For 19 years, I took for granted his roles as a loving parent and provider. The only thing I knew about his career as a Norfolk Southern engineer was that he worked near trains and he got to come home to us every evening at 5:30. But once that comforting predictability was shattered in January 2010, I needed more. That’s when “Portrait of My Father” became the most important collection of photos to me.
But I became so wrapped up in the emotion of this project that I forgot to tell a compelling story. I had forgotten one of the most important rules of journalism: don’t assume. Don’t assume the audience will connect the dots. Don’t assume you’ve given them every piece of the puzzle. Don’t assume photos are enough.
It took more than a year for me to realize I needed to set aside some of that emotion and look at this through the eyes of a journalist. That was only way his story could mean as much to other people as it does to my family and me.
So I started digging and reaching out to people who knew him best, like fellow railroader and Virginia Tech graduate Tom Blankenship. I learned that during the 1978 Norfolk & Western union strike, my dad worked 18-hour shifts seven days a week to help keep the railway in operation. I learned that he headed a team of 120 employees and contract supervisors as general foreman in the Brewster, Ohio, locomotive shop.
I learned that instead of just painting over a sideswiped train, my dad blow-torched its side until it shined like new. I learned that he didn’t mind his old, yellow Chevrolet Vega because it got him where he needed to go without car payments. And I learned that he always laughed and shrugged away flirting girls — until he met my mom and fell in love with her smile.
Most of all, I learned that people were just as excited to tell his story as I am. I’ve never been more humbled by someone urging me to “honor and cherish his memory.”
I hope these photos tell a story of unmatched work ethic, a stubborn dedication to perfection and the importance of working for the good of a whole and treating people with compassion — because they don’t make guys like my dad anymore.