Me — a fresh out of college newbie photographer with no prospects — him, a seasoned professional from New York City, now helming a small photo staff up north in Michigan.
“Hello Leonard … I’m calling from Ireland … my dad says you phoned our house?”
I still remember his measured response, speaking slowly then stopping to accommodate the lapses in the conversation as our words flew up into space and back down, Dingle Peninsula to Bay City and back.
It was so cool, this was high technology in 1985. Here I was, a college grad lucking into an internship interview with the famed Leonard Falce. I couldn’t believe it. Up until that point I hadn’t even a nibble after sending out a zillion slide portfolios of my amateurish work to newspapers across the country. Nope, no thank you — all the rejection letters seemed the same. No one needed me for their summer internships, so I borrowed money from a friend with the plan of hitchhiking through Ireland until I figured out my life.
Before leaving though, my buddy Kyle Keener told me I really should see if I could work at The Bay City Times. Luck met opportunity that August when Bay City decided to start a year-round photo internship program. My shoddy, leftover portfolio was one of the few still sitting around and Leonard called the number on the resume. He and my father spoke, agreeing that the next time I phoned home — every Sunday morning — that he’d have me give Leonard a call.
The phone call happened, with Leonard being nothing but helpful. He told me he’d like to interview me in person and asked when I could be there. I begged for some time since I didn’t even have a return ticket. He magnanimously gave me a few weeks. After all, the fall internship didn’t start until the end of the month.
I met Leonard in person — after traversing Ireland west to east via thumb and bus, taking a ferry to England, a train to London, buying a plane ticket home on credit, then driving north to Bay City. He was a gracious and great man. And definitely nutty; he hired me.
This was my big break, my biggest, and it changed my life forever.
When at first I didn’t have a place to stay in Bay City, he allowed me to crash at his grand carriage home on Center Avenue for a few days until I found something. His incredible wife Jean and their sweet dog — Daisy, I think — fed and tolerated me, respectively. What a family!
I can’t say enough about the guy. He was funny and intense in the same breath. He trained me, helping hone my vision, letting me know when I messed up — which was often — smiling just a little if I got a decent image he could run in the paper. I wasn’t a professional news photographer, not by a long shot. Even my photo equipment wasn’t professional, so he reached into his discarded equipment closet and hooked me up with a battered Nikon and a few lenses that had seen better decades.
But Leonard turned me into a pro. One day I showed up at work and he collared me as I walked into the darkroom, “Get out, get lost, head to The Thumb and don’t call in ’til this afternoon.”
He explained that a photo I’d taken the previous day of some minor vandalism had become the subject of a subpoena. Instead of taking their own photos, the authorities wanted to see all my negatives in order to get a better picture of the crime scene. Leonard didn’t like that idea at all and if I wasn’t around, I couldn’t be “asked” to share my photos — which apparently suddenly couldn’t be found without me around.
We all have Bay City Times stories about Leonard, those of us who were lucky enough to work under his tutelage. Times lensman (or Len’s Timesman) Dick Van Nostrand wrote, “my mentors have come and gone, but he was the best of all.”
Another co-worker, Wes Stafford, shared a story with me about how Leonard once almost drove off the road down in Ohio when he passed a street sign for West Stafford Avenue. Leonard simply had to turn around and take the picture for Wes.
The absolute worst story I’ve heard came in last night from Kyle Keener, “Rodney … Steve Jessmore just let me know that Lenny has passed away.”
I feel both terribly sad and incredibly lucky to have known the man. When he friended me on Facebook a while back, I smiled as wide as I did when he asked to interview me way back in the previous century. The technology has changed dramatically, but Leonard was seemingly up with it all and able to use it like the consummate professional he always has been.
And now I’m making one more satellite call, this time to an incredible spirit who’s no doubt rocketing around somewhere/everywhere out there. Leonard — Lenny — thank you for everything you’ve done for me, for journalism, for all the photographers you’ve helped guide, shape and make into better professionals, better people.
You are an amazing soul, sir, and if by chance you happen upon some new, advanced technology on your journey, send us a snap shot or two won’t you?
Thank you Leonard, and say hi to Elvis for us.
Leonard photographed Elvis Presley backstage in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957 and gave this print to Kyle Keener.