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War and Peace

World War II veteran and ’92 grad find common bond in RIT experience

by Kevin Shea '92

Many of the students who arrive at RIT to study photography carry with their cameras the aspirations of becoming photojournalists who will one day document history or have their pictures seen by millions.

During his student years, George Paragamian was part of an informal “fraternity” called Phi Gamma Dektol.

When George Paragamian arrived at RIT in the fall of 1946, he had a bit of an edge on his classmates. He had already photographed an epic war, had been wounded in combat and had survived what may be the greatest seaborne invasion of all time: the Allied storming of Europe at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 – D-Day.

Paragamian was an Army Air Force photographer assigned to a bombardment group that flew the B-26 Marauder. He photographed the moment that the plane’s bombs hit their targets all over Europe for damage assessment. If the camera systems in the plane did not work, he leaned out with a classic Speed Graphic news camera to get the job done.

He flew the morning of June 6, 1944, capturing the invasion from 3,000 feet. Later in the war, his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and he dropped his camera to take over for a wounded machine gunner while the pilot guided the craft to a crash landing. Paragamian was wounded by shrapnel and recovered in a Canadian hospital in England, where he survived the blast from a bomb that landed 10 feet from his tent.

He came home to Boston with stacks of pictures from the war, from stunning aerial views of the Allied arma

da approaching Normandy and haunting images of dead Holocaust victims, to snapshots of Bob Hope socializing with the troops and lots of group pictures of air crews posing in front of their airplanes, smiling young men who knew they might not come back. Nowadays, he flips through these slices of history, stored in a dresser drawer, like old baseball cards.

And in what may be the most ironic twist for Paragamian, the RIT undergraduate, was that he already was a published photographer – in Life magazine, no less.

Paragamian went to RIT because that’s what the Army had trained him to do and they were paying, courtesy of the GI Bill. “I don’t even know how much my education cost. I never saw one bill,” he said recently. He wanted to work at Kodak, but he never did. “It was the first time in the history of Kodak that they were having layoffs,” he says with a chuckle.

George Paragamian’s photos of the days surrounding the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, include an aerial view of the Normandy coast, middle; military leaders including Dwight D. Eisenhower, top; and planes filling the night sky “like a thousand mosquitoes." bottom

Instead, Paragamian worked for decades as a salesman in the photographic field, working for companies like Weston Electrical Instruments, Westinghouse and Phillips, where he retired, and eventually settled in central New Jersey. He married and had three children, who are now married and have children. As with many of his generation, Paragamian’s experiences in the war shaped his future.

And about 60 years later his status as a World War II veteran and his RIT degree – and mine – would be the link that brought me to his living room outside Trenton, N.J.

I know about going to RIT as a camera-toting freshman itching to learn more and more about photography and wanting to travel the world, cameras slung around my neck. I was that student in 1988. I have since put down my camera professionally and picked up a notebook and pen as a newspaper reporter since the mid-1990s.

But it was my photojournalism degree that led me to newspapers,
and although I am “just” a journalist now, technically, my degree continues to define me. In the newsroom, I am the reporter “who used to be a photographer.”

When my newspaper, The Times of Trenton, was planning stories for D-Day’s 60th anniversary in June 2004, I volunteered for the assignment. I have a great interest in World War II and respect for its veterans, and writing about it is also a fresh escape from my crime beat, a topic I’ve been covering for almost 10 years.

I found Paragamian through a colleague who had written about him in 1994, the 50th D-Day anniversary. My colleague knew I had attended RIT, and remembered Paragamian showing him war pictures and talking about RIT. I called Paragamian at home and immediately mentioned I was an RIT grad. I could tell that credential perked him up a bit. A few days later we were engrossed in an interview about D-Day.

Then our conversation turned to RIT in the late 1940s, and then back to the war. This went on for hours, and I’ve been back to Paragamian’s home to chat. During the first interview, I forgot to take notes at times because I was enthralled by his memories of his 27 combat missions. His recollections were vivid and his deep voice and his gregarious nature flavored them well. The resulting story in The Times included lines like this:

"On the night of June 5, 1944, Paragamian witnessed the 2,000 airplanes taking paratroopers to their drop zones behind German lines. “It looked like a thousand mosquitoes in the air. It was magnificent,” he said, his hands painting the air. “To me, it was the most amazing sight in my life. It still is.”

And my personal favorite memory, simply because I do not believe it could occur today, was that on D-Day, Life sent their own photographer to Paragamian’s bomb group, but the man’s pictures were unclear once developed. So Paragamian and his photo unit buddies gave the man copies of their pictures. They ran in the magazine with the staffer’s name and nobody complained about getting no credit, he says.

“Life magazine, we set them up,” Paragamian recalled with a shrug.

We have more than 40 years between our photography degrees, but Paragamian and I can talk RIT like it’s another language. He has regaled me of his years of going to classes in downtown Rochester, and I told him of the new campus in Henrietta, something he knew only from the alumni magazine.

Paragamian went to RIT with many other veterans of the war, and their experiences bonded them instantly. Fraternities rushed him, he says, but he declined. Partly it was because he was a bit older than the other students, and partly due to him not wanting to give up one of his two beers to a fraternity brother who challenged him at a college bar.

Jakes, the hangout was called, and post-war, college partying was at its finest, he recalls. Girls would come Wednesdays and dance, but not too late, he says. The RIT girls had a curfew.

Instead, he joined Phi Gamma Dektol, an unofficial fraternity of photo majors started a few years earlier that takes its name from dektol, a chemical that develops black-and-white photographic paper. “All we did was go over to this Italian restaurant that had a room downstairs and every two weeks or so we’d have a big blast with beer and singing,” Paragamian recalls.

At the time, many photo programs were two-years, but Paragamian says he wanted to stay on and study printing, too. “Offset (printing) was a big deal then,” he says, and he wanted the training for his sales career. “No, you can’t do that,” he was told.

“Yes I can,” Paragamian says, demonstrating a determination he still displays. He took his case to the administration and won. He stayed for another year.

Paragamian played on an RIT baseball team that only had shirts issued by the school. He attended basketball games at Jefferson High School because the RIT city campus had no court at the time. And, he says, “I wanted to play hockey so bad.” RIT didn’t have a team, unimaginable now for a national Division III power – soon to become Division I (see page 6). The Boston native says he tried to get one started, using a nearby pond. He got no takers.

Paragamian says he wished he had attended class on the new campus so he could play indoor hockey and live in a real dormitory. Another irony for a veteran, his first dorm room was a converted barracks.

“All the good stuff came after I left,” he says.

Paragamian’s key to success, and life, he says, is staying busy. He consulted for 10 years after officially retiring at about age 70, and now in his young 80s, he is still busy with an active social life at a retirement community in Hamilton, N.J. During our talks, Paragamian grew stern only once, when he warned me not to write about him being “some sort of a hero,” when I wrote about his D-Day experience.

“Leave that for the men on the ground,” he said. “Those guys who were really getting shot at,” he said. “I really feel strongly about that. My heart went out to them.”

Kevin Shea ’92

Kevin Shea ’92 (photojournalism) has covered the police beat at The Times of Trenton (N.J.) since 1998. He has interviewed a twice-convicted killer who had escaped from jail, sifted through lower Manhattan rubble with Sept. 11 recovery workers and was a lead reporter covering the 2001 anthrax attack, which originated in the Trenton area.

Before that, he worked at the Asbury Park Press in Neptune, N.J., for five years, as a photography editor and staff writer. He is the recipient of 12 journalism writing awards and four photo editing awards. A native of Silver Spring, Md., he lives in Pt. Pleasant, N.J., with his wife and three daughters.