A Photographic Eye, a Grandfatherly Heart

Elijah Heyward III

My favorite painting, “The Thankful Poor” by acclaimed African American artist Henry O. Tanner, depicts an older gentlemen seated at a dinner table with a young boy. They are returning thanks for a meal. The piece, like Tanner’s other famous work, “The Banjo Lesson,” promotes a theme of family and mentorship. Admiring the painting as a child, I placed value on the older figure’s influence on the younger. However, as I get older I realize the contribution of the younger subject to the relationship. Young and old share a common desire to be heard and appreciated.

One of the most meaningful relationships of my life is with Mr. Reuben V. Burrell. I met Mr. Burrell during my time as a student at Hampton University. I was an aspiring photographer and historian. He had lived life at the intersection of everything I hoped to learn about and preserve. He attended Hampton during the 1940s, left to fight in World War II, and returned to teach. Self-taught with the camera, he later became the official university photographer. His timeless works capture historic moments on campus such as Marian Anderson’s visit and the first Hampton Jazz Festival.

I secretly anointed myself president of his fan club, yet lacked the courage to introduce myself. My opportunity came when a fellow history major and friend interviewed him for an oral history project. I convinced her to let me accompany her on a visit. I felt like I was meeting a Beatle: he gave his photography the precision and artistry of a perfectly crafted tune.

We traveled to his campus studio, and my gregarious friend introduced us. He offered a slight smile but remained unmoved. I beamed with excitement while pretending not to notice the astounding negatives and prints that lined the room. Our visit was brief, but it came with an open invitation for me to stop by when I liked. I called his bluff, and made it a practice to drop in from time to time. I am not sure what I expected. Did I want to learn his approach to photography, or find a mentoring elder? Possibly I wanted to prove I was different from the other young people he knew.

For I soon learned that he had grown emotionally distant after decades of working on campus. He lamented the changing values of students who treated him like he was invisible. “They never speak, nor do they say thank you when you hold the door open for them,” he would remark. I would be different. Our relationship began with test visits. I came, we talked, and I left, careful not to overspend my welcome allowance. At first I thought my presence was an attempt to live out my parents’ teaching of respect for my elders. As college became more challenging, I found that he was the one offering the service. He became an anchor, reminding me of what truly mattered in life.

During our many exchanges, I pleaded for a photography lesson. He became a master at changing the topic or appearing too busy to appease my interest. He later revealed that he was concerned that I would become so engrossed with photography that I would neglect my studies. My lessons could wait.

My proudest moment was my graduation. I was surprised to learn he would be honored with a special recognition at the ceremony. There he was, marching in full regalia behind the president. A printed bio in our programs described his graduate studies at NYU and other accomplishments. I was floored to learn about everything he omitted during our many exchanges. It was akin to finding out Clark Kent’s other identity.

Since then, our relationship has been sustained by regular phone calls and written correspondence. I marvel that he keeps a better record of the happenings in my life than most of my friends and family. I visit him whenever I am in town, knocking at his door unannounced just to capture his instant smile, which soon merges into characteristic nonchalant ease. He remains a presence as a friend, even a grandfather figure. My grandfather and namesake was my childhood best friend. He had brought meaning to the tough middle school years, as Mr. Burrell offered in college. He died when I was 12, leaving a void that will never be filled. What Mr. Burrell offers is a similar dry wit and the measured support my grandfather gave me.