Charles Walker Purcell Jr., 82, longtime WMAR-TV cameraman

September 19, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Charles Walker Purcell Jr., whose 34-year career as a cameraman at WMAR-TV won him a string of awards in the documentary film category, died of kidney failure Friday at Reba's Home, a hospice care center in Parrish, Fla. He was 82.

Mr. Purcell was born and raised in Baltimore and lived here until he retired in 1981. He and his wife, the former Thelma I. Forthuber, then moved to Florida. They were married nearly 63 years.

A 1940 graduate of City College, Mr. Purcell worked briefly as copy boy at The Sun.

In 1941, he enlisted in the Navy. His service during World War II took him to the Pacific aboard the USS Chauncey. He left the military in 1945.

Mr. Purcell returned to The Sun, and soon after became a photographer for the paper's Sunday magazine. It was during this time that he made his break into film photography.

"The whole thing started when we had to do a [breaking news] story, and there was no one else to do it," said Carroll Hebbel of Ponte Verda, Fla., who worked with Mr. Purcell at WMAR-TV for many years. "I showed Charlie how to thread a movie camera ... and he went out and did it, and did it good. That started him as a motion-picture photographer."

Mr. Hebbel recalled a time when he and Mr. Purcell were on assignment at a fireworks factory in Chestertown when an explosion rocked one of the small storage buildings. The blast was felt at least a mile away, causing officials to evacuate the town, Mr. Hebbel said.

"All the ladies [working at the factory] took off and headed toward a swampy area," Mr. Hebbel said. "They plopped down in the swamp with fireworks exploding over their heads."

During the rescue effort, a volunteer firefighter came across his mother in the swamp.

"Charlie captured this beautiful scene on film ... of the fireman scooping up his mother in his arms," Mr. Hebbel said.

Mr. Purcell's work in documentaries was highly respected. His awards included first-place from the Baltimore Press Photographers' Association in 1965 for a documentary called "Before Christmas is for Kids, Too." The documentary was WMAR's first color documentary. The photographers association also had recognized him as Cameraman of the Year in previous years.

"Charlie was a very devoted cameraman," said Helen Delich Bentley, the former Baltimore County congresswoman who worked with Mr. Purcell at WMAR-TV from 1950 to 1965. During that time, they worked on a show called The Port That Made a City -- and a State, which chronicled life on the Chesapeake Bay.

"We did a show when the whole bay was covered with ice," Mrs. Bentley recalled. "Nothing stopped him. He did whatever it took to get the job done."

After his retirement, Mr. Purcell embarked on a lifelong dream of trying to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. At the age of 67, he hiked 754 miles over the course of 87 days, from the southern tip of Georgia to just south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va. He marked his 68th birthday on the trail.

"He loved every moment of it," said Mrs. Purcell. "He wanted to go back to finish it. ... Walking that distance at his age was a little too much, but he wouldn't admit it."

Mr. Purcell was cremated and no services will be held, family members said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Purcell is survived by two sons, Charles Roy Purcell of Treadwell, N.Y., and Craig Walter Purcell of Bradenton, Fla.; a sister, Doris Gochnauer of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

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