Picture Perfect from Collinwood
You can take the boy out of Collinwood, but you'll never take the Collinwood out of the boy! And there's no better example of that then photographer and photojournalist, Ralph Tarsitano.
Born Feb, 24, 1939 Ralph was the first of two boys born, of course, in Collinwood. He went to Holy Redeemer Grade School and was an altar boy.
He graduated from St. Joseph's High School in the Class of 1957 - the very first Freshman Class to graduate. (St. Joe's opened with only a Senior Class, and then added a Junior Class, then sophomore then Freshman. Ralph was in the first Freshman class, and therefore, the first class to complete all four years there.)
But, unlike the average person who went to school and home everyday, Ralph's High School story took a unique twist. All of his friends went to Collinwood. It was his neighborhood; it's where he grew up.
As luck would have it, St. Joe's didn't start class until 9:00 each morning and, unless there was a special after-school event, classes would end at 2:00. ("The priests and brothers didn't believe in Study Hall - you were supposed to study at home"). Collinwood, on the other hand, started at 8:00 and they did believe in Study Hall.
So every morning Ralph went to Collinwood, signed in at Home Room and spent a little time with his buddies. Then he took the street car to Euclid Beach, transferred and got to St. Joe's (185th and Lakeshore) with five minutes to spare. He would put the St. Joe's required tie on in the street car so he was ready to go.
Then at the end of the day Ralph would reverse the trip and go back to Collinwood where he would just make the last class. George Forbes was teaching Civics and Government at Collinwood at the time and once or twice a week Ralph would go to his class.
He had a good friend at Collinwood who was in on his caper and would have him paged to the office at St. Joe's for an emergency phone call if there was something special going on, like when they took the class pictures at Collinwood. Ralph would have to get there quickly so he could be in the picture!
In later years, Ralph and his friends started a group called Collinwood Memories. They meet the 1st Thursday of every month and in order to participate they had to have either grown up in Collinwood or graduated from there.
Tom Feran wrote an article for the paper about the group and it was the first time his friends found out he didn't graduate with them. Needless to say he was ribbed mercilessly at the next Collinwood Memories gathering!
At St. Joe's Ralph took a two year class in photography.
A young Ralph Tarsitano already working the cameras
His father built him a dark room in part of a coal bin that was no longer being used. Most of the people in Collinwood turned their coal bins into wine cellars, and Ralph's family did too, but his father made sure to leave plenty of room for the young photographer.
The priests and brothers at St. Joe are believed they had an obligation to make sure you not only graduated but also made it in life. They had career nights often and the most often of all was the Military. Once a month someone from the military came and talked to the students about enlisting. Ralph and eleven others joined the Coast Guard.
Ralph Tarsitano in Coast Guard Uniform
The first week was spent right here on 9th Street, then on to Boot Camp in Cape May, New Jersey. The person in charge of photography at Cape May passed away and Ralph was assigned the job. At then end of every day Ralph would spend hours in the dark room.
Cleveland is in the 9th Coast Guard District. Anyone who graduated in the top of their class was usually able to pick their assignments. Ralph's choices were Hawaii first, Voice of Freedom Ship in Greece second and Alaska third. When he showed up for his orders the Admiral's aide knew him. He told Ralph there was a new million dollar photo lab on 9th Street and "you're staying."
There were no housing facilities at the Coast Guard Base so Ralph was told to stay at home. His family and friends had a big party waiting for him for when he came home with his orders. They were going to send him off to see the world in great fashion. None of them quite understood how he was going to be in the Coast Guard, yet stay at home and his parents would be paid to wash his clothes and feed him!
Ralph was sent to photographic schools and got a top of the line education. He traveled with the Admiral as his personal aide. He filmed the movie "Bering Sea Patrol". He covered Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower at the inauguration of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He's covered 5 presidents in his lifetime.
During the years the Admiral and his parents became good friends. His father would even send him homemade wine. Unbeknownst to Ralph his mother talked to the Admiral and told him how important it was for Ralph to continue with his education. She explained that Ralph would be the first in the family to get a degree.
The Admiral, still without Ralph knowing it, contacted Ohio University and had them send over the equivalent of today's SAT test. Ralph took the tests, not knowing what they were for. Next thing he knew he was accepted into and became a student at Ohio University. He majored in Fine Arts and Architecture which included photography.
"The two finest schools in the country for photography were Ohio University and R.I.T., in Rochester, which was funded by Kodak. And I got to go to one of them!" O.U. balanced the technical and the art portions of photography and he was able to meet many famous photographers including Ansel Adams (naturalist photographer), Yousef Karsh (portrait photographer) and Minor White (from M.I.T.)
Ralph became enthralled with the fine art part and took on Minor White as his personal guru. He studied under White for about 4 years.
