The Accidental Historian of Laporte, Indiana For more than 25 years, Frank Pease was the primary portrait photographer in LaPorte, Ind., — a town of about 20,000. Now his photos of everyday Midwesterners have been compiled into a book called LaPorte, Indiana.
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The Accidental Historian of Laporte, Indiana

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The Accidental Historian of Laporte, Indiana

The Accidental Historian of Laporte, Indiana

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Noah Adams.

For more than 25 years, Frank Pease was the primary portrait photographer in LaPorte, Indiana, that's a town of 20,000 about, just south of Lake Michigan. And beginning in the mid-1940s, Pease took thousands of black and white photographs at his studio called Muralcraft. Photographs of brides, babies, high school graduates, family portraits of the people of LaPorte. He kept most of his proofs in boxes and when he died in 1970, they were forgotten.

BRAND: Forgotten until they were inherited by accident. When a new owner purchased the building and opened a restaurant there, he decorated his B & J's American Café with some of Pease's photos, and put the rest in a back dining room for customers to browse.

ADAMS: One of the customers who recently saw the photographs is Jason Bitner. He's the editor of Found magazine and he compiled some of his favorites into a book. It's called “LaPorte, Indiana.”

If you're near a computer right now, you can see some of these pictures. If you go to the Web site, you'll want to click on the “LaPorte, Indiana,” link while listening to our story. It's from producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister. They spoke with Jason Bitner(ph) about the photos and they tracked down some of the subjects.

Mr. JASON BITNER (FOUND Magazine): So we're in the back of B & J's American Café. There are two large metal shelving units and I've estimated that there's 18,000 photos and I went through all 18,000 in one dreary December. I would sit back here in the back of the diner and eat cinnamon rolls, drinking coffee, flipping through.

There's one shot that I love and that I always refer to in my head as the connection. It's a shot of a man with sideburns and his fiancée, or what I was assuming was his fiancée.

Mr. HUGH TONAGEL(ph): My name is Hugh Tonagal. Well, that was an engagement picture that we had taken and then it was published in the local newspaper, the LaPorte Herald-Argus.

Ms. KATHY TONAGEL(ph): That picture was taken in 1971. My name was Kathy Richards. We were married in 1972. And my name is Kathy Tonagel now.

Mr. BITNER: They're holding hands. His thumbs are resting on her palms, and she's wearing a plaid skirt, and he's wearing wide-wale corduroys, and they're staring directly into one another's eyes from across the page.

Mr. TONAGEL: I do remember the photographer telling us how to essentially pose and he positioned our hands or told us how to hold our hands, I remember. And neither one of us was smiling so it should have been a maybe more of a joyous occasion, but it was something that he took very serious at the time. And I guess he was relaying that we should also.

Ms. TONAGEL: I think I look kind of dreamy looking at him and anticipating our future together.

Mr. TONAGEL: Probably was a little bit nervous, you know, this was going to be a new life for me, shortly, when we did get married and that things would probably change.

Ms. TONAGEL: I envisioned, you know, happily ever after. I certainly didn't look ahead to any bumps in the road, which wasn't very realistic. You know, we were so young and really, we didn't have a clue of what we were getting into. We just knew we want to be married. And at the time it was not frowned upon that we'd be married at the age we were.

Mr. BITNER: One of the things that people want to know, you know it's like, where are this people today? You know like, are they still together? Do they have kids? The photo has kind of become a jumping off point for what happened to the rest of their life.

Ms. TONAGEL: I am awe that the two of us are still in love and that was a promise that, you know, a lot of people don't keep nowadays and we did keep it. And I am in awe that out of this couple looking at each other that we were blessed with four children and here it is 2006 and we're looking at it, and we have happy memories for all these years. So I'm grateful.

Mr. BITNER: Kids make great subjects. I mean they're awkward or more emotional than the adults. They're making wild gestures. And one of my favorite shots is - I don't know he's like a five-year-old kid with real short hair and his eyebrows are lifted way up, and his mouth is open and he's wearing a bow tie.

