by Tony Moore
“I’m reaching out to see if you could forward this message to A. Pierce Bounds ...”
And after Jim Gerencser ’93, Dickinson’s archivist, read on, he found one-time Carlisle resident Tanya Gardner unraveling the unknown and unlikely history of a photograph taken by Bounds ’71 in the summer of 1973. The photo shows three little girls, happily gathered together on someone’s front porch. It looks old, from another era, and the girls look happy the way only children can.
“I took that picture on the very last day I photographed at 442 North West Street,” says Bounds of the photo, one of a series he took of neighborhood children in Carlisle that summer. “I had no particular reason for doing it other than I liked taking pictures,” he says. “The kids, they’re just beautiful: outgoing, fearless, friendly. And they loved to mug for the camera.” He stops for the memory. “But they were usually just being themselves ...”
Nearly 10 years after he took it, Bounds, who went on to become Dickinson’s college photographer from 1983 to 2010, submitted the photo to Alive Now!, a spiritual magazine, and it was picked up for publication. Soon after, the Rev. Cecil Gray, then an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, received the magazine in the mail from his mom, who always sent him Alive Now! when it came out. He usually just read it and discarded it, but this issue was different.
“There was this picture of these little girls,” says Gray. “I saw it and said, ‘There’s something going on here, and it’s a blessing.’ And I propped it up and saw it every day.”
In 1991, Gray was at Temple University working on his Ph.D. and serving as executive director of the Church and World Institute, and he had the magazine, opened to display the photo, thumbtacked up over his desk. A woman named Mary Jackson was working with Gray, and she came into his office at the end of the day. When he looked up from his work to ask her what was going on, she simply said, “Nothing. Just heading home for the day.” And she turned and left, returning the next day as usual.
“Years later,” begins Gray, now a United Methodist Church pastor, “Mary told me she came in to quit that day. She said, ‘And I saw that picture, with my child and neighbors, and God was telling me that I should stay.’ ” The child was Barbette Jackson, and the neighbors were Tressi and Tessie Palmer. Mary never mentioned seeing the photo to anyone beyond Gray. So none of them would find out that this photo existed, that it had such a lasting effect on Gray or Barbette’s mother, for another 23 years.
Mary Jackson passed away in February after a brief struggle with cancer. During Gray’s eulogy, he told the story of Jackson coming into his office that day, mentioning how all the good work they had done together over the years would never have happened had she not seen that photo, had she not stayed on.
“At the funeral, Barbette and I were in the first row,” says Gardner, one of Mary’s four daughters. “And he’s telling the story and we’re trying to process it, because we had never heard about it before. Later, we showed the other girls the picture, and they just sat there crying, saying, ‘We cannot believe this.’ ”
After her mother’s funeral, Gardner set out to find the photographer, and Googling the name on the photo credit brought her eventually to Bounds and his long history with Dickinson. So she sent the e-mail to Gerencser, and he forwarded the note to Bounds, who was struck by it as powerfully as the Jackson family had been by his photo.
“I was overwhelmed,” Bounds says. “I just read it over and over and over and was just ... bowled over.”
Since then, Bounds has visited the family and hosted an emotional family reunion on campus—an event that was filled with tears and more revelations.
“I teach,” says Gardner, assistant professor of communications, arts & humanities at Delaware County Community College, “and my former dean [Clay Railey ’77] is also one of the people in the pictures Pierce took. We looked at the series of pictures, and it was him in one and me in the next, so we were on the porch together.”
And Tim Palmer, known previously as the Dyn-O-Mite! Kid because of the hat he wore in the pictures, is the son of Margaret Palmer, who has worked in Dining Services for 18 years. But if the memories of that summer, of that group of children, can be distilled to one image, it’s the one Gray has been pinning up over his desk for 32 years now.
“When I look at it, it gives me joy,” he says. “Miss Mary’s still at work, orchestrating this, bringing us together. I mean, come on. This is like a movie that someone sat down and wrote and created all these connections. But this is real.”
View more of Pierce Bounds ’71’s 1973 series of photos at 442 North West Street.
Read more from the fall 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Published November 5, 2014