LIFE AND DEATH OF A PHOTOJOURNALIST: Goodbye, Jim Pathe

Jim Pathe

Jim Pathe, a veteran photojournalist who worked for decades at The Star-Ledger, has died.  He was 83 and succumbed to thyroid cancer on Jan. 13.

Pathe, a Navy veteran who joined the submarine service, came late to mainstream journalism. He had worked in construction, built lobster boats, served as coordinator and spokesman for an organization of veterans who opposed the Vietnam War.

He was born in Connecticut, the son and namesake of a World War 2 naval officer.  A high school track star,  Pathe attended Tufts University but his studies were interrupted. He took a summer job at a construction site and was seriously injured when he fell from a roof.

“He was, for a while, paralyzed, a quadriplegic,’’ says Simone Pathe,  his daughter and only child. Jim attributed his recovery to the work of nurses at Hartford Hospital.

Jim, who sailed for pleasure as well for military service,, also attended the Merchant Marine Academy.

He  moved to New Jersey to attend Drew University in Madison, a town where he lived until his death. He also studied at the New School for Social Research.  He spent a lot of time in New York and found friends from among members of the nascent anti-war movement in the early 1960s.

“I was a military guy,”  Pathe says in an interview he taped with his daughter shortly before his death. “I loved the military.” But he concluded the Vietnam war was “wrong.”

An example of Jim Pathe’s freelance work covering anti-war demonstrations. Courtesy Simone Pathe

“They’re making a mistake. They’re making a historical mistake.”

He became involved with the Veterans for Peace, the National Mobilization Committee and the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade,  central  forces in the movement.  Pathe was a leader of the April 15, 1967 march to the United Nations building that drew worldwide attention because it provided an international forum for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to express his opposition to the war.

While living in New Jersey, he began reading local newspapers and found the work of Bill Gordon of The Newark News. Gordon, a Korean War veteran, was sent to Vietnam to cover the war. Gordon later moved to The Star-Ledger where he and Pathe met.

“I realized, ‘Oh, my God, this is the guy I’ve been  reading!” he told his daughter. “Bill and I became the best of friends.”

Pathe’s activities with anti-war veterans led him directly to photography.  He met Maury Colow, a member of the Veterans for Peace steering committee and a veteran, not only of World War 2 but also of the Spanish Civil War. Colow was  a member of the anti-Fascist, anti-Franco, anti-Hitler Abraham Lincoln Bridge. Colow, a photographer, remarked that Pathe had a knack for noticing dramatic scenes occurring during peace marches. He asked Jim why he wasn’t taking pictures.

“I’m not a photographer,” Pathe said.

“Well, maybe you are,” Colow said. “You see things that other people don’t see.”

Colow even told him what sort of camera to buy—a Nikon. Pathe went to a camera store and found he could buy a Minolta for much less.

Maury Colow during the Spanish Civil War in 11937: He was Jim Pathe’s friend and mentor–and the man who insisted he buy a Nikon. Abraham Lincoln Brigade photo.

The older man was not pleased. “I’m not negotiating with you,” he told Pathe. “If you want to buy a Minolta, be my guest. But I’m telling you to buy a Nikon.”

Pathe returned to the camera store and asked to see a Nikon. And this is how he told Simone about how he fell in love with a particular camera:

“I picked it up and it was like…immediate, just instant attraction—and it’s like, ‘This is for me. This fits my hand.’  The second I picked it up—this is the camera I want.”

It took time to save the money to buy the  Nikon, but he did—and his career began, first as a free-lancer, then as a staff photographer for the The Record in Morristown and, finally, The Star-Ledger.  Pathe had become a father and he was, as his friends and colleagues well knew, a doting, loving father. A single  father for most of Simone’s life.

Jim Pathe with his daughter Simone Feb. 22, 2017. He joined her while she covered a Leonard Lance town hall at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg for Roll Call . Credit: Lisa DesJardins, PBS NewsHour

Pathe and this writer both had daughters—daughters who pursued journalism.  On assignments together, we always found ourselves sharing fatherhood stories, daughter stories, hopes—depending on the mood and the moment—that they would or would not follow us.  Simone Pathe is now a reporter and writer for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill journal.

Jim Pathe’s way of looking at the Statue of Liberty, shot weeks after 9/11. Star-Ledger photo, courtesy of Simone Pathe

“We always talked about newspapers and  his job,’ says Simone. “On Sundays, we would go out together to buy all the papers and read them, talk about what was going on. He certainly was an inspiration for me.”

His colleagues at the paper remember Jim Pathe as a thoughtful, considerate man who was willing—and able—to talk about any subject, near or far from photography.

“He was a gentle, sweet person,’’ said Bob Sciarrino, a former Ledger photojournalist. “He’d always greet you with a kind of wry smile. Jim was interested in you and your family.’’

Jim Pathe’s photo of an entrance to the Baxter Street housing project in Newark

As a professional photojournalist, he was interested in subjects like architecture and cityscapes. He also enjoyed shooting theater productions like those produced by  the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre in his hometown of Madison.

Jim Pathe in early ’90s. Courtesy Simone Pathe

“He had a deep respect for The Star-Ledger’s home city of Newark, where he covered many a homicide,” Simone remembers. “He willingly shared his street smarts with cub reporters but he also found humanity in a city too often marred by perceived danger.’’

On Dec. 9, 2000, Jim Pathe was assigned to a story that would change his life and likely contribute to his death.  Says Simone:

“He’d been sent to photograph the demolition of public housing projects, but he’d received the wrong information about where to stand—he was caught in a building implosion.’’

In 2017, Jim Pathe spoke to me about that day—about wandering around the Hill Manor Apartments on Rev. Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark early on that cold December morning, trying to figure out where he should be. The streets were empty, evacuated. He said he couldn’t get through to his office.

Suddenly, explosive charges went off in the corners of the 21-story building—Pathe could hear the blasts.  Wispy plumes of smoke started to rise out of cracks in the buildings facade—he could see them.  Then the massive project—containing 426 apartments—slid with a roar to the ground sending up and out a toxic plume of smoke and debris—and Pathe was in its path.

“He inhaled things he shouldn’t have,” says Simone. “When he came home that night, he worried about the long term effects.”

At the office, his colleagues tried to help him. One even found an eye doctor who would see him right away. That night, Simone—then just a sixth-grader—accompanied him to the emergency room.

“Four years later, he was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer,” says Simone. “Thirteen years later, in 2017, it returned—metastatic and incurable.”

In his conversations with me,  Pathe blamed no one for what happened to him. He had taken a buyout in 2008—mostly so he could care for his father, then in his 90s. He mostly cared about whether he would have adequate health care, whether the costs of treating the cancer that was killing him would ruin him and his family.

He also worried about Simone. He always thought about Simone.

“She is quite a woman—a great journalist,” he said—and not just once.

Simone says she will always remember him as a stubborn, strong-willed and vital man—from the time as a boy that  he refused to kiss the ring of the Catholic bishop who confirmed him (Jim shook his hand instead) until the time he fiercely resisted entering a nursing home just days before he died.

 “I never thought of him as old. Not until the cancer. Not until I had to carry him up the back steps last month.”

But, she says, that won’t be how she will remember her father, Jim Pathe.

Jim Pathe in Deer Isle, Maine, 2015. Courtesy Simone Pathe

“This is the image I’ll always have of him—wearing an old hat and an L.L. Bean shirt with way too many pens and notes stuffed in the pocket—walking in Maine summer, 2015.”

(Ms. Pathe says there are no current plans to hold a memorial service. She has promised to let me know if that changes. Donations in his honor may be made to the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

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