Samuel Lee Magness, 55, photographer

June 28, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Samuel Lee Magness, a colorful Havre de Grace character, handyman and photographer who endeared himself to many area residents, died of bone cancer June 21 at Harford Memorial Hospital. He was 55.

Mr. Magness was born on a Harford County tenant farm and, after the breakup of his family when he was a child, was raised in a foster home on Otsego Street in Havre de Grace.

He had trouble learning to speak and as a consequence was sent to a school there for handicapped children from Harford and Cecil counties. Tormented or ridiculed by children and adults who perceived his speech impediment as a lack of intelligence, Mr. Magness compensated by trying to listen, learn from and mimic people he trusted.

"He may have had a lifelong speech impediment, but he was a sharp and perceptive kind of guy," said Duane Henry, a friend of 43 years and father figure to him. "And he always worked. He cut grass, cleaned restaurants, shoveled snow, collected tin cans and sold newspapers."

As a teenager in the 1960s, he developed an interest in photography that was supported by Mr. Henry, owner of an advertising agency, and Todd Holden, then a reporter for The Aegis newspaper.

"When I was sent to Havre de Grace to cover crime, I also inherited Sammy," Mr. Holden said. "He was a local character who rode around town on a bicycle decorated with American flags, and it never dawned on us that he wanted to learn photography. And the next thing I knew, he had a picture in The Aegis. He was a little guy starved for attention who realized he was able to reach people through his photos."

Always well-dressed in a jacket and tie and wearing a baseball cap decorated with badges, Mr. Magness seemed to be a ubiquitous presence in Havre de Grace. He relished his newspaper contacts and his role as a member of the press.

He was always ready to record breaking news with his camera, and because he was a political junkie, seldom missed a meeting of the City Council, or anything else that happened in the Susquehanna River community.

"When I go out and take pictures I see how people act," Mr. Magness said in a 1988 Aegis interview. "I know all the politicians. Some politicians are good, but some you have to watch out for."

He had a great love of children, and at Easter he dressed in a bunny costume. He played Santa Claus at Christmas, and no Fourth of July in Havre de Grace was complete without Mr. Magness dressed as Uncle Sam.

"I've known Sammy for more than 30 years," said Peter A. Jay, a Churchville farmer and former owner and publisher of The Record newspaper in Aberdeen. "He was a metaphor for the Havre de Grace of that era - slightly scruffy and a little offbeat - and people recognized that. He was a very interesting person in a quiet sort of way. If there was something hot going on, he was there."

"I would consider him to be something of a landmark," said Dr. Gunther Hirsch, a retired physician and former Havre de Grace mayor and Harford County Council president. "And because of his speech impediment and lack of education, some people didn't always give him the credit he deserved. He was very savvy and really knew Havre de Grace and Harford County politics."

In his diminutive Otsego Street home where he lived with his beagle, Sugar, Mr. Magness amassed a huge archive of still photos and videotapes of civic events and parades from all over Harford County, with a focus on those held in Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Bel Air.

"He was one of the most innocent, honest people in a world of phonies and politicians and bigwigs," Mr. Holden told The Aegis last week. "He was a regular guy who had a lot of love in his heart."

"Sammy made small-town life in Havre de Grace better and always took great joy in bringing cheer and joy to others," said Ted Hendricks, executive editor of The Aegis.

Plans for a memorial service to be held in Havre de Grace City Hall were incomplete yesterday.

There are no survivors.

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