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June 12, 2007

A Gentlemanly Journalist, a Fierce Competitor

Roy Meachum

As downtown's Portobello Road owner Kat observed, "He had a good long run." Doug Chevalier was 87 last week when death found him in Florida. The Washington Post obituary said he had moved to Venice five years ago.

My problem with the story arose from the picture; it showed a man only vaguely familiar. The glasses and the eyebrows were the same, but the rest of his hair, including a widow's peak I remember, was totally gray. Lined up across the bottom of the photo were the various cameras used during his 30-year career with the Post.

Doug was there when I arrived, fresh out of the United States Army. The first day on the job I worked Dwight David Eisenhower's first inauguration carrying equipment for chief photographer Arthur Ellis. The bespectacled, clean-shaven Doug Chevalier worked the same gig; it was, according to the obit, his first in a series of historic events.

By the time war-hero Ike left the White House I had departed the paper, initially for the Post's television station, WTOP-TV, which broadcast on Channel 9. I landed the early show that changed its name to "Roy Meachum in the Morning."

Doug was one of my former colleagues who let me know their pride that a former copy boy had made good in the new medium. I never thought of myself a star in the pioneer TV days, but former colleagues like the Swiss-born photographer let me know they quibbled. But it may have been simply that I escaped from being an ink-splattered drudge to pancake makeup.

By the way, after more than several assignments together, I read Sunday that his French rated on par with his English. I didn't even know he spoke the language. But I never knew him to gab about himself.

During my years working stories in various parts of the world, manifesto ego seemingly belonged to scribblers. Photographers and camera crews were not shy; most let their work talk for them. Arthur Ellis hinted to the world at his importance by wearing cuff links that pushed the style envelope for journalists, even in that more formal society.

Most men behind the lens - few women worked within their ranks then - operated on a sort of intuition; even while telling them about what we were covering, their eyes danced over the scene. Not infrequently, a cameraman would render words irrelevant by selecting a shot that better told the story than all shared insights from the assignment editor and me.

Another attribute important here: crews and individual cameramen watched out for their reporters. On more than one occasion, I was stopped from plunging bull-headed into events by the guy who held the Arriflex or Nikon. It would be impossible to relate all the times the Doug Chevaliers or Arthur Ellises saved my neck.

On another note, I was fortunate to be working at the Post when the workhorse Speed Graphic retired. If you don't know what that is look at last Sunday's Post; it's the first camera in line under Doug's face. (Of course you could go to movie memories of the old working press. Those colorful contraptions did not come with fedoras holding a press badge; in use was another matter.)

Until well after World War II, photographers lugged around the shoulder bags that carried their boxy instrument and its mandatory flash attachment. They also kept close to hand "holders" that contained "film" in the form of plates that had to be slapped in and out after every shot. For an important event, like presidential inaugurations, two Speed Graphics were necessary, and all their accoutrements, which is why I was hired to carry around Art Ellis's equipment, Jan. 20, 1953.

When the first foreign cameras appeared in the Post newsroom, Mr. Eisenhower was routinely practicing putting shots on the South Lawn; his second term had begun. For Washington journalists it was a slow, almost sleepy time, accentuated as always by late Spring heat.

By contrast, in the building erected by Eugene (Butch) Meyers after buying the paper at a sidewalk auction 20 years before, excitement reigned. Al Friendly was obviously more excited about the new Nikons than Mr. Ellis and his crew. The managing editor ordered the flexibility and capacity of the Speed Graphic's successor shown off. There were numerous full pages that not so subtlety bragged of the photographers' new "toy" that clicked out multiple versions of the same shot. Wow!

When speed was not a factor, the German Rolleiflex was whistled up; it was reportedly more artistic. All the way to the right in the last spot of tools he used in his trade, there is - I think - a digital camera. By the time that came along, however, I was living and writing columns in Frederick.

With whatever equipment was available at the moment, my old colleague pumped out sometimes important visual impressions of his world. His peers in the White House Photographers Association gave him awards. His trade offers no higher compliments.

In his later years he abandoned the bow-ties that stick in my mind. At least the smiling guy in Sunday's Washington Post wears none. As I said, the moustache I never knew and the grayness is passing strange.

Doug Chevalier was a gentlemanly journalist and, at the same time, a fierce competitor. That's the highest compliment I can pay.

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