Tag Archives: Ink Feature

Pursuits: A Life Story

The first time journalist Barbara Cummiskey ’52 met Grey Villet, it was in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He’d been assigned to photograph a story she was developing and was seated on a couch, surrounded by cameras and wearing old jeans, sneakers, and a wrinkled denim shirt. After she sat down next to him, he stood up to his full six-foot, four-inch height and, peering down his nose, said in a rich South African accent, “I suppose you want a martini?” Inwardly she groaned. She was going to have to put up with this attitude for the next several weeks?

Thus began their love story. The year was 1961 and Barbara was among a small number of women reporter-writers at Life magazine. She had pitched a series of three stories about what it meant to strive for the American dreams of fame, wealth, and success—goals that too often ruin lives. She had the perfect subject for success: Victor Sabatino, the owner of a national line of foam-rubber-furniture stores. Sabatino was developing stores in California. As a “natural” for such a story, Grey, then Life’s bureau photographer in Los Angeles, was assigned to it. “After he ordered that martini for me and a pot of tea for himself (the second put-down!), I explained what I hoped we might accomplish with Victor. We spent a day with Sabatino, and I could see from the way Grey began shooting the story that he totally understood its essence. That night, when we got back to the hotel, he walked me to my door, kissed me lightly, and told me I was going to marry him. After three more days of working together, I agreed.”

Barbara and Grey were the perfect collaborators, sharing an almost electric sympathy. They recognized that to get to the truth of any essay, they had to be low-key in their approach in order to let people tell their own stories. They chased stories that were intensely human, showing what makes people tick and what drives them to follow a life’s passion. Working together until Life folded in 1972, they produced some of the finest photographic essays to appear in the magazine. Their first, the Sabatino essay, appears in Life’s Great Essays.

Everything changed after 1972. “The years after Life ended were hard,” Barbara says. “I sold real estate, he built houses. Slowly the importance of Grey’s work to photojournalism was fading.” When Grey died in 2000, Barbara had a new goal. “It became my raison d’être to make sure his legacy stayed alive and to preserve at least its essence.” Her first stop was the Life archives, to see what photographs she wanted to preserve for books and exhibitions.

Then in 2012, Nancy Buirski did a documentary on Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial Virginia couple behind the Supreme Court decision that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Grey had done a photo shoot with the Lovings in 1965 for a Life story. He had eventually given many of the photos to the couple, and their daughter shared them with Buirski, who, knowing Grey was dead, hadn’t bothered to get permissions to use them. “When I learned about the documentary and the photos, I hired a lawyer and informed Buirski that if she didn’t credit Grey BIG, I’d sue,” Barbara says. Buirski complied. Once director Jeff Nichols saw the documentary and Grey’s stills, he was inspired to create the movie Loving, which came out in 2016.

At that time, Barbara was completing a 2016 retrospective of Grey’s work at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, located at the site of the famous 1969 Woodstock concert. She acted as cocurator and author for the exhibit. Barbara was also completing a book combining Grey’s Loving photos with her own text, as she had done so many times before.

After 16 years, Barbara feels she has accomplished what she set out to do. Through her perseverance, Grey’s artistic legacy has been saved.

Pursuits: The Shopkeeper

Millennials have a reputational rap sheet a mile long. They speak in emojis. They still live with their parents. They’d rather marry their start-up company than a soul mate, and they disdain conformity.

For instance: “I was never interested in a standard nine-to-five job,” says Cade Schreger ’15. “I always wanted to create my own thing, to design my own content and schedule. Not that there’s anything wrong with working for a boss, I just knew I’d be happier working for myself, developing a business plan I was passionate about.”

Schreger is the co-owner of Brooklyn’s newest comic book shop, Mama Says Comics Rock, and if the idea of a millennial comic-book-shop owner—in Brooklyn—seems to confirm every negative stereotype you’ve ever held about the millennial generation, you’d be forgiven. And quite possibly wrong.

While Schreger may be an alum of Brooklyn Heights’s arts-oriented St. Ann’s School—where grades aren’t distributed and creativity is highly rewarded—his off-the-beaten-path sensibilities have always had a grounding in reality. Which is why his father, a well-known lawyer and Brooklyn native, first chuckled at his son’s entrepreneurial notion and then quickly started talking business strategy.

“Our conversations went from ‘Oh, wouldn’t this be nice,’ to ‘Here’s how this actually could work,’ and eventually ‘Here’s how this will work,’” says Schreger of his discussions with his father. (One of the biggest factors, both Schregers say, was the closing of Bergen Comics in nearby Park Slope. The store’s owners plied Schreger and his business partner with advice—and delivered a community hungry for a new store.) Just six months later, Mama Says Comics Rock—adorned with DIY urban decor, bright white walls, and hundreds of comics—opened.