After O.U. the Cuban Missile Crisis was beginning to unfold and it was then that Ralph realized he had 6 more years of Coast Guard Reserve. He was now transferred to Miami to do his active reserve time. He worked in what appeared to be an old warehouse, which housed the Central Intelligence operations and it was here that Ralph developed and enlarged U2 pictures.
He was only in Miami for three months before the situation diffused and he went back to finish College. Then it was back to Cleveland where he went to work for Metal Photo on South Miles etching photos onto aluminum plates.
Ralph then went to work for TWA where 98% of the work was government contracts. He saw M14 rifles being made, twenty four hours a day for 2 years and wondered just what they were getting ready for. This was the Department of Defense Atomic Energy Division and he was involved in a lot of the work on the Mercury Space Capsule.
TWA was working on a rocket for NASA that would go underneath the space capsule (S4RB rocket). Ralph would take pictures of the take off so they could evaluate the damage to the capsule. "I felt very good to be part of the future of history!"
It was during this time that Ralph met his wife, Marcia. Six months after meeting they were married in November 1964.
Ralph loved softball and especially 2nd base. He was playing on a softball team when he ran into an old college roommate who was working at Channel 8. The roommate explained that the station was putting together a team and desperately needed a second baseman.
Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson wanted a team that could play for charity events.
Channel 8 Softball team with Ralph Tarsitano, Dick Goddard, Ernie Anderson, Big Chuck, Hoolihan and more
So Ralph went down and interviewed and got the job. And Channel 8 got their 2nd Baseman. "So I got the job so I could play ball and wound up with a 39 year career!"
Ernie Anderson took his games very seriously. As always, Ralph's family got involved too and Ernie made "Papa Tarts" the manager. The cameramen would take videos of the games and then Ernie would run parts of it on his show.
Once after a game with Channel 3 Anderson watched the tape and was particularly impressed with the playing of their weatherman, Dick Goddard. Anderson wanted to get Goddard on their team. It was just at this time that the Westinghouse trade came and Goddard went to PA. Goddard wasn't especially happy there and Channel 8 needed a 3rd baseman, so… the rest, as they say, is history.
Ralph's father told Ernie that there would be divorces soon because they were playing a charity game almost every night. In fact, one season they played 72 games in 69 days. So "Papa Tarts" suggested they turn it into a family affair. They got a charter bus with the same driver every night in the summer and spouses, children, parents - anyone who wanted to would go along. Everyone was happy and they had a great summer!
Ralph Tarsitano playing basketball
for the Channel 8 team
Along with Ralph the team also had the stations assistant manager, as well as Franz the Toymaker (who played in his outfit), Dick Goddard, Chuck Schodowski, Doug Adair and other on and off air personalities. Doug Adair was also the star of their Basketball team; a talent he picked up when playing for Xenia.
People thought of Channel 8 as a family and a fun place to be, and many of them, including Ralph, would stop by on their day off and just hang out there.
In the beginning while he was working at Channel 8 he had the summers off. He used this time to attend Indiana University and study under Henry Holmes Smith. He worked on a process first invented in 1932 called Dye Transfer, a very long process that results in permanent color. It is a process still unbeaten today, but so lengthy and involved that it is mainly cost prohibitive to use. Ralph received a Masters Degree from Indiana University.
Needless to say Ralph has many memories of his days at Channel 8. He saw it all. He remembers covering the Democratic Convention in Chicago when the riots occurred. He was there for 21 days and saw things that to this day he can't believe. National Guard with fixed bayonets. SDS making weapons out of cut up steel to throw at the police. "It was a terrible time for everyone".
He remembers Congressman Charlie Vanik, who loved to show people the garters he wore to hold up his socks. He remembers the day he and Vanik got on an elevator with Hubert Humphrey and the Secret Service and just as the doors closed the SDS threw a tear gas bomb inside. While everyone was coughing and choking he remembers Vanik saying "Isn't this great - this is what America is all about!"
He also remembers being lost on Lake Erie for 13 hours with Neil Zurcher. They were covering a story of a parasailing-type contraption that was going to go over to Canada. It made it and so did they, but on the way back they had some trouble.
Ralph Tarsitano with Neil Zurcher
The sound man inadvertently put a recorder that relied heavily on magnets under the compass, which also relies heavily on magnets. Next thing they knew they were way off course and a storm was coming in. They found themselves near Pele Island and then Sandusky and finally after some of them where airlifted out and some had to wait for ground transportation, they made their way home.
Then there was the time during G.W. Bush's first election campaign that he was assigned to go with Gary Stromberg to cover Dick Cheney at Willoughby High School. Cheney and his wife gave a presentation then they were to meet with Stromberg and Tarsitano in a classroom where they would have 16 minutes for an interview.
Stromberg and Tarsitano got separated and Cheney got separated from the Secret Service, so the only 2 people that wound up in the classroom were Tarsitano and Cheney.
He explained that he was going to set up the shots so there wouldn't be further delay when Gary got there and then said to Cheney, "I know how busy all of you are. Do you have time for anything fun? Do you have a hobby?" Dick Cheney said, "Yes I do. I'm a fly fisherman."
