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A Photographer’s Life Comes to an Untimely End

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The life of photographer Jim Roark moved at the speed of a motor drive, relentlessly spinning forward.

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Born in Chicago, he lived in Northridge for much of his professional life as photo editor at the old Herald Examiner.

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Friends recall his pride in his garden, his swimming pool, his ease in entertaining. And they recall his disappointment over how his neighborhood near the Park Parthenia apartments had begun to deteriorate.

“Every night it seemed, he’d hear a pop-pop-pop and there’d be another police helicopter shining a million-candlepower searchlight into his back yard, looking for suspects,” said Dean Musgrove, a friend and co-worker for nearly two decades. “He talked about the latest graffiti, or murder, and he said, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

He did go, but safety proved short-lived, as it sometimes does for urban Californians escaping crime in northern refuges.

Late last month, three young men and a woman beat him to death as he left work at a Portland, Ore., steakhouse.

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His path to that dark and bloody street was as bright and brief as a strobe flash.

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Well before it was time to leave Los Angeles, it was a time to flourish.

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Roark learned to shoot news photos from a correspondence course after leaving the Air Force, and became one of the best photographers in Los Angeles.

Remembered during a memorial service at the Little Brown Church in Studio City as a father figure, even in his 30s, to younger staffers, Roark was praised as much for his modesty as for his nearly perfect sense of timing.

“Sports photography is 70% anticipation and 30% luck,” said Rick Meyer, a longtime friend and competitor. “For Jim, that always added up to 100%. He was always at the right place at the right time.”

That gift was most evident on a Sunday afternoon in 1976.

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The Cubs were taking the field in the bottom of the fourth at Dodger Stadium when two young men ran onto the field with an American flag and a can of lighter fluid, bent on a flag-burning protest. Enraged, center fielder Rick Monday snatched the flag and ran off with it, Old Glory flapping behind, as one of the boys hurled lighter fluid at him.

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Roark got the shot. No one else did. It traveled around the world, making Monday a symbol of patriotism. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and reproduced as a poster, the photograph was hung in dozens of bars, dens and VFW halls by patriots and baseball fans. It became a defining moment of Roark’s career, as well as Monday’s.

“He was extremely modest about the shot,” said Monday, who became a Dodger himself the next year and now works as a broadcaster. “Roarkie would say, ‘Why is all this attention being focused on me? I can’t believe no one else had their cameras loaded and the right lens ready.’ . . . That’s just the way he was.”

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Years later, Roark had become an editor and quiet leader at the Herald who was loved by his staff and admired by his bosses.

“I hope you know in your hearts that he was a very big man at a very important newspaper at a very important time in a very big city,” said Mary Anne Dolan, former managing editor at the Herald, addressing Roark’s two young sons at the memorial service.

The boys needed to hear that, for Roark also had demons and dissatisfactions--and the demise of the Herald Examiner in 1989 prompted him to seek a new life.

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A few newspapers called with job offers, but nothing enticed him. He had begun to despair for the profession he once loved--"He hated that it was becoming more about machines and less about people,” said one of his four brothers--and he wanted out.

An avid weekend cook, he hit on the idea of gathering investors for a restaurant. But financing failed to come through. Increasingly, said his ex-wife, he would spend his days drinking in front of a television in a darkened room.

Vodka with orange juice. Vodka with tonic. Vodka with ice. Vodka straight up.

She threatened to leave him. They decided to move.

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“We thought we needed a change of pace. A change, a change,” said Catharina Bernstrom, a native of Sweden. “We wanted to start fresh.”

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Fresh was Portland. To Southern Californians, Oregon is a place where the trees grow tall, graffiti is an obscure Italian word and Norman Rockwell is mayor someplace.

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Untrue, sure, but that’s the fantasy.

Roark sold his house in Northridge and cashed in his Herald retirement account. He signed up for a two-year program at the Western Culinary Institute and began to prepare for a second career as a chef.

“You have to move up here, it’s so green!” he would tell Musgrove, excited about his new life.

But Roark hadn’t left his demons behind.

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Before long, his wife left him over his drinking, she said--and not long after that his eldest son refused to visit anymore. Soon, a divorced Bernstrom and her boys packed up and moved to a tiny Swedish village near her family’s reindeer ranch.

The boys hadn’t seen or talked to their dad since 1993, though when they heard the tragic news they were just talking about what to send him for his 50th birthday.

“When he was at his best, he was caring and creative. He could see things in situations that no one else saw, and he captured those moments for everyone else,” said Bernstrom, drying a tear on her cheek. “But the sad thing is, he couldn’t see himself.”

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In the end, however, the final chapter to Roark’s life had nothing to do with alcohol.

He had been working as a line cook in a steakhouse in a section of Portland called Hollywood--in Portland, it’s a good neighborhood--for more than a year. Bartender Mike Schwen said Roark never hung around to drink and tell stories. Once he did bring a book of yellowing photo clips to show his new pals, but didn’t make a big deal about it.

Perhaps in another few years he would have finally realized his dream of owning a restaurant. Perhaps he would have stopped drinking and reconciled with his boys. Perhaps he would have married again and loved again.

Instead, on a fluke, he happened into the path of a band of thugs who police say were bent on robbery.

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His superb sense of timing had mortally failed him.


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