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May 23, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: Dancing with life like Bill Strode

We paid our last respects to Bill Strode on a spring Saturday morning lovely enough to catch a photographer’s eye and gladden his heart. Inside the sanctuary at St. Francis of the Field, sunlight streamed warm and soft through the clear glass windows, each framing a snapshot of blue skies and green trees and nature’s abundance.It was a Bill Strode sort of morning, the kind that promised joy and surprise and, yes, maybe even a dance along the way.In all the years I knew Bill, going back to when I joined The Courier-Journal in 1966, I never knew how much he loved to dance. But he did, as his friends and children pointed out in their poignant farewells. They said that Bill and his significant other, Jane Gentry Vance, were the last ones on the floor at every ball or party they ever attended.His daughter Michelle Strode Bartholomew recalled that if a song he particularly liked would pop up on the car radio, Bill was apt to pull to the side of the road, leap out and dance, just for the sheer fun of it.I liked that, maybe because I’ve been known to do the same thing. It made me wish Bill and I had gotten to know each other better. It seems we had a lot more in common than an intense passion for journalism.I remember the first Bill Strode photo that was etched into my memory. It was a close-up of Northern Dancer and Hill Rise as they battled to the wire in the 1964 Kentucky Derby. Never had I seen such intense action packaged so tightly and so perfectly. You could almost smell the perspiration, hear the labored breathing.Northern Dancer won, by the way, by a neck. In my mind, Strode won the best photo contest by a mile.In those days, Bill was in the vanguard of a newsroom revolution that changed the way many photographers defined themselves and approached their craft. Strode and his ilk weren’t content merely to snap pictures. They wanted to tell stories through photographic essays that usually required considerably more time, thought and energy than a routine assignment.And so the term “photo-journalist” was born. Sometimes this new breed would work with writers and sometimes they would write their own copy. Sometimes they simply let the pictures tell the story. But always there was self-immersion in the story in order to give it a sense of credibility. Once, in order to do a story about the homeless, Strode became homeless.In Vietnam, he got as close as he could to the troops, accompanying them on patrols at the risk of his own life. This sort of beyond-the-call-of-duty journalism earned him Pulitzers and other prestigious awards. Even so, you couldn’t call Bill the “star” of The C-J staff. He would be the first to say that he was one of many incredibly talented photographers who worked in Louisville in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The list includes such luminaries as C. Thomas Hardin, Bill Luster, Dan Dry, Larry Spitzer, Billy Davis, Rich Nugent and many others.Unfortunately — and unacceptably for Bill — his pursuit of excellence also took him away from his family too much.His friend Charlie Owen told of the time when one of his children was watching an airplane overhead, unaware that Bill was nearby. “There goes Daddy,” said the child, wistfully and sadly. At that moment, Owen said, Bill decided to change his life.At first he tried working inside the office as a photographic editor. But that didn’t last long. Bill needed to be out doing the things he did best, which was mingling with people and developing ideas and, mainly, using his keen eye to take photographs that others didn’t see.So he left The C-J and founded Harmony House Publishers in Goshen. For the last 30 years, Bill and his partner, Joe Paul Pruett, have been producing high quality books for a variety of colleges, universities and other clients.A few years ago, Bill sold the Keeneland Association on the idea of doing a top-quality book of photographs about its horse racing, sales operations and grounds. They agreed the book should include four essays, and Bill asked me to do one of them.In retrospect, I only wish my words could have even come close to the photographs by Ken Weaver, David Robertson and, of course, Bill. The finished product is simply one of the loveliest books about the horse industry that has ever been done.I always enjoyed seeing Bill because he was invariably charming, funny and upbeat. He had a zest for life that showed in his photographs. At his memorial service, his daughter Michelle said his happiest years were the 12 he shared with Jane Vance.“She taught him how to love and how to smell the roses,” said Michelle. “And she loved to dance.” Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com