Ralph's eyes lit up because he too is an avid fly fisherman. They talked about their favorite spots, especially fly fishing in Montana. Ralph told him how he used to love watching Curt Gowdy on television and see how the places he would fish. Ralph admitted that he would always wish he was along with him.
Cheney smiled and said "Curt Gowdy is my fishing partner." He went on to explain how they compete among themselves and how much fun they had. Then the Secret Service and Gary Stromberg came in and it was business as usual. "Cheney was such a wonderful speaker; he has great command of the English language."
The next day George Bush came in and Ralph was covering the story with Belinda Prinze. "Just sitting there talking Bush has such an amazing presence, not what you see on television. In person he just sucks you in like a magnet." He also covered Bill Clinton who he says is just the opposite. "Television loves Bill Clinton. He does very well in front of a camera."
"Channel 8 was very good to me. I had a great career and a chance to be creative. I had a chance to meet people I never would have met. I always saw it as a privilege to go to work everyday. I know that I was in the middle of what was happening and I was documenting time. I had the perfect life."
Ralph would still be at Channel 8 if the corporation hadn't changed their benefit package. He was put in a position where the only practical thing for him to do was retire before July 1st.
He planned on spending his retirement days fishing and catching up on his work around the house. He has tons of videos he would like to put on DVD. His tapes include things like the Hough Riots, Kent State, and George Wallace coming to Cleveland - all sorts of historic Cleveland moments. His plans are to make copies to donate to John Carroll University, Western Reserve Historical Society and his alma mater, Ohio University.
His retirement is not going quite as planned however. He was approached by Channel 3 to do the same type work he was doing at 8, but on a part time basis. He jumped at the opportunity because this is the work he loves. The plan was to work 2 days a week, but his very first week was 4 and he was thrilled.
Much of Channel 3 is brand new and there is a lot of excitement there. He also ran into people from Fox8 that are now working at 3, like Dick Russ and Lydia Esparra.
Channel 3 wisely wanted him because of his expertise and because he is a seasoned veteran who knows the city and is well respected in the circles they need to be in. He grew up with George Voinovich and Police chiefs Eddie Kovacic, Rocco Palucho and William Denehan.
He remembers as a child his father always accused now Councilman Michael Polensek of stealing his plums off his tree. At his father's funeral, Polensek said "now he knows for sure, I never took the plums!"
"I feel like I'm at home here at Channel 3. Wilma Smith treated me like gold at Channel 8 and Romona Robinson is just as wonderful and professional as Wilma. It feels great"
Ralph Tarsitano at Jacob's Field
Ralph also used his expertise and education throughout the years to teach others. Back in the 80's Ralph taught Journalism at night for 3 years at Kent State. He was the only person on the staff that actually worked in television. He took his students into the studio to see how things worked hands on. One of his students was Wayne Dawson. "I have a lot of respect for Wayne. He's one of the self-made good people."
He also got a call from his high school alma mater, St. Joe's asking him to teach a communications class 2 days a week, which he did. He got Channel 8 to donate the cameras and equipment to use and Channels 3 and 5 donated the end pieces of film (20-30 foot pieces edited out at the end of a roll).
He had his students document Euclid Beach the year it was closing. They also put together a film "People of Downtown" which was entered in a Kodak National contest. It came in 3rd in the nation.
Ralph loves Cleveland and has no plans to leave. "I probably have 150 cousins here - I could never move."
Ralph's wife Marcia with their grandson
He and his wife had two children; daughter Michele and son Kenneth. They now have two grandchildren also - Michael and Angelina.
The bricks used for the extension of his kitchen were purchased from an old man who collected them and cleaned them up from the Glenville and Hough riots. "I'm surrounded by Cleveland and its history."
Bricks from the Hough and Glenville riots put to good use in Ralph Tarsitano's kitchen
Ralph has earned many awards including an Emmy, an excellence in Journalism award from the Press Club, Ohio news photographer of the year and many others. But the awards mean little to him.
"Awards are for other people. For me it is knowing and loving the trade that matters more than any awards or special tributes."
Ralph Tarsitano is one of a kind. He is an artist, a technician and a historian all in one. He is a kind man, with a great sense of humor and an intelligent man with an eye for what is important. He loves his work and his family and he treats both with respect.
Ralph Tarsitano at home today
Few people have seen what Ralph Tarsitano has seen. Thanks to him we have been able to catch a glimpse into worlds we would never have been granted access too.
We look forward to the day his DVD compilation is completed. Seeing Cleveland's history through the lens of Ralph Tarsitano is sure to be a wonderful experience that none will want to miss.
Click to view more photos of and by Ralph Tarsitano including Bob Hope, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, Ernie Ghoulardi Anderson, Dick Goddard, Big Chuck and Hoolihan, Tim Conway and more.Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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