The Universal Notebook: Man with a camera

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The photograph of me that accompanies this column was taken in December, 2014, by my old friend and neighbor, veteran news photographer Gene Willman. Gene died and was laid to rest last week, so in place of the photo credit that should have been published long ago, allow me to tell you a bit about him.

When we moved to Yarmouth back in 1982, Gene and Carol Willman were among the few original residents still living on Newell Road, a little 1950s circle of capes and ranches on the edge of town that was one of the first affordable subdivisions built after the Korean War. Gene was always busy in his shady yard or walking around the block, the affable guy in the engineer’s cap who talked to all the neighborhood’s kids and dogs.

I knew the name Eugene Willman from his years as a TV cameraman and wire service photographer, positions marking a remarkable old-school photojournalism career.

Gene was a congenital shutterbug. He got interested in photography in the fifth or sixth grade when he used money he earned from a paper route to buy an Ansco 120 box camera. He was the yearbook photographer at Deering High School and then studied at the U.S. Navy’s photography school in Pensacola, Florida. He saw the world from pole to pole and Caribbean to Mediterranean through a camera lens, while serving as a photographer in the Navy.

Back home in Portland, Gene worked a couple of years at Sullivan Photo before going to work for the Guy Gannett Newspapers and then as a cameraman for WGAN (now WGME 13). In 1973, after 19 years at the station, he went to work for UPI, covering all of northern New England. Then, in 1988, he and his good buddy Don Johnson went into business together as commercial photographers.

In a career working with old Maine newshounds like Nunzi Casavola, Gardiner Roberts, Bill Goulet and Harry Marble, Gene photographed everything from traffic accidents to presidents – in fact, every one of them from Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

Gene loved the camaraderie of both the Navy and the news business. That’s why he was one of founders of the Geezer Group, an unorganized, irregular assortment of media veterans and retirees who meet once or twice a year at Toddy Brook Cafe in North Yarmouth for food, drink and fellowship. The Lord High Geezer is former New York Daily News editor Gordon Glover, but Geno served as de facto recording secretary, both sending out meeting announcements and photographing the luncheons.

Whenever we get together there are the inevitable “war” stories of reporting the news. Gene’s favorite was telling about the fateful day in 1963 that he was the only person in the Gannett newsroom when a breaking story came across the news wire. The afternoon paper had just gone to press, but Gene knew enough to tell the editor, “Stop the presses! They’ve shot Kennedy!”

I always got a kick out of Geno’s choice of words, “They’ve shot Kennedy,” as though he knew and we ought to know who “they” were.

When I got repeated complaints (mostly from Carolyn and the kids) about the old photo on my column, which was a selfie, I knew just who to call. Gene was always taking Geezer photos, so I asked him if I could use one of them with my column. He did me one better, inviting me over to the house to take my picture. When I got there he had set up a makeshift portrait studio in the basement, arranging hoods and lights and sheets to flatter my otherwise unremarkable mug. I have never looked as good as I do in Gene’s photo.

I was surprised to find when I read his obituary that Gene, born in 1929, was only five years younger than my late father. Where my father clearly belonged to a previous generation, Gene seemed more like a slightly older contemporary. He loved being in the middle of the action, often telling Carol when she asked where he was, “All you got to do is turn on the radio or the television and listen; you’re going to find out where I’m at.”

In the 1999 Muskie Archive interview from which that quote was taken, Gene distilled the essence of his own career, saying, “Well, you got to understand, I have never had a job that anybody else has ever had before me.”

Other than the newspaper job, Gene was right. He put WGAN on the air in 1954 and was the first UPI photographer in Maine. Gene Willman was a pioneering Maine photojournalist, a good neighbor and a great old Geezer. He will be missed, but we know where he’s at. Peace.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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