The first time I saw astronaut Gordon Cooper was on my parents’ television May 15, 1963, the day he made the history books by being thrust into space atop a Mercury-Atlas rocket. He orbited the earth longer than any of the other five previous astronauts combined before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a period in America when kids like me watched wonderous and seemingly daring space flights on a black and white cabinet living room TV.
These early space ‘jockeys’, decked out in their bulky, futuristic-looking space suits and helmets, became instant heroes upon plunging back into the earth’s atmosphere. They were celebrated with ticker tape parades in New York City, photographed for the covers of national magazines, appeared on television’s pioneering talk shows and sought after as guest speakers for every type of gathering imaginable.
So it was that the second time I saw Gordon Cooper was in person, at the Professional Photographers’ of American national convention in Chicago. Although my father, a professional studio photographer, frequently attended these annual national meetings, and even served on the national council at one time, we kids rarely went along. But this particular year my parents decided that we should go too perhaps because Cooper was on the program or, perhaps because we could double-up the business part of the trip with a visit to my mother’s brother and sister’s families who lived there.
Whatever their thinking, that trip, one of my first ever to a PPA convention, has stuck with me all of my life. I was almost 11 at the time. We stayed at the Conrad Hilton, where the convention was taking place. The hotel lobby was big and splendorous to a kid from small town Kansas. One day, while my father was attending meetings, my mother took us to Chicago’s grand old department store–Marshall Fields. We strolled past the store’s big landmark clock that extended out on a giant iron arm from one corner of the building. I remember walking through the store’s heavy brass-trimmed double doors and marveling at the store’s spectacular iridescent Tiffany glass mosaic dome inside the store’s atrium. Riding up the escalator of the 12-story building I looked down in wonder at all the shoppers scurrying around on the floors below. I went back to visit the store a few years ago when I was in the city hoping to get another glimpse of its grandeur. But its current condition didn’t live up to my childhood memory of it.
Astronaut Gordon Cooper was the convention’s keynote speaker. I remember the thrill of being in the same room as the man who had been the first to sleep in space. My younger brother, Richard, almost got to go up onstage with ‘Gordo’, my Father recalled recently but security decided against it. That convention was also memorable because it was the year dad was awarded his Master’s, the degree conferred on photographers by the PPA once you have fulfilled certain requirements, including earning “merits” for having your work selected by the judges to hang in the association’s ‘salon’.
The first print my father ever hung was made while he was still an apprentice for then well-known Topeka photographer Tony Wicher. It was a “goldtone” print of a smartly dressed fellow photography student. Over the years, at least 100 of my father’s prints scored high enough to appear in the association salons, both at the state and local levels.
I remember how proud he was of me when I hung my first print at the state salon at age 16. Through the years, my father, who at one time served on the PPA’s national council and who was a national print judge, has been my mentor and personal judge of my photographic work. I have never ceased to learn something from him.
In fact, before heading off to attend this year’s PPA national convention, I spent a week with him at the hospital as he was trying to recover from the flu. While resting, he and I looked through a selection of painted backdrops on-line so that he could give me his opinion of which ones would be best to buy. We looked at the “raw” images from one of my recent studio sessions so that he could give me his critique. We reminisced about his days in the studio and debated over exactly which Kodak Brownie camera was my very first.
By the time I arrived in Phoenix at the convention, I told a new photographer friend that I felt I had already received a week’s worth of personal workshopping with my dad. I am grateful for all he has given to me over the years both in knowledge and love. I can’t imagine not having him here.