Perfectly at home among the mom-and-pop shops in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, Mama Says has received a warm welcome. “The community has been nothing but kind,” says Schreger, who is focused on catering to the area’s dense population of young families. Growing up in Brooklyn Heights, Schreger frequented local comic shops, drawn to both the amicable comic crowd and the supply of books that nurtured his obsession with Batman. Aware of the “nerd-in-the-basement” stereotype, Schreger also appreciates how comics unite readers across genders, ethnicities, and social classes.“What I’ve always admired about comics is the culture and community, especially from the readers,” says Schreger. “I’ve been amazed that almost everyone who walks into our store is not only nice and approachable, but genuinely loves the world of comics, and how it can be this bridge between prose and artistic expression.”

To succeed, Schreger knows that his store must be community oriented, which is why Mama Says features the work of local artists along with your standard Marvel and DC Comics fare and also holds regular events. (In September, the shop hosted the 10th anniversary celebration for a graphic novel imprint, First Second Publishing, which is a subsidiary of Macmillan.) “Our goal is to create a place where people know they can go to find comics, hang out, and bring their kids, or meet up with other people inside the community,” says Schreger. “If we can provide a little break in somebody’s day, even if it’s just five minutes of relaxing conversation, it’s worth it.”

A neuroscience major, Schreger is fascinated by the psychology of human behavior, and he says that his interest in human interaction has made retail a natural fit. As for running a business, he says that Mama Says is meeting his early financial goals, though he declines to say what those are. The shop had a very good holiday season, and as Mama Says approaches its one-year anniversary, Schreger is cautiously optimistic about its future. Which is a rather conventional thought—for a millenial.

Pursuits: The Newborn

Kate Brutlag Follette '04

Kate Brutlag Follette ’04

For an astrophysicist who hunts for planets in other solar systems, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering one being born.

It turns out that witnessing the birth of a planet—something that has never been done before—doesn’t deliver a cinematic moment of astrophysicists huddled in an observatory and erupting in excitement at their discovery.

It unfolds more like this: one month after defending her dissertation and just before she began a postdoctoral position at Stanford, Kate Brutlag Follette ’04 ’04 decamps for the southern Atacama Desert of Chile, and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan telescopes—a pair of 6.5 meter–diameter mounted telescopes on the summit of Cerro Manqui. Because of their size (anywhere from two to eight times the size of telescopes launched in space), ground-based telescopes can resolve images unseen by small scopes and also collect up to eight times as much light—a key capability when one is attempting to image the faintest of objects—like a planet in another solar system decamped for the southern Atacama Desert of Chile, and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan Clay telescope—a 6.5 meter-diameter mounted telescope on the summit of Cerro Manqui. Because of their size (anywhere from two to eight times the size of telescopes launched in space), ground-based telescopes can resolve images unseen by smaller scopes and also collect up to 64 times as much light, a key capability when one is attempting to image the faintest of objects—like an exoplanet, a planet in another solar system.

Telescopes like Magellan are at the heart of a new technique in astronomy called “direct imaging,” in which astronomers are able to directly image exoplanets. Until recently, discoveries of exoplanets were all indirect observations—that is, inferences were made by observing the stars that these planets orbit. During the past few decades, nearly 3,000 exoplanets have been discovered, with more than two-thirds of those being detected by the Kepler space telescope. But for all of those Kepler discoveries, the planets in question have not actually been seen; they’ve been inferred by observing the shadow that they cast on the star in the system. Direct imaging is unique in that it is the only method by which an exoplanet is actually seen. Only a handful of exoplanets have been directly imaged, the first occurring during the past decade. 

Follette was drawn to the doctoral program at the University of Arizona because of its access to some of the largest telescopes in the world (including Magellan); subsequently, her participation on planet-imager survey teams positioned a young grad student as a pioneer in a field that could forever alter our understanding of space.

Which takes us back to Chile. In the fall of 2014, Follette had returned for “one more observing run” while she still had access to Arizona’s telescopes. “But here’s the thing,” she says. “You rarely know whether you’ve seen anything new when you’re at the telescope. It’s not until later when you do a detailed analysis of the data that you know whether you have an interesting result.” So Follette was at Stanford in the early months of 2015 when her data revealed something never before imaged directly—an exoplanet in the process of formation.

