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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  • Buff

    Thanks for the week off my friend! You need some rest to get your liberal brain back in order so that you can jump in at every comment that you don’t win the argument. Very interesting reading! Only blog I know where the author feels he has to answer every comment from ones he says are “anonymous” commenters!!!

    • EABeem

      I don’t feel I have to. I like to as long as there seems to be a point to be made, but I have given up on half dozen or so regulars who make no sense to me. The editor and publisher like the fact that I engage with readers as it keeps them coming back and I figured readers also enjoy being able to argue with me about what I have written. But you are correct, I do believe that anonymity emboldens people to say things they wouldn’t say if they had to sign their names. I would much prefer that commenters find the courage to put their names and their photos on their opinions.

      • Jimmy_John67

        Internet comments are all anonymous by nature. What is the difference if my screen name is Jimmy John or James Johnson? How would you know if the “real name” wasn’t a pseudonym as well? How would you know if a posted picture wasn’t fake? Face it, commenters aren’t verified therefore every single comment on here is anonymous so your constant complaining about it is just a useless waste of time.

        Also as I have pointed out multiple times you only bring up your issue with anonymous comments when people disagree with you. You never chide “anonymous commenters” when people take your side. Funny how that happens.

        • EABeem

          You’re right. My real name is Vladimir Rodchenko and I am a Russian spy sent to your country to sow the seeds of discontent.

          • Jimmy_John67

            Well that explains the lies and inconsistencies your comments and articles often contain.

          • EABeem

            I never lie. I may be mistaken, inconsistent and wrong, but I never say or write anything I know is not true.

          • Jimmy_John67

            Just last week you said you didn’t make any money off the sale of your Yarmouth house. You purchased that home in the early 80s for less then $100K and sold it for over $200K in 2014 (you do realize real estate sales data is public info available with a quick internet search right?). Buying something low and then selling it higher is called making money. Even if you leveraged it up with a reverse mortgage or home equity line no bank would lend against 100% of the home value therefore you had to have made money.

            So either you lied when you said you didn’t make money or you are dumb and don’t know the definition of making money. Now I think you are a hypocrite, internet troll, clickbait monkey, serial exaggerator and someone who intentionally omits information to make a false argument but I don’t think you are dumb. Therefore the only conclusion is you lied when you made that statement.

          • EABeem

            The appreciation of real estate values meant that the $42,000 home we purchased in 1982 was worth $200,000 in 2014, so we could not buy more home in Yarmouth. I did not make a profit (as in taking money out) on the appreciated value. I just rolled the equity into the home we have now. Since you seem to have the time and interest to examine my finances, you also must know about the interest and appreciated value recapture lien we had to pay off on the Yarmouth house as well. So even if, by your definition, I made money selling the house, it was not as much as you seem to think it was. So I say again, I have never knowingly lied in print, meaning making a statement I knew was untrue. I have been mistaken, misinformed, contradictory, and exaggerated, but I have never knowingly lied. Now please send me your name and address so I can investigate your finances. Or, on second thought, don’t. It’s just too creepy ad petty.

          • Jimmy_John67

            First off, there is most certainly capital gains tax above a certain limit on the sale of a primary residence. Also you understand what the point of an investment is right? It’s using money to purchase something, whether it be a home, stock, business, gold, etc, with the intent that it appreciates in value over time. When you sell that investment for more then you paid for it because of that appreciation you make money regardless of what you choose to roll those funds into. I guess I highly overestimated your intelligence if you don’t get that incredibly basic and elementary concept.

            P.S. If you don’t like people fact checking your statements then don’t put them out there. You crow about how you are the only writer around who responds to comments then get angry when people fact check your statements and call you on them. If you don’t like it then don’t air your laundry for everyone to see. Pretty simple.

          • EABeem

            I believe it was you who aired my laundry. All the best to you and yours.

          • Jimmy_John67

            More revisionist history. You are the one who claimed you didn’t make money on your home sale and aired your personal financial laundry. I just called you on your lie.

          • EABeem

            I did not bring up the sale of my home. You did.

          • Jimmy_John67

            And two comments later in repose to my question you stated:

            “Didn’t make any money selling the house we owned for 32 years.”

            Why say that when you know it wasn’t true? At this point I think you have a pathological mental disorder where you can’t admit to ever being wrong. If you made money selling your house what did you have to gain by lying and saying you didn’t? What do you have to gain now by trying to say you didn’t lie when the proof is in time stamped comments? Truly strange that you are still trying to deny this. Just admit it. You lied in writing in an attempt to make a point and now it’s coming back to bite you since you claimed to never lie. Just admit it.

          • EABeem

            I have repeatedly said I may be mistaken about things, but I never knowingly write anything I do not believe to be true. I have explained what I meant. If that’s not good enough for you, so be it. You obviously lied when you said you didn’t air my laundry. You brought up the sale of my home, and then proceeded to lecture me about the sale of my own home, not knowing the facts at all. That’s it, you’re on the No Fly List.

          • Jimmy_John67

            I simply asked you if you made money on the sale of your home. You could have chosen to not respond or say it was a private matter. Instead you chose to air your own laundry and respond with a lie that you didn’t make any money instead of just telling the truth. Now because you got caught in an obvious lie you are trying to spin it and thereby making yourself look even more foolish in the process. So sad. Perhaps in the future you should try making honesty your priority instead of your compulsive need to be “right”.

