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The Death of a Friend

Matt Schudel

When I got to my desk Friday, my colleague Joe Holley told me Flip Schulke had died. Joe had already pulled some clips and begun background work on Flip, a photographer from the glory days of Life magazine who was one of the greatest chroniclers of the civil rights era.

When Joe gave me the news, I was shocked -- Flip was a good friend of mine, someone I had known and admired for close to 15 years. I had been meaning to call him, in fact, just to catch up. We had met in Florida, which had been Flip's home since 1954, when I worked for a paper in Fort Lauderdale. I wrote a couple of stories that touched on Flip's career, and we ended up collaborating on two books -- Flip's autobiography and a photo-biography of Muhammad Ali's years in Miami.

Early in the day, Joe and I decided that since we seemed to be out in front on the story -- only Flip's hometown paper, the Palm Beach Post, had reported his death -- we wanted to do something special about a person whose name may be well known but whose photographs are instantly familiar. Joe and I went to Ann Gerhart, an editor in Style, and pitched a joint effort: Joe would write the straight obituary, and I would write a personal appreciation.

It took a while to track down Flip's most recent wife, Donna -- he was married four times-- and she filled me in on the sad details of Flip's final illness and the whereabouts of his survivors. I also knew that Flip was notoriously crotchety about how his photographs were used, and he wasn't shy about suing publications that published them without his approval. Fortunately, Donna and Flip's assistant, Gary Truman, gave us permission to publish a gallery of photographs first assembled by the Palm Beach Post.

These pictures, as remarkable as they are, don't even begin to hint at the versatility and depth of Flip's career: He photographed car races in the 1950s, standing so close to the track that the passing cars brushed his pant legs; in the Dominican Republic, he was lined up against a wall to be shot, only to be rescued at the last minute by a passing doctor; he was a pioneer of underwater photography; he shot some of the earliest and best photographs of the first astronauts; and he developed an early rapport with Muhammad Ali, first photographing him when he was a brash 19-year-old learning his craft at the fabled Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach.

And, of course, Flip spent at least a decade documenting the civil rights era, particularly with his powerful and touchingly intimate portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. They had met in Miami in 1958 and stayed up all night after their first meeting, talking about Gandhi, nonviolence and racial equality. Flip never forgot that moment or what it meant -- and neither did King. King invited Flip into the inner reaches of the civil rights movement, which gave him access to people and events that no other photographer, black or white, could get to. It was often dangerous work, such as the time King spoke from the courthouse steps in Neshoba County, Miss., saying that people willing to kill African Americans and their supporters were all around.

At that moment, Flip, standing near an open courthouse window, heard someone coldly say, "We're right behind you."

I tried to put most of my thoughts about Flip into the appreciation, but I'm not sure I conveyed how much fun it was just to sit down with him and talk. I spent hours and hours with him, both in Miami -- where Hurricane Andrew tore the roof off his house and almost ruined his collection of 500,000 photographs -- and later in West Palm Beach, where he'd lived for the past 12 years or so. Flip was wonderfully grumpy, constantly complaining about politicians and doctors and the state of the world, but he was always entertaining and enjoyable company.

In his youth, he was tall and skinny, but in recent years, he'd had a lot of medical problems; I hope I'm not giving away any secrets when I say that Flip, a lifelong teetotaler, came to enjoy marijuana in old age because it was the only thing that would alleviate the chronic pain in his legs and back.

Flip did two things to ensure that his legacy will not be forgotten. First, he had his entire collection of more than 500,000 photographs -- including 11,000 on the civil rights movement -- converted to a digital format. It's now housed at the University of Texas. Second, Flip was a natural raconteur, and kids adored him. He made a point of traveling to elementary schools throughout Florida and to colleges all over the country to show his pictures and to talk about his experiences with King and the civil rights movement. He still felt the pain of those times, and he could convey that importance of the movement with a directness and dramatic flair that few others could match.

We had talked about working on a third book, about the Berlin Wall, which Flip had photographed from its inception to its final collapse, but I'm sorry to say that project is not likely to be completed. Flip was a remarkable guy, and I'm going to miss him.

By the way, it was a very busy day on the obit desk Friday. Besides our work on Flip Schulke, Pat Sullivan put together a terrific obit on wine-country entrepreneur Robert Mondavi -- after writing a Local Life feature earlier in the day -- and Adam Bernstein had an entertaining story about Mad magazine cartoonist Will Elder.

By Matt Schudel  |  May 17, 2008; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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