“You have a moment of exhilaration when you think you see something interesting in your data,” she says, “but there are lots of tests to go through to be sure.” And every test confirmed her discovery. “But we didn’t think anyone would believe us until we imaged it again to prove it was still there,” she says, “and the season for observing it was already past, so we’d have had to wait at least a year.” So Follette was resigned to sit on her discovery—until she learned that another astrophysicist had also found the planet, albeit through an indirect method. “People have fairly well-founded skepticism about inferences from certain indirect detection methods—it’s probably a planet, but it could be something else,” says Follette. But in this case she had also seen the planet—literally. So the two coauthored a paper for Nature, in which they announced the birth of LkCa 15 b.

“I had spent my entire graduate career taking high-resolution images of protoplanetary transition disks, making a case that they could only be caused by planets in the process of forming,” she says. But Follette and others believed it would take the next generation of telescopes to image a planet while it was actively forming.

Until one day, she saw just that.

Pursuits: First Impressions


Nick Temple ’99, Founder of Wild Card

We live in the golden age of the movie trailer, where every tiny revelation of a would-be blockbuster has the potential to go viral. That first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Forty million views in just three days. And when the trailer for Deadpool debuted on Conan, Ryan Reynolds’ potty-mouthed mercenary character rode the ensuing buzz to a $132-million opening in February, a record for an R-rated film.

Last winter, another movie about a uniformed marksman—American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle—became every studio executive’s dream: a “four-quadrant film” that connects with men, women, and the over- and under-25 audience, boosted by an edge-of-your-seat trailer. “They didn’t sell it as a war movie,” says Nick Temple ’99. “They sold it as a story about a man in an incredibly difficult situation.”

Temple’s advertising agency, Wild Card, worked on the campaigns for both American Sniper and Deadpool—as well as The Martian, Jurassic World, Black Mass, and a host of forthcoming releases that barely fits on a single whiteboard in his Culver City, California, office. By his measure, there are as many as 70 trailer shops in the business, but maybe seven “wind up doing the lion’s share of the big movies”—Wild Card among them.

Growing up in Chatham, New Jersey, the U.K.-born Temple majored in German with a minor in film studies at Middlebury. He got his first exposure to feature filmmaking through an internship on the Rutland set of Icebreaker (basically Die Hard at a ski lodge). Temple shot some short films on video for his classes, a process he found enjoyable, “but ultimately what I loved was the editing and assembly of it.”

After college, Temple drove across the country with a friend, picked up some odd jobs with film crews around Los Angeles, and finally scored steady work at a postproduction house in Burbank. “I took a job running tapes around town—you get the lay of the land that way,” he recalls. “And at night I was bothering people in their edit bays.”

In short order, Temple went from runner to managing runners to assistant editor to junior editor. He jumped over to Trailer Park, the world’s largest entertainment marketing agency, as an editor in 2003, and there his career took flight. Temple cut a Super Bowl commercial for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise, which spawned ongoing relationships with both Spielberg (he’s worked on all of his films ever since) and Cruise (most notably the Mission: Impossible franchise). And the connections “tree-branched out from there,” says Temple, who got the entrepreneurial bug in 2007.

Wild Card was founded as an LLC with two partners, a couple of edit bays, and 1,400 square feet of office space in Burbank. (Temple later bought out his partners and is now the company’s sole owner.) Since moving to a 7,500-square-foot office in Culver City in 2010, Wild Card has nearly tripled its space and quintupled its staff. “There’s a threshold:  how do you sustain a creative culture without compromising your work?” says Temple, who still cuts anywhere from five to eight trailers a year himself.

Just a few short years ago, a brilliant marketing campaign would guarantee a solid opening weekend for even a stinker but now, with social media, if a movie is bad, the word gets out after Friday’s matinees. Conversely, positive word of mouth can propel a hit like The Martian to a final gross of $228 million domestically—four times its opening weekend numbers.

But it all starts with that first impression of the trailer. Temple still likes to get out to the multiplex with his wife, Alison. “When we used to go to the movies I’d want to watch all the trailers and gauge people’s reactions,” Temple says. “Now with two girls, ages three and five, we’re lucky if we get to the theater on time. And more often than not, it’s Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

Pursuits: The Chaplain


It’s not every chaplain who gets to christen a 7,800-ton, 377-foot newborn. But that’s what Lieutenant Commander Daniel Curtis ’87 found himself doing in Newport News, Virginia, on September 6, 2014, for the dedication of the USS John Warner, a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, with hundreds in attendance, including the five-term U.S. senator.

