By Sue Botos
Rocky River resident Thomas Harper started taking photography seriously in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the death of his daughter Kristen in 1983 at age 8 that the impact of the art form came into sharper focus.
“Kristen’s passing made me realize the importance of photography to preserve special memories. From the early 1980s, I began to save my better photos but it wasn’t until 1990 that I decided to create a book of personal photography in a Norman Rockwell style as a lifetime memory for the people of Rocky River,” Harper wrote in the introduction to his coffee table styled volume titled, “Rocky River, Ohio: Where the River Ends.”
“This is a legacy gift to the town in memory of my daughter,” explained Harper recently. The 240-page collection features more than 700 photographs of about 3,000 people spanning more than 25 years. Chapters illustrate city workers, (“They make our town so great”, exclaimed Harper), schools, parks, civic organizations, churches, wildlife and city traditions. Criteria for appearing on the pages is living, working or having gown up in Rocky River, although a 5-by-7 spot on the last page allows the addition of the buyer’s own photo.
“That way, anyone can have his or her picture in the book,” he explained. Harper stated all proceeds from book sales, anticipated to be $30 per copy, would benefit the Rocky River Historical Society.
History is one of Harper’s many passions, and he is able to trace his ancestry back to the 1600s.
“New Englanders keep track of their roots,” stated Harper, who grew up in Boston and has lived in Rocky River since 1974. He continues the philanthropy found in those roots, which include his mother, an accomplished sailor, who endowed a scholarship to her alma mater, Vassar, and bicycle tycoon Col. Albert Pope, who gave land to MIT.
“I like long-term projects,” stated Harper, adding that it took seven years to decide on the name alone.
Describing it in sailing terms, he explained, “You put out into the lake (Lake Erie) and you bring it down the (Rocky) river.” The title accompanies the cover photo of a Cleveland Yachting Club Regatta in 2000. “I entered it in the Westfield (Insurance Company) photo contest for the 2004 calendar. It was chosen as one of 13 out of 600 entries,” recalled Harper, adding that his work represented May.
During a recent interview, Harper leafed through a prototype of the volume, which will be published in hard cover. Varying lake levels, gas prices of $1.49 a gallon, and the different looks of the rock outside of the high school, which is painted by each graduating class, highlight the color pages. A portion of one page is dedicated to the “Beachcliff Biddies,” which Harper said is the oldest women’s organization in the area.
“It started as a group of moms who would watch their children swim in the lake,” explained Harper, adding that the swimmers eventually began referring to the women as “old biddies.”
“I wanted to capture the romance and tradition of the city,” said Harper, adding that for some of the shots, it took up to two years to assemble groups of people. Harper’s two sons Bob, now 41, and Doug 31, also pop up in graduation and sports shots.
Harper estimated it would take about $40,000 to produce 1,000 copies of the book.
“I could do it cheaper, but this is not my goal,” remarked Harper, adding that he has received $8,000 in unsolicited funds to get to this point, plus his own out-of-pocket expenses.
One such is expense is film developing.
“I got halfway done when digital became popular, so I just continued using film,” he recalled. Harper used 35mm film and three different cameras. Even the technicians who developed that film got their recognition in the book.
Phillip Ardussi, president of the Rocky River Historical Society commented, “This book is finished and awaits publication. Tom has already collected a substantial sum to cover printing costs, but requires additional funds to move forward. If you are a resident of River, you don’t want to miss this opportunity to become part of this significant event.”
Anyone who wants to contribute to publication of the book can send a tax-deductible contribution in the form of a check made out to the Rocky River Historical Society (River Book fund), P.O. Box 16445, Rocky River, Ohio 44116.