Monday, September 04, 2006

In memory of George Petroccione

I was goofing round online, not doing anything in particular, and ended up on the website of the Albany Democrat-Herald newspaper in Albany, Ore. I've known several people who've worked there over the years, people I've worked with at other newspapers and such, and decided to see if an old friend of mine from college was still working there.

I ran his name through the search on the website, figuring it would lead me to some recent article he may have written. And I got a blank. So I went to Google and ran his name through there. And the first item that came up floored me. It was an obituary from the National Press Photographers Association for the name I was looking for, George Petroccione.

I've been back in Oregon for more than a year and while I've wondered what George has been up to several times, I've never tried to get in touch with him. I've always been too busy or some other excuse. And now I find out I'm too late, by more than two months.

I met George in college. He worked for me as a photographer on the staff of The Daily Barometer, the campus student newspaper. He eventually succeeded me as photo editor and surpassed me, becoming editor of the paper before he left Oregon State. I made it to managing editor, but the year I graduated another person we were both close to in college, Debra Rogers, became editor. George succeeded her the following year.

George and I spent a lot of time together my last couple of years at school. One year we drove from Corvallis to Los Angeles to cover the Pac-10 basketball tournament together. On the way south we stopped in Sacramento where his mother lived. She welcomed me in like a long lost member of the family.

His wife Sharon was always welcoming too and kind when I knocked on their door or called at some odd hour. Sharon had an easy smile, quite a contrast to George's almost stoic nature.

George took me out to dinner at a very nice restaurant, The Gables, in Corvallis once. I think it was for my birthday. Somewhere in my collection of photos and mementos I still have a Polaroid picture pasted into a stiff paper cover to commemorate the occasion. I think I'll have to dig that out.

It was funny. On one hand I was George's boss, but in another way, George and his wife Sharon took me under their wing to look out for me and make sure I was OK. They were sort of like, a favorite uncle and aunt in that way. You see George, though an undergraduate at Oregon State, had lived some life before pursuing his degree. He was what we called an "older than average student." Being notoriously bad at guessing people's ages, I never had a good feel for how much older George was, and really it never mattered. He was a good photographer, a good journalist and a friend. That was all I needed to know. As it turns out, I think he would have been somewhere about the age I am now.

One of my great professional regrets involved George and occurred a few years after graduating from college. I had been hired as the editor of a weekly paper in Northeast Oregon. I don't remember how the conversation started, but I had contacted George about the opening. Maybe I was just wondering if he knew anyone that might be interested. But I ended up hiring George, convincing him to move from his longtime home in Albany. Not long after, the newspaper and I parted company. And I felt like I had abandoned and let down a friend. Years later I told George of that great regret, but in his typical fashion he mostly waved it off and let me off the hook.

George was a pretty laid-back guy. Nothing seemed to rattle him or throw him off stride. He could look gruff at times, but if you were lucky enough to see that hint of a smile curl up the corners of his lips, you knew he was a guy with a kind heart. But he was a mysterious man as well. As much time as we spent together talking about photography and philosophy and how to make our little corner of the journalistic world a better place, I didn't truly know the man beneath the mustache so pale it was hard to tell if it was blond or white.

The sad irony is I've thought about George several times since returning to Oregon. We were in touch off and on over the years when I was in California. But I had not been in touch since returning home. Just the other day while stopped at a traffic light, I could have sworn the man in the car next to me was George. He had less hair than I remembered George having, but then again so do I. If it wasn't George, it could easily have been a relative. And he was driving a green pickup-type vehicle. I can't remember the model, but seeing the man behind the wheel and the color of the pickup reminded me so much of this old green import truck George drove when we were in school together. I think it was a Datsun with a camper shell on it. I made a mental note to look up George's phone number when I got home. It seemed a good excuse to call and catch up on some old times.

I guess I got distracted at home and never looked to see if I could find out where he might be, until today. Now I know that wasn't George in the truck next to me. He had already moved on down another road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Gary! I really needed to hear your words of friendship. Sharon & Nicole

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