“Open our eyes, we pray, to see Your handiwork in every bolt turned, every plate welded, in every wire spliced, every drop of paint spread over the ship that rises before us, as surely as we see Your handiwork in the seas she sails,” Curtis said in his invocation.

An ordained minister since 1992, Curtis began a second career as an officer in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps in 2007, just under the corps’ cutoff age of 42. He has been deployed with Seabees and Marines in peacetime and combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including seven months onboard a guided-missile cruiser.

These days Curtis presides over a congregation of 1,500 seamen and 10 submarines as chaplain of Submarine Squadron 6 in Norfolk, Virginia. Most of this work is done at surface level. While a full deployment on a submarine might run six months, there simply aren’t enough chaplains to go around—the total number in the corps is less than 850—and when he does take his ministry underwater, Curtis will typically join a vessel at its last port of deployment for the journey home. “The camaraderie and sense of community is far deeper when you’ve been to sea with somebody than when you’re just visiting them,” he says.

As a double major in political science and religion at Middlebury, Curtis was considering going into the ministry as four generations of family before him had—“It was a combination of appreciation for my dad’s legacy [Lawrence Curtis ’57, a retired pastor and political science major] and my grandfather [Commander Ralph Curtis, who served in the Navy for 20 years]”—but he wasn’t convinced that pure parish life was his calling.

After completing seminary school in the Chicago area, Curtis received his first pastoral assignment with a United Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio. That was followed by a five-and-a-half-year stint at Grace United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio, pork-rind capital of the United States and “a small city with all the big-city challenges,” including drug and alcohol addiction and a host of other problems from depression to mental health and family issues.

It was good preparation for the Navy Chaplain Corps. “Probably 80 percent of my counseling isn’t specifically religious,” says Curtis, who teaches a class every Wednesday for new enlistees to address the challenges of submarine life. “There’s a reason why submariners get paid a little extra: the danger, the cramped quarters, the limitations on communications with loved ones ashore. A number of things make it a particularly challenging lifestyle in the submarine world.”

For all the situations he has faced on the job, none was more difficult than the suicide of his son, 20-year-old Jonathan, in Toledo in May 2012. Curtis was stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when word reached him of Jonathan’s death. After coming home for the funeral, he was reassigned to a pool of chaplains for smaller ships in the Norfolk area prior to getting his current assignment in July 2013.

While Curtis and other chaplains are strictly noncombatants and do not carry weapons—“it’s not ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’”—they are serving a military community. And some people, he admits, don’t like that idea. From his perspective, Curtis sees “a profound need and a really exciting mission field” to carry out his military chaplaincy. “I don’t like war, either,” he says, “but I very much like the opportunity to walk with people who are
serving their country.”

Pursuits: Happy Tails


“Hello, girls,” said Ken Parker ’62, throwing open the blue trailer door. “Are you ready to go to work?”

The 75-year-old mostly retired Presbyterian minister had parked his Toyota truck—license plate: MINIDONK—at the curb before the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. The girls in question were two big-eared, doe-eyed miniature donkeys, Celeste and Fey. Their job this afternoon: to visit residents, mainly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, at the Middlebury nursing home.

For more than 10 years, Parker has been trotting out—literally—his miniature donkeys as therapy animals. He and volunteers visit nursing homes and grieving children. They also run a program that allows children with developmental and emotional disabilities learn how to care for the animals. To his knowledge, Thera-Pets, his Peru, N.Y., nonprofit, was the first organization of its kind to use miniature donkeys as therapeutic animals in the U.S.

“They’re a wonderful, wonderful animal,” said Parker, brushing a bit of errant hay from dark, svelte Celeste’s coat. Sure, Parker acknowledged, therapy dogs are far more prevalent. “But give me a hundred dogs and a hundred donkeys, and the donkeys will take it every time.”

Parker and volunteer Candyce Trombley led the donkeys into a small courtyard where the residents, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, sat in wheelchairs and rockers. Parker launched into his primer on miniature donkeys, chatting with the residents and answering questions—but the real stars of the show were Celeste and Fey.

“You’re very beautiful,” one woman cooed. “Yes, you are. You’re a very good girl.” Another woman pressed her forehead to the donkey’s face and stroked Celeste’s long, tapered ears.

“People say, ‘Kiss my ass,’” quipped Parker after a resident planted a kiss on a donkey’s nose. “I do all the time.”

Ministering to the sick, disabled, and grieving comes naturally to Parker, who went to Princeton Theological Seminary following his graduation from Middlebury. (He also received a DMin from Sewanee.) Parker headed the Presbyterian Church in Peru, for more than three decades. When he retired in 2003, he briefly considered “playing golf and reading books,” but he jokes now that retirement “didn’t take.” In addition to his work with Thera-Pets, Parker spends Sunday mornings preaching to two tiny congregations.

