Annapolis photographer's timely shot immortalized John Kennedy's salute

His camera captured an unforgettable moment in the nation's history

July 21, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

On the cold November day that America buried its slain president in 1963, UPI photographer Stan Stearns was one of hundreds of journalists who watched Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and her two children emerge from Washington's St. Matthew's Cathedral veiled with sadness.

As the first lady, Caroline and tiny John stood and watched John F. Kennedy's caisson pass by, Stearns poised his camera.

Jackie bent down, whispered something in her son's ear, and 3-year-old John's right hand went up.

And with a click, Stearns immortalized John's poignant salute to his young father in a photograph that would crystallize the nation's grief the next morning on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

"His hand went up, it went down; one exposure, that's all I got," said Stearns, 64, who now runs a portrait studio out of his Annapolis home. "Seconds, that's all it was. And I knew I had the picture of the funeral."

The picture that embodied America's sorrow almost 36 years ago has taken on fresh relevance in the past few days, after the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane and his presumed death at age 38.

Once again, the picture has been splashed across television screens as Americans saw yet another Kennedy felled in his prime.

"I've been in shock," said Stearns, who has felt a mixed bag of pride, frustration and grief seeing the historic picture on TV. "I felt a strong connection to him. Covering the White House [during the Kennedy years] I had a son just two years younger than John-John. I said not too long ago, it looks like he's grown up to be a nice kid."

Stearns was a Washington photographer for United Press International when he snapped the picture that he said lost journalism's Pulitzer Prize by one vote. A Dallas photographer's shot of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald took the prize that year.

"I got $25 for winning picture of the month" at UPI, Stearns said. "That and my regular paycheck. It's frustrating when I think of how much money that picture has made in the last 30 years. Probably $3 [million] to $5 million."

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates recently bought the rights to the salute picture.

Stearns has been more frustrated by a recent claim that another photographer shot the definitive salute picture. Dan Farrell, a New York Daily News photographer, shot a similar picture from 300 feet away, and his son has appeared on national television saying his father saw Jackie Kennedy tell John-John to salute.

"He was 300 feet away and she was wearing a veil," Stearns said. "I don't care if you're a professional lip-reader, you can't tell what she said to him."

Stearns stumbled onto photography when a relative gave him a Brownie Flash 620 camera for his Bar Mitzvah. Inspired by pictures in Time and Life, he dropped out of Annapolis High School when he was 16 to become "chief photographer of one" at the small local daily newspaper, the Capital.

Stearns joined the Air Force as a photographer a year later, shooting pictures for Stars and Stripes and Air Force magazine in Japan for three years before returning to Washington in 1959 to work for UPI.

He began a rotating shift between the White House, Capital Hill and general assignment, documenting the terms of four presidents before leaving in 1970 to open a studio in his hometown.

The Kennedys were Stearns' favorite presidential family. He said that he developed a "sixth sense about Jackie" and knew that a great picture involving the first lady was going to happen on the day of the funeral. She was a "great PR lady" who had a knack of letting her children out in the public eye for picture-perfect moments, Stearns said.

"There were so many things happening," Stearns said. "Photographers are looking at Jackie; they're looking at the caisson; they're looking at Bobby. I was standing right next to another UPI photographer and I said, `You just do your job and act like I'm not here.' And when they came out of the church, I just watched Jackie. I didn't take any pictures. All I did was watch her expression.

"After I took the picture I said to the guy next to me, `Did you see that? Did you get the salute picture?' and he said `Huh? What are you talking about?' And I knew I got the picture."

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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