Stan Stearns, UPI Photographer of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Salute to Father, Dies
John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket on Nov. 25, 1963.
Stan Stearns, whose iconic photograph of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin on Nov. 25, 1963, helped encapsulate a nation's grief, died Friday (March 2, 2012) at a hospice near Annapolis, Md. He was 76.
The cause was lung cancer, said his son, Jay Stearns.
The story of the famous image, captured while Mr. Stearns was on assignment for United Press International, is known virtually frame by frame to family and friends. Mr. Stearns made sure of that, said Gary Haynes, 76, another UPI photographer working on the day of the president's funeral.
"I've heard several versions of it, which he tended to embellish at bars," Mr. Haynes said.
Cordoned with a horde of photographers across from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington that day, Mr. Stearns trained his lens on Jacqueline Kennedy as the coffin neared. She bent toward John Jr. It was his third birthday. She whispered something. And, suddenly, the boy raised his right arm.
"The hand went up. Click -- one exposure," Mr. Stearns told The New York Times in 2007. "That was it. That was the picture."
Jay Stearns said his father's experience covering Mrs. Kennedy allowed him to size up the scene in a way that others could not.
"My father had an incredible ability to anticipate a moment," he said in a telephone interview. "That photograph was a culmination of him knowing her."
Stanley Frank Stearns was born in Annapolis on May 11, 1935, to William and Lillian Stearns, who owned a jewelry business.
He spent four years with the Air Force as a photographer for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, his son said, before joining UPI in Washington near the end of the Eisenhower administration. He later covered the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon before moving into commercial photography in the 1970s.
Besides his son, Jay, survivors include a brother, Allan.
In 2007, Mr. Stearns's signature shot became the center of a controversy after the death of the photographer Joe O'Donnell, whose claim that he had taken the famous picture was repeated in remembrances nationwide.
Mr. Stearns's colleagues swarmed to set the record straight. In emails to former UPI colleagues in 2007, Mr. Stearns offered his own detailed retelling.
After snapping the photograph, Mr. Stearns wrote, he ignored orders to go to Arlington National Cemetery and instead walked the film to the UPI bureau himself, convinced he had secured the day's indelible image. A photo manager in the office was furious, his face turning red, then white, Mr. Stearns said. "You'd better have the picture of the funeral or you're fired!" he recalled one boss yelling.
The photo manager paced outside the door as Mr. Stearns processed the film himself -- a 17-minute task, he wrote. Finally, Mr. Stearns showed him the image.
"He does have the picture!" the man shouted. -- Matt Flegenheimer/The New York Times
John-John's final salute.