by Joe Fitzgerald
Someone else held the title, but Allen Litten was really the assistant when I was city editor at the Daily News-Record. I knew the police scanner was in the darkroom, but sometimes I thought it must be imbedded in his cheekbone. One story sums up all he was for me, and I concede some folks may have heard it before.
He came rushing up to my desk one day in 1992 to tell me about the fire he’d covered the night before. He’d taken a photo of a fireman carrying someone out of the building, and it was the same building, he told me, where we’d had that other picture of a fireman and a rescue.
I didn’t remember the shot, and after searching my memory and not turning anything up, I finally asked him when the photo had run.
“1961,” he said, “and we ran the pictures side-by-side, with Jeremy Nafziger’s interviews with both firemen, if memory serves.”
Allen Litten in Court Square Harrisonburg, Sept. 2022
He’d been at the DNR ten years by the time he took that first photo. As he told the story once, he’d left high school abruptly after an unfortunate incident involving a paper bag full of cow manure set afire outside the principal’s office. He wasn’t bragging, just letting me know that he wound up at the DNR and the other perpetrator wound up in the Marines. I always assumed most of the story was true.
For half a century after that, he told the story of the central Shenandoah Valley, one frame at a time, one roll at a time, one darkroom trip at a time. To the extent that I “got” and understood the Valley, it was Allen and Pat Murphey who made me see it. Daniel Lin is their spiritual heir, and it’s too bad there aren’t more like him. Too many since Pat and Allen have acted like their half-assed brand of journalism was doing the Valley a favor. Kipling wrote of “the epitaph drear: A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.” Journalistic hucksters who thought they were smarter tried to hustle the Valley and they put the DNR on life support long before the internet began killing it.
Allen retired and kept taking photos. I’d run into him at events and find myself watching to see what angle he was after and which direction he smelled the light coming from. He knew the camera, from 35mm frames when he started to mirrorless digital devices at the end, the way he knew the pieces of his motorcycle.
He somehow took a camera along when he and Jean took the motorcycle out, and never seemed to be more than a few feet away from a photo. I don’t think he had it with him running this or that 5K, but that interested me less than how a man 20 years older than I was could still be running long after the cartilage in my knees had turned to sandpaper.
It was never clear to me at the DNR if I ran the newsroom at night or just acted like it because no one else would, and the same held true with Allen and the composing room. And it wasn’t clear if he was concerned about the whole thing or just the 15-foot-long camera that began the process of making plates for the press. He and I and some others — they know who they are – kept the place running while upper management played golf or went to Rotary meetings. I was never clear which one of us worked for the other.
He later took photos for the fire and police departments, rarely wasting a frame. And 15,000 or more of those frames wound up in the DNR, showing Allen’s friends, cousins, and neighbors what was going on.
Allen died Friday. He was 88. He had a good run.
Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.