Half Past His Autumn

Fred Suggs Jr. to me was like Gordon Parks -- innovative, tenacious, opportunistic, rakish, gracious and legendary. Parks the filmmaker/photographer/writer/ poet gave us Shaft and The Learning Tree

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Fred Suggs Jr. to me was like Gordon Parks — innovative, tenacious, opportunistic, rakish, gracious and legendary.

Parks the filmmaker/photographer/writer/ poet gave us Shaft and The Learning Tree, was a Life photographer and remains a Renaissance man. He smashed barriers not because he was a poster boy for revolutions or causes — he knocked them down because talents and passion left him little choice.

So it was for Suggs. The photographer/publisher/activist/humanitarian died May 10 at the age of 82.

Death is allowed its suddenness. But nothing readied those who knew Suggs for his death.

We weren't ready because Suggs hadn't prepared us. He was everywhere all the time, so we took for granted we'd see him everywhere all the time. And we did, until the final moment.

I'd just been on a media panel with him at the Grassroots Leadership Academy.

With typical aplomb and wisdom, he railed about how ill-prepared our children are. He said we'd failed them — parents, civic leaders, teachers and society in general.

Denise Johnson, owner of Drumbeat Communications, led the session. It's to our benefit that Suggs was always invited to such discussions.

Suggs published Johnson in NIP Magazine in 1983. It was her first pro writing gig.

"You just kind of know Fred from around town 'cause he's always just there," Johnson says. "He's either around in his jogging suit or with his camera. Fred's always been there when the newspapers were shaky."

Suggs did a lot, and he was always just expected to continue.

He was born in Florence, Ala., and attended the University of Cincinnati for two years and studied business law, journalism and photography. Jim Crow sidetracked him, and he landed at Union Terminal working as a busboy, soda jerk and trainer.

In 1952, he opened his first photography studio in the West End. Like Parks, Suggs started making his own way. He would have died stepping and fetching had he not.

Suggs started NIP (News In Pictures, then News, Information and Pictures) in 1955 as a medium for his own photographic work. He also showed the world that blacks dreamed, lived and excelled beyond domestic labor, rear entrances and separate fountains.

He remained at the helm of NIP until 1990. Suggs sold it to Howard and Ruby Bond, who sold it in 1995 to the Sesh Communications partnership.

Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, editor of the Cincinnati Herald, also is a Sesh partner. Like many of us, she met Suggs at some forgettable function. But he was there, in the mix.

"I sat next to him at a function and he talked about being a photographer and not being able to get his work published, so he started NIP Magazine," Kearney says. "I thought it was a great story. Here's this obstacle, so why not make your own opportunity? He was the ultimate mentor to everybody."

Meanwhile, Suggs emerged and remained as a human rights activist. During his early days here he helped integrate downtown lunch counters, theaters and retail stores.

Ernie Waits Sr. was already entrenched in civil rights struggles when Suggs arrived. He remembers Suggs, his camera and his interest in overhaulng public education. Suggs last year ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Cincinnati Board of Education.

"His most fervent conviction was to start at pre-kindergarten through third grade and that, if children were taught well at that level, they'd get a good start," Waits says. "His gift was very great and his participation in the overall preservation of human rights has been steadfast. His interest was in humanity, in mankind itself."

Johnson says it was Suggs' legacy.

"I think 'involvement' would be the right word to describe Fred," she says. "Even at the end he was talking to me about restructuring some things for the school board, and this was after the man was defeated for school board. Every other word out of his mouth was about the kids."

Maybe it's what kept him interested, vital, energetic and around. I'd see Suggs at the strangest events where I'd be questioning my own attendance. He approached me recently about a story for Tri-State Talk Magazine, another venture he started in 1996 as a local version of Jet.

I told him I was interested but that I'd have to make time. Then I thought about a story about him for this paper. Then it was too late.

But not really, because here we are remembering a legacy built on the refusal to submit to oppression. And in the world I orbit, countless professional blacks got a start in Suggs' pages, by his referral or tutelage.

"I do feel honored to carry on his legacy," Kearney says. "He started something, and the key thing is anything is possible. It might sound corny but it's true. Nothing got in his way. He never thought he couldn't."

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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