The State of Union Station

Memorial Day for many American signals the start of summer season.  Communities all across the country celebrate with parades, picnics, parties and, in my hometown, with an event called Katy Days which recalls the town’s earlier days when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad had its regional headquarters located there.

But originally, Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday just after the Civil War to commemorate those soldiers who had died in that war. At that time, it was known as Decoration Day and was a time when families decorated the graves of their loved ones. Today, Memorial Day, as it has become known, honors all those who have died in military service.  Many of those were perished during World War II, a time when trains, like the ‘Katy’ transported troops across the country to and from their homes and bases as they were heading off to War. Among those thousands of young Americans was my own father.

The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.
The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.

And some of them, like my Dad, took time to write to family members as they waited for their train.  “My Dear Brother & Sister, I am sorry I haven’t been able to write you before now,” he wrote on a postcard dated Jan. 2, 1942 and that I discovered recently among his things. “I am in K.C.”(Kansas City) “on my way to Ft. Leonardwood. I enlisted in the army last Tues. and am on my way to be a soldier…”

As he wrote these words, he was sitting in Kansas City’s  Union Station, that was, at the time, one of the busiest in the country. During World War II an estimated million travelers, many of them soldiers like my father, passed through the station.

The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across,  was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of  benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with  those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.
The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across, was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.

At that time, the station had 900 rooms in its 850,000 square feet. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the station was the second largest in the country when it opened in 1914.  But after 1945, as train travel declined in the U.S., the station fell on hard times until eventually, it stood silent, empty and a sad shell of what it once was.

The landmark station was nearly demolished several times but in 1996, Kansas and Missouri joined together to undertake the renovation, funded by a ‘bi-state’ sales tax. In 1999, the station re-opened to the public and now houses a railway display, exhibition space for traveling shows from major museums and institutions, a planetarium, an interactive science center,a live and film theatre and restaurants as well as the Amtrak station.  Visitors, like myself, are drawn to see this historic place and its grand interior. This year, the station is celebrating its centennial.

Union Station's Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch,  for which the tables shown here were being set.
Union Station’s Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch, for which the tables shown here were being set.

I wandered through the Grand Hall, strolled beneath the giant clock–a meeting place for many families–and walked down the long hall where the heavy sliding metal doors on either side once led to 28 different tracks.

My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.
My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.

I remembered when, as a child of seven, I, my aunt and my younger brother,excitedly boarded one of those trains for a trip to Oregon. I could almost hear the voices of all those many travelers, who, like myself and my own father, had taken a train from Union Station.

And so, if as you celebrate Memorial Day you  hear the distant sound of a train whistle, stop for a minute and remember the days when trains carried Americans all over this country, and especially all those thousands of soldiers, many of whom never made the return trip home. It is for them for whom the whistle blows and the bugles sound on this American holiday.

Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City's Union Station.
Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City’s Union Station.

A Labor of Love with My Dad

I was 12 years old when I ‘officially’ started working at my Dad’s portrait studio and camera shop in my hometown of Parsons, Kansas. I’d walk with my friends from the junior high on Main Street a couple of days a weeks after school to his shop, ten short blocks away (sometimes stopping at the Peter Pan ice cream store for a little refreshment first), to spend a couple of hours doing whatever my Dad needed me to do that day. On Saturdays, I’d ride with him in the family Chevrolet station wagon to the studio at 8:30 a.m. in order to help straighten up or sweep the front sidewalk before he unlocked the doors for customers at 9 a.m.

At first, my job consisted mainly of dusting the frames and cameras set out on the display shelf that stood in the middle of the store and separated the camera shop side from the reception area of the studio. I’d clean the glass of the rotating display case that contained smaller items available for purchase, such as camera release cords, filters of varying colors, timers, light meters and other camera accessories and essentials for the amateur photographer. I’d straighten the empty boxes for the camera merchandise set out on display and that were stored on the lower shelves of the counter along the wall. As I did, I came to know almost everything we had in stock and exactly where to find the box once the item had been sold.

The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown's Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city's urban renewal project in the 1970s.
The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown’s Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city’s urban renewal project in the 1970s.