Mr. GARY LENARD(ph): My name is Gary Lenard. I know a lot of people in LaPorte probably know me by my nickname as Burrhead(ph). Mr. Pease, I believe, took the photo in 1955, which I would have been a little over four years old at the time of the photo.

Mr. BITNER: And he's raising his right arm up in the air and holding up his index finger, and it looks like he's giving a stump speech right now. He looks like the politician is just like going off about some sort of important policy matter, some sort -

Mr. LENARD: And the little caption off to the left reads, and if I am elected.

Mr. BITNER: When you see this image, you just want to know, like what kind of life is he living now, what kind of job does he have, what kind of profession? You know, if he's in jail, like what's he doing? And did he end up as a politician?

Mr. LENARD: I'm a dental sales rep. And we are the largest dental distributor in the world. We sell every dental product from two-tips to $100,000 crown machines.

Mr. BITNER: Oftentimes, what I've discovered is the stories that we come up with are completely different than the reality of the situation.

Ms. PATRICIA SALLWASSER(ph): I'm Patricia Sallwasser. I do come in and eat breakfast here quite often, and I had gone back to the bathroom, and I don't want to tell you where I was sitting at that point in time when I looked up and saw my baby picture hanging inside the bathroom.

Mr. BITNER: I think she's probably 4 or 5 years old, and her index finger is just wiping a tiny little tear from her right eye.

Ms. SALLWASSER: I was probably 3 or 4 years old, so I would imagine it was 1956, 1957. I'm 52 currently, a life-long resident of LaPorte.

Mr. BITNER: She's wearing a polka-dotted dress. You can't really tell what color it is because of black and white, but you can see that there are different colors.

Ms. SALLWASSER: I dressed up in what was my favorite polka-dot dress, that my mother made, and it was an annual trek to the studio to come and have our portraits taken, my sister and I.

Mr. BITNER: And she's looking really sweet and looking upwards, like, at the photographer.

Ms. SALLWASSER: I can remember walking up the long, dark stairway going up to what seemed to be probably at least 10 flights up, which was one but long to us, and a bit musty-smelling and very quiet, and you were front and center, obviously, and all eyes on you, and the lights on you, it sort of made you fearful. And I think in this picture, actually, I was crying.

Mr. BITNER: You know that there's a story. You know that there's, like, something going on, and you're trying to, like, figure out, you know, is she looking at her mom or her dad or, you know, what are they prompting her to do right now?

Ms. SALLWASSER: My mother very definitely instructed us how to be young ladies. That was always her word for us. Young ladies, this is how you need to properly sit in the chair and fold your hands and how to be reverent and to be polite, and it was, like I say, a bit overwhelming. And I gave that photograph to my mother as a Mother's Day present just a couple years ago.

My mother has Parkinson's and Alzheimer's at this point in time, and that was the beginning of her illness. And my birthday came around about four months later, and my birthday gift was my portrait back, reframed professionally. So it was very sweet, and that's the last gift that she's given me since she's been ill.

Mr. BITNER: The last photo in the book, it's not a particularly remarkable shot, but it's actually the photographer and his wife sitting in his own studio. It's Frank and Gladys.

Ms. Gerry Gift(ph): My name is Gerry Gift. I am Frank C. Pease's granddaughter. She's sitting in front of him, just slightly lower, his cheek rather nestled up to her hair.

Mr. BITNER: He looks serious. He's wearing eyeglasses, and it's kind of a little bit of messy flattop, and she's smiling.

Ms. GIFT: This was probably just a spur-of-the-moment photograph, and I say that because of what they're wearing. Grandma's in a dress, but it's not one that she would've worn had it been a planned photograph.

Mr. BITNER: It's almost like you can see how different people want to be represented after their passing. This looks like it was kind of later in his life. It almost has this reflection of the way he thought that people should be sitting. He's serious, he isn't smiling, he's kind of looking off into the distance, but then Gladys, she has this big smile, and she looks kind of like -she wants people to remember her as being kind of happy.


Our story on LaPorte, Indiana was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Longhaul Productions.

You're listening to DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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