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World’s longest-serving Optimist Club member looks back on a life fully lived
At 99, former Coe College photographer George Henry sorts out memories captured through the lens
CEDAR RAPIDS — At 99 years old, photographer George Henry doesn’t really use chronological labels to pinpoint the best moments captured in black and white but lived in full color. With 20 scrapbooks in his room, organized over the last three years, he uses some unexpected proxies to identify when some photos were taken.
Take, for example, the portrait of him on the wall: a crisp photo of Henry as a river guide extraordinaire in the ’60s. With sunglasses on and gold metal dental work flashing from a corner of his grin, his hat was the telltale sign of where he was.
Henry doesn’t know the year it was taken, but he recognizes the hat — it was the second of three that he put through the ringer in his 45 years as a river guide in Colorado and Utah.
Optimism has served Henry well. At 72 years of membership, he’s the world’s longest-serving member of the Optimist Club. Born only four years after the international service organization was started in 1919, he’s one of the oldest members, too.
“It means I can continue to do the things I like to do, for the people I like to do it for, and still have friends doing it,” he said.
Recruited for his strong swimming skills to help the club compete in Interclub Olympics events, he found a life of service to complement his life of adventure.
Through the lens
A World War II bomber pilot in the Air Force, a river guide in Utah and Colorado for 45 years and a lifelong photographer capturing people and animals around the world, Henry has retained the photo negatives that show a life captured positively. Adventure came naturally to him.
“If the advantage is there, I take it. If the advantage isn’t there, sometimes I take it anyway,“ he said.
Henry set out to start photography as a hobby when he came home from the war in 1946 after serving missions over Italy and Austria. With a Kodak Medalist camera purchased downtown, he started taking photos of every dance on campus at Coe College. He fell in love with the business as a profession when he realized he could do it well.
“Realizing I was a photographer, I figured I ought to learn the business,” he said, before taking weeklong classes on photography in Indiana.
A pioneer in the business, he started offering video filming for football teams in 1951. He made a place for himself at the field, where there was no place for a camera operator to stand, by climbing on top of the press box, using the door and doorknob as steps to get up. Whether it was on the press box next to a 50-foot drop or on a wobbly 30-foot tall utility ladder at Coe basketball games, he had a habit of making nearby observers nervous.
On the river
But access to some of his best photographs came as a river guide, where he gained access some of America’s biggest celebrities in the ’60s from Andy Williams to the Kennedy family to Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest.
Of the seven portraits framed on his wall today, two include Robert Kennedy: one of him with his daughter, Kerry, and one of him with his arm around his “friend,” Henry.
Others on the wall include Louis Armstrong and a family portrait in front of his Cedar Rapids home.
“I didn’t take that last one,” he conceded with a chuckle, seeing his face in the photo, too.
Henry served as a river guide for 45 years until 2000, when he was fired when the company he worked for could no longer insure him due to his age.
With the opportunities of a lifetime captured with artistic skill, George’s taste for adventure still is reflected in his pattern of speech as he rocks restlessly in his wheelchair today. Though he likes to trail off with multiple stories within stories, he usually finds his way back to the subject he started on.
For him, optimism wasn’t just a concept or a club mantra, it was a way of life.
“I can’t think of anything in life I’ve missed,” he said.
His work caught the attention of his artist friends and is noted eloquently in his scrapbooks today with their handwritten notes.
“I don’t see George as daring. He doesn’t admire recklessness,” said Richard Pinney, Cedar Rapids artist. “He wishes to be competent and honorable, and day by day, he has earned those approvals. I looked with my eyes, and he saw through the lens.”
Henry never really saw himself as an artist — just good at what he did.
“I’ve never really considered myself anything, but reading this stuff, I discovered I was pretty good at what I did,” he said. “I just did these things because they fell into my hands. Like how I was the photographer for Coe College for 67 years.”
Money wasn’t much of a motivator for Henry, who was paid “just enough to get by” for much of his photography. In the ‘60s, the Kennedy family paid him $100 for the photos taken throughout their river trip.
But his life satisfaction, derived from the namesake of the club he has belonged to for 77 years — optimism — is seen in every frame. But as he inches closer to 100 years old, he has captured optimism in some of the most common joys of life.
A budding photographer once asked him why his pictures always seemed to be better.
“You don’t take pictures of commonplace things, but I do,” he replied.
Henry knew that if you kept an eye out for the best moments instead of waiting for them to happen, you would always walk away with something worth remembering.
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