I refilled the diagonal cubbie shelves that held boxes of the film available at the time: red Ansco roll film, bright mustard yellow boxes of Kodak 120, 126,127, 220, 620, black and white  or color negative film or 35 mm Kodachrome or Ektachrome slide film, 8mm, Super 8, and 16 mm movie film; white and blue boxes of Polaroid packets; and later the green and white boxes of Fuji film.  There were boxes and boxes of flash bulbs and, later, flash cubes, as well as countless numbers of projector bulbs to keep in order.

In the back area of the studio, my jobs were limited to start. I removed the wet prints washing in the big drum washer at the top of  second floor stairs, wiped off the excess water with a big sponge and carefully laid each print to dry on the big screens stacked liked drawers.  Once the prints had been spotted and trimmed, I’d rubber stamp my father’s studio name on the back side, gather up the wallet sized prints into one of his gray delivery envelopes and gently slip the larger prints into brown folders embossed in gold with his scripted signature.

The studio reception side of my Dad's shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.
The studio reception side of my Dad’s shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.

As I grew older, my time and responsibilities at the studio increased. I moved into the studio reception area to set up appointments, take customer portrait orders, assist them in frame selections (one of my favorite assignments) and deliver the final prints. In the print room with the two full-time printers and my Dad, I learned  to turn plain sheets of photographic paper into images of families, babies, high school seniors and weddings. I’d help tone prints in the gold, sepia or selenium trays to change black and white prints into a warm brown or colder blue color. At the big work table upstairs, I’d sit with the other finishing artists using the little art brushes and inks to remove the white dust spots off the stacks of prints.

My Dad with one of  the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.
My Dad with one of the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.

Starting in  high school, I was allowed in the camera room to assist my Dad.  I stood behind the big Century camera, changing out the 5×7 film holders at the back of the camera, cocking the shutter and checking the focus. I’d shift the lights into place upon my Dad’s direction. At first we used big Photogenic reflector lights on heavy rolling stands until Dad installed an overhead track strobe lighting system. The system made it easier to move the lights but harder to tell exactly where and how much light would fall onto the subject. You had to be a master at studio lighting to know; my Dad was just that.

He created stunningly beautiful portraits of women–‘Sweet Sixteens’ wearing flouncey prom dresses; glowing brides in satin gowns trimmed in lace; small town business women in tailored suits or striking older matriarchs of prominent area families.

This portrait was one of my Dad's favorites and is an example of a 'light-oil' print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.
This portrait was one of my Dad’s favorites and is an example of a ‘light-oil’ print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.

His portraits of men could be dramatic–the weathered face of a farmer; the big smile of a country auctioneer; the stern brow of a minister, doctor or attorney; or the colorful character study of a local dandy. He loved capturing the bright expressions, the toothless grin, the teary cheeks or pouty mouths of children. And he turned ordinary high school senior pictures into reflective and confident portraits of adolescents on the brink of adulthood.

Then there were the weddings. Hundreds of them. Weekends of them. At lots of different churches all over the southeast Kansas area. During the busy ‘wedding season’–June through August–my Dad would race to two and sometimes three weddings on a weekend. Eventually, I went along with him to help carry cameras, reload film, smooth wedding dresses and round up missing relatives for a group picture.  Later, I was assigned a camera to cover some of the secondary shots needed while he handled the others. By the time I was planning my own wedding years later, I knew exactly how I wanted it, having seen and been to so many with my Dad.

The work was hard but fun for both me and my Dad. His was a profession devoted to making beautiful images of people.  Of capturing them forever at an important juncture in their lives. He did this for 43 years before retiring from the studio when he was 70 but not necessarily, from photography. He continued to take pictures of our family gatherings, vacations and his grandchildren for years afterwards, even learning to use a digital camera in his 80s.

In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.
In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.

Learning alongside my Dad was a labor of love. It was a privilege to study with a master, to win his approval, to gain his trust, to receive both his criticisms and compliments, to see the world through a viewfinder as he did and to preserve for perpetuity the important, as well as the smaller, moments of a person’s life.

My own father’s life came to an end on April 12. I was again fortunate enough to be at his side. He was 94-years-young. He never ceased to learn or to love. He taught me, as well as my two brothers and so many others, much about the art of photography, but more importantly, he taught us how to live our lives.  As one friend wrote to me: his was “such a wonderful example of how a simple life can be a great life.”  

I love you, Dad, and thank you. There won’t be a day left in my life that I won’t miss you.