Oh Snap!

By on April 13, 2018

News photographer, Preston Whitcraft, retires his Nikon after five  decades.  Career highs and lows include photographing U.S. Presidents and documenting cross-burning Klansman.

 

Preston Whitcraft covered the Ku Klux Klan in May 1989, when the KKK infamously arrived in Ephrata – for the second time in two years- espousing hatred of blacks, Jews, and gays.

 

By Patrick Burns 

“What’s a weekend?”

That’s been the typical response photographer Preston Whitcraft reserved for Friday afternoon queries about plans for his “presumed” days off.

Preston, who this Friday hangs up his Nikon after a nearly 50-year career documenting images of life in the Lititz and Ephrata areas, will suddenly have an open dance card on Fridays, Saturdays, and even Sundays.

For almost as long as Preston remembers, weekends meant covering high school sporting events.

While he may outwardly grumble, Preston loves covering sports and schools.

Of course, he’s photographed every conceivable school event held in Pre-K, kindergarten, elementary, junior and senior high school, and even college.

“I don’t know, maybe my car will automatically drive to schools when I retire,” he said. “It will be strange not covering high school sports on Fridays and Saturdays.”

News photographer Preston Whitcraft in the Ephrata Review’s photo lab in 1978. The photo on the top right shelf is the first he photographed as a full-time employee.

Indeed, his trademark USA, red-white-and-blue suspenders were a sideline fixture at baseball, tennis, softball, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, and of course Friday night football, his favorite sport to photograph.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his newspaper career unofficially began at his alma mater, Warwick High School, where he honed his photography skills snapping shots for the school newspaper, yearbook, and other school publications between 1968 and 1971. He also took pictures for graphic arts classes in junior and senior high school.

Preston’s path to a full-time gig in the newspaper business didn’t happen right out of high school – as often was the case for newspaper employees in those days.

The life-long Lititz area resident graduated from Warwick High School in 1971 and wasn’t hired at The Ephrata Review until August 1978.

That full-time photography job opened when Warwick classmate, Jeff Schload left the paper. After high school, Schload attended Antonelli Photography School outside Philadelphia– founded in 1938 by internationally renowned photographer and artist, Severo Antonelli.

“They were big shoes to fill, but I had known (Schload) forever,” Preston said. Indeed, Preston and Schload were very good friends. In fact, the pair, along with another Warwick student, Steve Wilson, started their own photo lab business while still in high school.

“We used a 4-by-6-foot area in the basement of the Schload’s home,” Preston said.

Whitcraft’s 2014 photo of the arrest of animal rights activist Kelly A. Lehman, 29, of Lancaster, drew world-wide attention. The photo was the last ever taken at an Ephrata Fair pig chase as the 40-year-old event was cancelled in 2015.

Some of the businesses’ best clients in those days were none other than the Lititz Record Express and Lancaster Farming. Oddly enough, those newspapers at the time made the switch from Polaroid to 35 millimeter technology.

“They either brought the film to the house or we’d pick it up at the Record Express,” Preston said. The going rate at the time was about $2 per film roll. “We didn’t get rich but we made spending money,” he said.

Despite Preston’s ties to the Lititz Record Express in high school, it would takes years of freelance correspondence work before the full-time position opened up for him in 1978.

Technically the Lititz Record and Ephrata Review were not affiliated until LNP merged them in 1988. Besides working as a freelance photographer, shooting mostly sports between 1976 and 1978, Preston got a taste of life working in a textile manufacturing mill with his father, Harold, who owned H & R Fabrics.

“It’s been awhile, but I remember well working with my dad making materials for T-shirt manufacturing companies,” he said. Describing that job and time spent working in another mill as “hot, sweaty and long hours,” Preston reflected on life for almost 50 years as a professional photographer.

“I thought I’d enter business with my father but the 70s were a bad time for textile manufacturing,” he said. “It is what it is.” He then paused with a smile and said, “You have to admit this is a pretty cool job.” “There are a lot of worse things you can do in life,” he said adding a period working in the “animal trap business” at Woodstream in Lititz.

That “cool job” opportunity may never have occurred if not for a “higher calling” in 1978.

Preston’s buddy Schload had decided to leave the paper to attend seminary school after four years as the full-time Ephrata Review photographer. Forty years later, Preston admitted he never expected the job would last a lifetime when he accepted it from then editor A. Frank Naddeo. “Before he left, (Schload) said ‘I kept this job for four years, let’s see if you can beat that.’” Preston said. “We I guess you can say, the rest is history.” As the years rolled on, technology made life a bit easier for photographers who no longer had to develop film. The new process eliminated much anxiety by allowing the instant gratification of knowing immediately what a shot looked like.

 

 

 

“The digital (age) at least gave you an idea of what you had (shot),” he said. Preston excelled at sports photography – something that came naturally due to his love of games he played as a kid. He excelled in track throwing events and the long and triple jumps.

The 65-year-old had played high school football and his beloved baseball for two years despite being unable “to hit a lick.” Still, a passion for the game compels him to attend (and photograph) many Phillies game, usually making it to opening day.

His other loves, horses and car racing, attracted him to major events such as the Kentucky Derby, Breeder’s Cup races in New York and California, as well as many NASCAR contests. Discussing his bucket list recently, he mentioned traveling to attend more big-time sporting events while in retirement.

“I’ve never been to Daytona,” signaling a trip to the Daytona 500 as near the top of things to cross off the list. What he loved best about his job was never knowing what tomorrow might bring.

Preston remembers the highs and lows of being a newspaper photographer. The lowlight in his career was covering the Ku Klux Klan in May 1989 when, for the second time in two years, the KKK infamously arrived in Ephrata espousing hatred of blacks, Jews, and gays.

They weren’t too thrilled with photographers either, Preston said. “It was scary when the KKK came to Ephrata,” he said. “That was the scariest event I ever worked. They had threatened to attack all photographers.”

Deep down, Preston loves the traditional things in life and American values.

“I remember covering Ronald Reagan; that was definitely a highlight,” he said. His job as a photographer allowed him to be front and center for Ephrata Fairs, parades, Easter egg hunts, Santa visits, July Fourth Firecracker Runs, and intimately capturing the joy and sadness that followed many intense basketball, baseball, and football playoff games. Whitcraft had an Ephrata Fair tradition of enjoying a pork supper on Tuesdays at Tent City before schlepping his camera inside the ring to document the traditional screaming chaos and pandemonium of the famous children’s pig and rooster chases.

Though generations had participated for about 40 years, the Ephrata Fair in 2015 suspended both its pig and rooster chases. The fair’s attorney cited concerns for the safety of participants and fair-goers following the 2014 arrest of an animal rights’ protester and continued criticism of the tradition. In that final event, Preston captured history by snapping a photo of a female animal-rights activist being arrested by a female police officer in the center of the chase ring.

Perhaps the most famous photo he had ever taken, the picture was picked up by newspapers all over the USA and then around the world.

To this, Preston replied with his trademark response: “It is what it is.”

Patrick Burns is a staff writer for the The Lititz Record. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 717-721-4455 

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