Friends and co-workers mourn death of Mirror photographer Wayne Ratzenberger

Borrowing the sentiments of writer E.B. White, friends of Wayne Ratzenberger Sr. said it is not often that someone comes along who is a great person and a great photographer. Ratzenberger was both.

A longtime news photographer and freelance photojournalist, Ratzenberger died Tuesday, May 21, at age 73 in Lord Chamberlain Rehabilitation Center, with his family at his side, after a two-year battle with cancer. The Milford resident was a photographer for The Milford Mirror and other publications, and captured many local images during his career.

He was the kind of working journalist who was always on top of changes in the industry, said friend and co-worker Ralph Petitti.

“He was actually at the forefront of converting the Connecticut Post to a digital imaging environment, executing those changes during the 90s,” Petitti said. “Wayne was never intimidated by anything with regard to the direction photojournalism was going or how the Internet was impacting the profession. You never had to light the way for Wayne.”

From local sporting events to community events, to national political gatherings, Ratzenberger brought daily events to life with his camera. Whether using film or digital technology, he captured intimate moments and exciting events with equal skill.

“He embodied that odd-mix combination of old school journalist and digital journalist pioneer,” Petitti said.

Ratzenberger began his lifelong love affair with photography at Stratford High School, chronicling school events and learning how to photograph weddings. After a stint in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of sergeant, Ratzenberger returned to Stratford to work full-time at the former Avco-Lycoming Army Engine Plant, and part-time on weekends in wedding photography and photo sales.

Ratzenberger also attended the Germain School of Photography in New York City, and the School of Modern Photography in New Jersey.

In 1976, the Connecticut Post’s predecessor, the Bridgeport Post and Telegram, hired him as a news photographer. His career there spanned 25 years, as a news photographer, photo editor and finally, overseeing the newspaper’s transition to the digital age as the manager of the digital imaging department. He was known for his skilled portraiture and feature photography.

During his tenure at the Post, he photographed many presidents and presidential candidates who made their way through Connecticut, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Most recently, he covered Barack Obama’s visit to the Webster Bank Arena in 2010 for The Milford Mirror and its sister publications.

A signature moment in his career came on Dec. 29, 1986, when he was at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford to document the flight of a replica of the aircraft flown by Gustave Whitehead, now officially recognized as the first man to fly, according to Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.

With Whitehead devotee Andy Kosch at the controls, the aircraft made its way down the runway, where Ratzenberger was stationed to better capture the aircraft as it soared into the air. The replica did manage to get off the ground, but not high enough to clear him. Realizing at the last minute that the plane was not lifting off, Ratzenberger used his left arm to shield his head as the plane’s tire struck him, breaking his arm and knocking him to the tarmac.

In addition to the broken arm, he suffered cuts, bruises and a gash to the head.

Friends couldn’t help but laugh when Ratzenberger recounted the story, noting that not too many people get hit by a flying plane.

The accident put him out of work for several weeks. Just a few days after his return to work in April 1987, his arm just out of a sling, Ratzenberger was the first photographer to gain entry after the collapse of the L’Ambiance Plaza construction project, capturing images that were distributed nationwide and were later reprinted in Newsweek magazine.

Ratzenberger’s photography garnered him many awards, including recognition from the Connecticut Society of Professional Photojournalists, United Press International, and the New England Press Association, and the 1986 National Softball Media Association Annual Awards Best Single Story Photo Coverage.

After his stint at the Post, Ratzenberger was hired in 2001 as a staff photographer by the former Hometown Publications, now owned by the Hersam Acorn group, publisher of The Milford Mirror.

“Wayne was an incredibly talented photographer, but also much more,” said Lorraine Bukowski, former executive editor at the newspaper. “He was professional, even on hectic deadline days, and we all benefited from his expertise. He was so easy to work with, and patient, and he had a knack for producing breathtaking photos from mundane assignments.

“My favorite memory of Wayne came about when I asked him if he would shoot a Christmas portrait of my two children, who were young teenagers at the time,” Bukowski said. “What should have taken a few minutes took an hour because the kids were restless, but at the end Wayne caught them in a perfect moment and gave me a portrait I will treasure always.”

Tom Nash, publisher at Hersam Acorn newspapers, was equally awed by Ratzenberger’s work.

“Wayne was a classic, old-school photographer who reveled in the challenge that came with news assignments,” Nash said. “He had a passion for the visual and excelled at coming up with the ‘wow’ image. His talent was in making the ordinary special and simplifying the extraordinary.”

Ratzenberger also had numerous freelance clients — nonprofit, commercial, health care, and higher education, including the American Red Cross, Sacred Heart University’s Art Gallery, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, and Griffin Hospital.

He was the official photographer for the Barnum Festival since 2000, capturing hundreds of images through the years of festival events and personalities. In 2012, he served as executive aide to ringmaster Frank Carroll.

Ratzenberger really liked to shoot with wide-angle lenses. He liked to be close to the action, friends said. He used Nikons predominantly, but his collection of cameras included other equipment as well. He loved shooting with a Leica rangefinder, an expensive German import prized by photojournalists for nearly a century.

The avid photographer also enjoyed sharing his knowledge with others.

David Ratzenberger recalled that when he was younger, he would sometimes accompany his father to work. David had his own camera, and his father taught him how to take professional pictures. He went on jobs with his father when he covered a story, accompanied him in the dark room, and shared his love of photography.

His father “taught him to do the thing you love to do most for work because you never have to go to work again,” David said.

Ratzenberger’s photos and personality will be remembered, friends said.

“Wayne was a pleasure to work with, in so many ways,” said Nancy Doniger, a former managing editor at Hersam Acorn newspapers. “He was accommodating, helpful and had a sense of humor that put a smile on my face and kept me amused. I could count on him to get poignant photos, whether at a crime scene, disaster site, political rally, or in someone’s living room. He showed the emotions on people’s faces and had a knack for photographing dogs, which he adored, and creatures of all sorts at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.”

Doniger remembers his photos of an Amur tiger and otters as being especially beautiful.

“He captured the pomp and circumstance of the Barnum Festival ringmaster and royal family, and the lines etched on veterans’ faces from witnessing the horrors of war,” Doniger said. “There will never be another Wayne. He will be sorely missed.”

He is survived by sons Wayne A. Ratzenberger Jr. of Spooner, Wis., and David P. Ratzenberger of Lehigh Acres, Fla., and his wife, Elaine K. Ficarra.