Rollie Oxton, Pulitzer Prize Winner, my hero, mentor, friend and I got to work with him at the old Record American where I started in this business. Rollie was the King of his era. He cruised the streets of Boston for parts of 3 decades, always there when it happened.
Recently I made contact with his son David, the head of the art department at the Governor Dummer School in Byfield, MA. We have exchanged emails and now I get a chance to display some of his great images and talk about my hero.
When I was a kid growing up outside of Boston (Revere) and newspapers were an important staple of our lives, I got to see Rollie’s photos all the time. I would look at newspaper and daydream about being able to stay up all night and chase policemen, firefighters and be where the action was, just like him. Once when I was with my father riding in downtown Boston I saw him cruising wearing his trademark hat. I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse of him.
In 1966 I got to join the paper where Rollie worked. He was a God in the industry. If Danny Sheehan of the Globe was Captain Midnight, Rollie was King Midnight. Globe people might disagree with me but I think Rollie almost always had the best pictures. They were great work friends and great competitors. Everyone knew and liked him. He knew them all, police, firefighters, pimps, prostitutes and a lot of the street people. Sometimes when I got to work his overnight shift driving around in the marked company car people would yell out “where is Rollie?”
Most of the other news photographers were in awe of him and everyone had a Rollie story about his greatness. Ollie Noonan, Jr., another great Boston photographer who died in Vietnam in a helicopter crash while working for AP had a great Rollie story. Ollie was working the overnight shift for the Globe and responded to a building fire on Commonwealth Ave., in the Back Bay. There was fire showing and a woman was on a balcony waiting to be rescued. He looked around and no Rollie. Wow, he thought he was finally going to beat the Master. Then the fire department throws their ladder to rescue the woman and who is standing next to him, Rollie. It just did not happen unless Rollie was there.
When I began Rollie was using a Mamiflex 120mm film camera. A machine shop had set up an adapter on the side of his camera, which gave he a toothpick like handle to maneuver. This handle would snap into grooves on the adapter. Each groove was representative of focus feet for the lens as most of the photographers from the 4/5 era zoned focused never focusing through the viewfinder. It must have worked, as his images were sharp as a tack.
He took so many great news photos, and he could do anything there was to do with the camera but his best stuff was breaking news. The day after the terrible Sherry Biltmore Hotel fire in 1963 he had a wrap around photo on the cover of the paper showing multiple ladders up to the building and people being rescued while others had their hands out the windows hoping to be saved. The Sherry Biltmore Hotel was at 150 Mass Ave approximately where the Berklee College of Music now stands.
I haunted him, begging to be able to ride with him and like myself he would rather be by himself. I was relentless in my request and started showing up on Wednesday and Saturday nights hoping to ride with him. Sometimes he would let me in the car and other times he would say “not tonight.”
One Sunday morning we were cruising through the Back Bay near Hereford Street with me babbling and Rollie listening to the radios when he yells out Royce Road, Royce Road, I think it is in Brighton but please look it up.
We were there in about 8 minutes; Rollie jumps out of the car, circles the parameter as I am still trying to get a shot and says lets go. I did not think he took a good photo but next day there it is a great shot of the body in front of the police cruisers headlights.
In the late 50s or early 60s, Rollie was assigned to take some photos of the homeless and street people hanging around the Boston Common. He took a photo of a person supposedly drunk on a park bench with empty bottles of liquor around her. Albert “Dapper” O’Neil a local politician found out the photo might have been set up and took on the Record American. He set up at their Winthrop Square building in downtown Boston. Dapper had a car with signs and a megaphone standing in the middle of the Square shouting out nasty’s about the paper.
I worked the photo lab for many years on Saturday morning and brought him in a coffee every week. One Saturday I walked in around 730 and told him there was a big fire on Tremont Street, the C. Crawford Hollidge Department Store was fully involved. It was opposite the Boston Common, he cursed as he ran out knowing he had been by there shortly before he came to the office. He must have been at the fire ten minutes, took a couple of photos, came back and owned page one.
One night after some civil unrest in the City I was assigned to ride with him so he would not be alone. We were driving around the South End and someone made a derogatory remark to him. Rollie got out of the car and had a conversation with the man as I stayed in my seat thinking we were going to get shot or something. He feared nothing.
Later in the overnight there was a fire in Roxbury. We both went and my photos sucked. I was tired and shot nothing of any interest. He took a couple of his images and put my name on the caption sheet so I would not look foolish.
The morning after the Guilded Cage explosion January of 1966, on Boylston Street in Boston’s “Combat Zone” he came into the office at the end of his overnight shift and the editor, Sam Bornstein asked him if he had anything good and Rollie replied no. He printed one photo, an overall of the destruction; another wrap around and Sam could not believe Rollie said he did not have anything very good.
Rollie did not get excited over many of his photos but the one of Paul Stanley rescuing a woman from the Charles River really turned him on and another one where several Boston Cops captured a suspect with their guns drawn from the opposite side of a fence he enjoyed.
On another occasion he comes back from his shift and prints a photo of a car fire on the Xway but this time he had the car exploding and people including firefighters running from the wreckage. He left a short caption and went home. As soon as the editors saw it they were on the phone to him asking for more information, he was so humble about his skills.
In the late 60s there was a short-lived riot on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury. It began with the taking over of a couple of welfare offices and ended with a group of angry folks running down Blue Hill Ave from Grove Hall destroying many mom and pop business who never recovered. Rollie was asked to start his shift early incase something happened and of course it did not happen till he got there.
He also knew how to make nice feature photos and got many good sunrise photos around Castle Island of morning fishermen. He worked Sundays so he did many Easter Sunrise Services. Another beautiful photo he made was a pushcart person moving his equipment into place early one morning. He knew how to use whatever light there was or they wasn’t. He could do it all.
Rollie had made a picture of his oldest daughter Louise in front of the fireplace at Christmas time when she was very young. A beautifully lite photo with the Xmas stocking hanging and the fireplace going. The funny thing about this photo it resurfaced every dozen or so years with a different name around Christmas time and always got a great display.
After Rollie retired I would see him and his wife at the Dunkin Donut at Bell’s Circle in Revere. It was a real treat for me and I hope for him. He died in 1984. Rollie is buried in the cemetery opposite the Nahant Police Station. He must still be listening to police calls.
His son David added some history for this blog and many photos of which I hope are properly displayed, as he was the best.
My father served in the US Army during WWII and was in both Europe and Japan. He was a member of the photo corps. While in Japan, he had his own Jeep and it had the words Marion Louise written on the side (the first names of my mother and oldest sister). My father died in October 1984. He was 73. He was born and grew up in Chelsea. He only attended school until the 6th grade. His father died that year, and he went out to work to help support his mother.
Please visit David’s website and Rollie’s grandson Timothy’s websites.
Following are several more photos and memories of Rollie. This blog was written with wonderful thoughts and memories.