“Once he retired, he couldn’t give up helping people,” said his wife, Helle Thomsen Parker ’62. His work with Thera-Pets is just “an extension of ministering.”

“He probably has one of the kindest souls, the gentlest souls, I have ever known,” said Trombley, who has known Parker since he moved to Peru more than 40 years ago. “There’s no pretense. What you see is what you get.”

The Parkers still live in Peru on a farm they named Butternut Ridge. He started keeping donkeys around when he retired, following a mission trip to Jamaica, where he fell in love with the animals. Today his menagerie includes 10 donkeys, as well as a smattering of cows, alpacas, chickens and other fowl, and occasionally pigs.

A few days after visiting Helen Porter, Parker was back in the North Country—and swapping his Sunday morning vestments for a Thera-Pets polo shirt for an afternoon with developmentally disabled children. By mid-afternoon, about a dozen kids had convened at the farm of a neighbor, another Thera-Pets volunteer, down the road from Parker’s home. Normally they would meet at Parker’s farm, but today they were taking a special walk.

They played games, sat quietly as Parker told a story, then raced to pair up with their donkeys. The gaggle of kids, parents, and volunteers led the donkeys on a walk through a state park, which culminated at a playground.

“It’s the best thing for both of my boys,” said mother Mary Prial, holding a donkey’s lead as her two boys, seven-year-olds Luke and Sebastian, tore off for the playground. Sebastian is a typical kid, but Luke is hearing impaired and developmentally delayed and was terrified of animals before he began working with Parker’s donkeys. Prial really likes that in the Thera-Pets program there aren’t any distinctions drawn between the two kids.

“Here they’re not different,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. I love seeing both of my boys having a good time.”

Kathryn Flagg ’08 is a freelance writer living in Shoreham, Vermont.

The Champ


The first time I met W.C. “Bill” Heinz  ’37 I told him that his column “Death of a Race Horse” had made me want to write better than I probably ever would. I read it for the first time in 1964, my freshman year of college, 15 years after Heinz had written the piece on deadline for the soon-to-be-defunct New York Sun. On that July day in 1949, Heinz had watched as a young colt named Air Lift—making his first racing start—stumbled on the track, breaking his leg.

Heinz pulls the reader in so close to the tragedy unfolding mere feet way that one can barely breathe.

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt’s forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

“Aw—” someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

“Death of a Race Horse” is one of 38 columns and features compiled by Bill Littlefield, longtime host of NPR’s Only a Game, who knows great storytelling. This collection, which is being released on the centennial of Heinz’s birth, should reawaken interest in and love for one of our greatest sportswriters. Wilfred Charles Heinz (1915–2008) felt and observed deeply, but he always left space for the reader to feel too. Here is Babe Ruth, sick with the cancer that will soon take his life, pulling on his uniform for the final time at Yankee Stadium.

The Babe started to undress. His friends helped him. They hung up his clothes and helped him into the parts of his uniform. When he had them on he sat down again to put on his spiked shoes, and when he did this the photographers who had followed him moved in. They took pictures of him in uniform putting on his shoes, for this would be the last time….The Babe took a step and started slowly up the steps. He walked out into the flashing of flashbulbs, into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any other man.

In 1991 I visited Heinz at his hillside home in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived with his wife Betty Bailey Heinz ’35. I told him about his influence on my life; later I would find out that other writers, Littlefield included, had made similar pilgrimages and had expressed similar sentiments.

Gracious and generous, he showed me his writing scrapbooks, each of his columns neatly pasted in place, and as he turned the pages, he spoke about his life and work, a master class in a Vermont living room.

Heinz compared writing to boxing. “You set the reader up,” he said, “you feint, you jab, you bob and weave, you bring them in close, then when you are ready, you hit and hit hard.” He said never waste a word; a good writer should strip each sentence to its core.

Heinz once told Sports Illustrated that writing for him was “like building a stone wall without mortar. You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”

Bill Littlefield and the Library of America have given readers a 600-page gem of a book, filled with stories and columns whose words are balanced and solid, a stone wall built without mortar. We are afforded another chance to see America through the eyes of one of the most acute observers of his generation. And when any of us reads a story that takes our breath away, I lay odds that the writer once read “Death of a Race Horse” or “Brownsville Bum” or “The Fighter’s Wife” and thought, “If only I could do that….”

Mel Allen is the editor of Yankee Magazine and a pretty darn good writer himself.