the street who befriended me, those souls I will likely never see again.

Leaving Florence after more than four months, I want to share with you a few of the immigrant and refugee faces which enriched my life during this wonderful adventure.  These are faces from places like Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal and Romania, mostly Muslim faces.  They are faces belonging to sacrifice and struggle, but also to hope.

I will miss these friends. I pray each finds peace, hope and is able one day to go home.