            In conclusion that is now two weeks in a row you have been called on your BS and proceeded to throw a hissy fit and take your ball and go home. You claim to hate LePage because he is a bully and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way but yet you exhibit the exact same traits. “The things we dislike most in others are the characteristics we like least in ourselves”.

            As always it has been a pleasure for me to expose your true self and lack of substance for everyone to see.

          • EABeem

            If that’s what you think you’ve done, God bless you.

          • Jimmy_John67

            I thought I was on the No Fly List? Couldn’t help responding to feed your compulsive need to be “right” huh? What an incredibly insecure man you are. Although I shouldn’t be suprised since anger and deep seated insecurity are hallmark traits of bullies like you, LePage and Trump.

    • pebble

      Agreed, Buff.

      • EABeem

        I think you mean “avoid.”

        • pebble

          Akin to a nagging hangnail, Egg-On-My-Audience Beem! Averting works greatly!

          • Just Sayin’

            “Avert” was not the correct word. To avert something would be to prevent it, or make it avoid you. You are going out of your way to not read Beem’s articles. That’s entirely your choice, but try not to mangle the English language in the process. Thanks.

          • pebble

            Avert is definitely the correct word.

          • Just Sayin’

            Funny that you fail to understand the text you yourself posted.

            By the definition above, you would not “avert his articles”, you would avert your eyes or your gaze (or thought, I suppose) FROM his articles. You used the word avert with the article as the target of it, which is neither the common or correct usage of the word.

            You did nothing to prevent or ward off the articles. They didn’t avoid YOU, you avoided them, so the latter definition does not apply.

            If you’re going to voice your opinions, please don’t waste everyone’s time by blatantly misusing language.

          • pebble

            Still need a tissue, officer petty, driveling narrow scope viewer? Just Sayin’s difficulty with language mechanics is obvious; completely illegible, garbled text is evident in both nitpicks. Just Sayin’s input is less useful than a nagging hangnail.

          • Just Sayin’

            Once again, you attempt to employ words with little regard to their meaning or proper use. My previous posts were not illegible, computerized text so rarely is. It may have been incomprehensible to you, but the problem lies with your ability to understand, not to read.

            If you found my messages ‘garbled’ or unclear I think it would say more about your abilities than my own, as I am not the one so badly abusing the English language.

            Ignorance is not a virtue, no matter how you try to present it as such.

          • pebble

            Still need a tissue, officer petty, driveling narrow scope viewer? Just Sayin’s writing does not have that necessary element, flow. Just Sayin’s persistent use of incorrect syntax remains obvious; completely illegible, garbled text is evident in all three nitpicks. Just Sayin’s input remains less useful than a nagging hangnail.

          • pebble

            Officer petty, aka Just Sayin’, has been assigned to the diminutive compartment of nitpicking (nitpicking: looking for small or unimportant errors or faults, especially in order to criticize unnecessarily) It is indeed, a perfect fit for officer petty, aka Just Sayin’! The nitpicking compartment has a mission of searching for tiny issues with a narrow scope.

            Officer petty’s, aka Just Sayin’s, service to the nitpicking compartment is only as a volunteer. The tedious labor of the nitpicking compartment is frivolous, unnecessary and unimportant. Due to its diminutive size and negligible status, funding for the nitpicking compartment cannot be vindicated.

            just sayin’: “a term coined to be used at the end of something insulting or offensive to take the heat off you when you say it” (Urban Dictionary)

    • Just Sayin’

      I’d just like to take a moment to point out what inexcusable behavior this is. You may not like Beem very much, but he wrote a sincere memorial for the passing of someone, and you’ve shown that individual nothing but disrespect by using it as a forum to denigrate Beem and pronounce your dislike for him. You are of course, welcome to your opinion, but venting it in this way has all the lack of class I’d expect from the Westboro Baptist Church.

      • pebble

        Gatekeeper of expression and the written word is the assignment of officer petty, aka Just Sayin’. The assignment aligns with the mission of the nitpicking compartment, searching for tiny issues with a narrow scope. Aspirations convene within the cloistered unfunded nitpicking compartment.

    • pebble

      Overly omnipresent factor.

  • Jack Milton

    Geno was a friend and mentor to many young photojournalists when they were getting started, including me. He would hire one of us as a UPI stringer to cover a Saturday ship launching at BIW or pay you $15 for a feature photo. To see my photo go out on the UPI wire and printed in a newspaper a thousand miles away was an undeniable thrill. He was always where the news of the day was and knew how to capture THE story-telling moment: the wires often wanted only one photo from an assignment, so it had to be good. He was a good man, worked hard, had fun, and was liked by all. When he “retired” and went into business with his daughter’s father-in-law, the other all-round nice guy of photography, and his friend, Don Johnson, he told me he was photographing dance schools and baseball teams and said, “I should have done this years ago!” Good man, good memories.

  • Jason Coombs

    Great story. I for one love reading about the days of old when photography seemed to mean much more. As a side note, those old Ansco cameras hold up to the test of time! I still use my Agfa-Ansco circa 1927( it was my grandmothers) although converting the film is difficult but worth it. Thank you for the insight to a old school photographer.