Jack Lenahan was in basic training when he spotted a serene Marine taking pictures of him and other miserable young jarheads as they elbow-crawled through dirt.
It was a life-changing moment, he told Sun-Times writer Bill Braden.
“Hey,” he thought. “That looks like a good way to earn a living.”
Mr. Lenahan joined the Sun-Times as a photographer in 1949 shortly after the paper was founded by the merger of the Sun and the Times.
“He was one of the most talented photographers of his era,” said former Sun-Times picture editor Richard Cahan.
Mr. Lenahan snapped the Beatles, Elvis, Emperor Hirohito, sports, fires and crime stories before retiring in 1992. “I think he photographed every president that came to Chicago, from Truman through Clinton,” said his son John. “He saw the worst of humanity and the best.”
One of his worst days happened in 1968. Mr. Lenahan was beaten by police officers as he photographed what he described as a “brawl” between cops and Vietnam War protesters. Some of the officers were veterans, and they were “seething” over demonstrators hoisting a Viet Cong flag, Mr. Lenahan told John Conroy of the Chicago Reader.
Before then “we had a close relationship with the police, they never really bothered us,” he said in the 1988 interview. “So I was takin’ pictures of it and one cop tried to run me over with his three-wheel motorcycle. And I went over to him. I said, ‘Hey, you know I’m with the Sun-Times,’ and the guy hollers ‘Help!’ and about 15 cops jumped on me and started hittin’ me and kickin’ me. And some of the cops knew me, which really saved me — they were pulling the other cops off.”
The beatdown resulted in a meeting with the police superintendent. The department issued media armbands and apologized. Mr. Lenahan remained sanguine and worked as a photographer almost another quarter-century.
“I had relations on the Police Department,” he said. “I didn’t file charges.”
Mr. Lenahan, 89, died Monday at Sunrise Assisted Living in Naperville.
He was hired at the Sun-Times by chief photographer Tom Howard, grandfather of actor George Wendt and a great-grandfather to Jason Sudeikis. Howard was famous for a 1928 photo he surreptitiously snapped at the precise moment inmate Ruth Snyder was electrocuted at Sing-Sing, a shot said to have been the first picture of an execution.
Mr. Lenahan was respected for his versatility, work ethic and devotion to his wife and seven children. “It was about more than clicking the camera,” said former Sun-Times photographer John White. “It was about clicking the fellowship, our humanity, and love.”
If he saw young co-workers gulping down junk food, Mr. Lenahan suggested they eat right to stay healthy and do their jobs well. “He was like everybody’s big brother,” said White. “He was the kind of person you asked for advice.”
After co-worker Bob Ringham had a fender-bender, Mr. Lenahan followed him home in his car to make sure Ringham’s vehicle didn’t stall.
“He would not hesitate to help us younger guys,” said former Sun-Times photographer Bob Black. “He was always there when we needed him.”
Mr. Lenahan mastered the evolution of news photography as boxy Speed Graphic cameras with their flashbulbs gave way to 35 mm cameras.
A few years ago, White was searching through photos for a project. “Every time I would see an image that really stopped me,” he said, “It was Jack’s picture. . . . He was the total visual servant.” White said he plans to teach his Columbia College photo students about Mr. Lenahan as a standard of empathy and excellence.
“He was one of these workhorses that great photos just kept popping up taken by Jack Lenahan,” said Michael Williams, an author and picture editor who collaborated on the books “Real Chicago” and “Real Chicago Sports” with Cahan.
He didn’t shoot a lot of frames, but was renowned for always nailing the right image, said former Sun-Times photographer Dom Najolia. “Jack was the king of the one-shot wonders,” Najolia said. “Jack could go out on assignment and get the definitive shot.”
In later years at the Sun-Times, Mr. Lenahan lost vision in one eye, yet still managed to shoot award-winning images. “He was the best one-eyed photographer I’d ever seen,” said Ringham.
Young John grew up in Visitation parish, the son of Irish parents from County Roscommon. He went to Leo High School and took photography classes at Ray-Vogue School. He and broadcasting legend John Chancellor were hired around the same time as Sun-Times copy boys, according to his son.
Mr. Lenahan and his wife, Dolores “Dody” Lenahan, raised their kids in South Shore and in the St. Denis parish near 83rd and Kedzie. All seven graduated college.
When his wife developed Alzheimer’s, he visited her daily for seven years at the St. Patrick’s residence in Naperville “even when she didn’t know him,” until the day she died, said their son. “That’s called unconditional love.”
After her death, Mr. Lenahan returned to St. Patrick’s on Sundays to help push the wheelchairs of disabled residents who wanted to attend Mass, their son said.
In addition to his son John, Mr. Lenahan is also survived by daughters Mary Kay Templeton, Donna Danaher and Tricia Ajamie; sons James, Jerry and Thomas; 22 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Visitation is 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home, 44 S. Mill St., Naperville. Additional visitation is from 9 a.m. until the start of a 10 a.m. funeral Mass Thursday at St. Patrick’s Residence, 1400 Brookdale Road, Naperville.