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Obituary: Paul Vathis / Associated Press photographer for more than 50 years

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

By Peter Jackson, The Associated Press

Paul Vathis, whose 56 years as an Associated Press photographer included a 1962 Pulitzer Prize for his pensive picture of President Kennedy and former President Eisenhower walking together at Camp David following the Bay of Pigs invasion, died yesterday.

Then-Gov. Tom Ridge dashes into the press pool covering the National Governors Association 92nd Annual Meeting to greet Associated Press photographer Paul Vathis, a familiar face from Harrisburg. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr., Post-Gazette)

Mr. Vathis, who was 77, died in his sleep at his Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, home. Mr. Vathis had been preparing to cover the Jan. 21 inauguration of Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor, as Pennsylvania's 45th governor.

From the AP bureau in Harrisburg, where he spent most of his career, Mr. Vathis built a national reputation for his skill with a lens, his natural instinct for news and his boundless energy.

"In so many ways, Paul's career defined photojournalism at the AP," said Vin Alabiso, an AP vice president and the news cooperative's executive photo editor.

"For more than half a century, his careful eye captured history as it happened. His gentle manner, journalistic instinct and skilled photography always brought results. Whether it was spot news, sports or a local feature, Paul's fierce dedication to the profession was unwavering. He will be sorely missed by all of us."

Gov. Mark S. Schweiker issued a statement hailing Mr. Vathis as "a hardworking professional who dedicated himself to capturing public life in Pennsylvania and across the globe."

Paul Vathis made this photo of state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer as he held a pistol in his hand before committing suicide during a news conference in his State Capitol office in Harrisburg, Pa. on Jan. 22, 1987. (Paul Vathis, Associated Press)

Mr. Vathis provided the only newspaper photos of Wilt Chamberlain's history-making 100-point basketball game in Hershey in 1962. He had gone to the game as a spectator, taking his son along as a 10th birthday present.

Mr. Vathis shot the 1987 news conference suicide of former Pennsylvania state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer after he was convicted of taking a bribe. In 1979, he helped cover the nation's worst nuclear power accident when the Three Mile Island plant in Middletown experienced a partial meltdown.

He regularly staffed Penn State's home football games and had covered the Little League World Series in Williamsport since 1954. Before the 2000 series opener, Mr. Vathis threw out the first pitch.

One of eight children of Greek immigrant parents, Mr. Vathis was born in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chunk, since renamed Jim Thorpe.

A World War II Marine combat veteran, his introduction to photography consisted of sitting in the rear gunner's seat of a dive bomber and shooting pictures of damage that bombs inflicted on South Pacific island caves where Japanese soldiers were hiding.

Vathis won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for this picture of President Kennedy and former President Eisenhower walking together at Camp David following the Bay of Pigs invasion. (Paul Vathis, Associated Press)

Mr. Vathis began his AP career in Philadelphia after the war, in 1946. He also served a couple of years in the Pittsburgh bureau before being assigned to Harrisburg in 1952.

Linda Stowell, the AP bureau chief in Pennsylvania, recalled that Mr. Vathis was recently asked to cover a national story unfolding in York on a weekend. Editors learned later that he left his own birthday party to handle the assignment. He shrugged off the inconvenience, saying, "It's not the first time. It's the business."

"Paul Vathis represented the best of journalism and the AP -- he was fast, accurate and a leader in news," Stowell said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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