Tribute to Jack Gaunt

The Times published the obituary of photographer Jack Gaunt, who won a Pulitzer for his 1955 picture of a couple whose young child had been swept out to sea.

Joe Jares writes of Gaunt:

I had the privilege of working with him — a riot on SC’s Fraternity Row and, of course, conflagrations. It was a kick making the night news rounds with a Pulitzer Prize winner who had chauffeured Otis Chandler around when the latter was doing his stint as a reporter.

Jack said Otis could consume three double-chili-cheeseburgers a sitting (actually a standing) at Tommy’s at Beverly & Rampart.

The obit said Jack loved to cover fires and that was true. TV news adores covering fires, but nobody loved being on fire scenes more than Gaunt.

I’m surprised this good-natured guy made it to 83. In the Times cafeteria, he would shock me and others when he would unscrew the top of the pepper shaker and pour a thick layer of the spice over everything on this plate.

Eric Malnic writes:

During my first three years as a reporter — ’62,’63 & ’64 — I spent most of my evenings chasing police and fire calls with Jack in his huge, overpowered converted Highway Patrol Chrysler sedan.  There were many long, uneventful periods, and Jack told many stories.

My favorites were about how he was the only American pilot to lose three planes during World War II without ever serving overseas.

Jack, a P-38 pilot, lost the first one while towing a target during gunnery practice near Las Vegas. Someone shot him down instead of the target.  Up to then, Jack said, he had vowed never to make a parachute jump.  “But somehow, when your plane’s on fire, jumping seems like a pretty good idea.”

He lost the second while preparing to land at night at an airfield in Arizona. Someone took
off underneath him, and the planes collided. That time, he jumped at an altitude of only about 400 feet, and his chute didn’t open all the way. Jack lay in the brush with two broken legs all night before they found him.

He said he lost the third plane while flying from Bakersfield to Los Angeles for a hot date with a girl he’d met in Hollywood. At a couple of thousand feet over Castaic, both engines quit. Once again, Jack bailed out, and as he floated gently earthward, he realized he’d forgotten to switch fuel tanks. If Army inspectors found out, he’d be in a lot of trouble. So he hightailed it a couple of miles back to the wreckage, reached into the cockpit and switched the fuel feed lever over to the proper position. Only then, Jack said, did he summon help.

Here are a few of Gaunt’s pictures that I found at the Daily Mirror HQ:

Photograph by Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times
Capt. Arthur G. Hertel, left, and J. Miller Leavy at the L. Ewing Scott trial.

Photograph by Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times
Caryl Chessman and attorney Rosalie Asher. Note the heavy retouching in which the entire background was painted over.

Photograph by Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times
The home of L. Ewing and Evelyn Scott at 217 N. Bentley.

Tom Paegel writes:

I guess riding around at night with Gentle Jack was a rite of passage for young reporters. About ten years after Malnic’s tale, I was, according to night city editor “Bones,”  a “strictly organic, long-haired hippie freak.”

Because of that, I was often sent out to blend in with the anti-war demonstrators.  I remember being up at UC Santa Barbara when the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America was torched.

As I headed off to do my thing with the “insurgents,” Jack urged me to don the riot helmet and gas mask The Times had issued.  I pretended I didn’t hear him.  Thank God, however, Jack kept a fifth of Wild
Turkey in the trunk.  Even though I preferred a certain “herb” over booze at the time, it came in handy after things finally calmed down.

John L. Gaunt Jr. was yet another of those “fourth estate” (remember that?) characters the likes of
which, or whom, or whatever, we will never, ever, see again.

Charles Hillinger writes:

I will add a few memories about Jack Gaunt to those nifty notes already sent along by Paegel, Jares and Malnic.

Jack and his wife Mary Elise lived a block from Arliene and I here in Rancho Palos Verdes for years. Before that he lived on the beach in Hermosa Beach. He and Mary Elise were very special friends, of
course, not only in the office but in the neighborhoods — both Hermosa and RPV.

Jack and I regularly appeared once a year together to speak to  Miss Sensibel’s (spelling) journalism class and in the offices of the High Tide, the terrific high school paper at Redondo Union High. Jack and Mary Elise like my wife were Redondo grads.

I’ve known Jack since I left the Navy in the summer of 1946 because he was a friend of a lot of mutual friends, lifeguards, firemen, high school buddies, etc. and the friendship continued after I joined The Times staff in Sept. ’46. After he hired on at The Times in 1950, I worked nights and the police beat for 3 years and rode around LA with him covering the fires, murders, vehicle and airplane crashes, etc. We also did a lot of features together.

We spent several days together on Catalina Island in 1954 resulting in a couple of picture pages –yep, there was a page dedicated exclusively to photos on Sundays and Mondays accompanying a reporter’s feature. Margaret Upton, exec secy of the Avalon Chamber of Commerce wrote a long letter that told how several people came to the island after reading the stories and were buying property as a result.

“At our membership meeting most of us felt that your stories about our little island town were the first articles that had ever been written that truly described Avalon.” Long time island judge Ernest Windle wrote the paper and said “Chuck Hillinger and Jack Gaunt should be made life members of our Chamber of Commerce.” (How do I remember? I have a chapter in my island book about that
trip Jack and I made to Catalina. Our wives were with us. We had a terrific time.)

We have known Jack and Mary’s two daughters, Jane and Abby since they were babies. When I was a young reporter, to make ends meet, I worked part time at the Little Green Store, a block from Jack’s house in Hermosa. Hah! Jack and Mary were customers at the store. After working at the store, I headed for The Times and would often get there 10 or 15 minutes late to work the night shift in the city room. On more then one occasion Smokey Hale locked the door to the city room, so I had to dart back through the library and come in the back way. Old timers well remember Smokey Hale, our one-eyed night city editor. He locked the door to make a point.

When Jack and Mary lived  for years around the block in Rancho Palos Verdes, I worked out of the house for 22 years, never going to the office, taking off for a week or two, sometimes a month or more,
then come home and write a bunch of features.

Photogs would print up all the pictures from a trip –we’d do a dozen or more stories in one state, come home, then go out and do another state. The photogs would put all their photos in envelopes, give the envelopes to Jack and I would pick the photos up at his house.

I would caption all the photos and send along the pictures and story to the city desk, the national desk or the foreign desk. I would send the features in one or two at a time with the photos. I would take the photos and give them to Jack and he would drop the stuff off in the city room. Usually I would sit
around and gab with Mary Elise and Jack a half hour before Jack left in the afternoon for the office.

One time for whatever reason I put an envelope with photos and stories on the top of Jack’s car. About an hour after he left his house for the office, luckily I happened to be driving by his house. A half
block away where he turned onto Palos Verdes Drive there was the envelope on the side of the road. It fell off  the roof of his car. I either forgot to tell him I had put it there or he had forgotten.

Jack was the slowest driver in town. He was  forever creeping along holding up traffic on the two-lane drive. That was in his later years. When you worked with him at night, he raced to the fires and
shootings. He said he always wanted to be there to catch someone as he or she were firing a shot at someone else and before the fire engines arrived.

Yes, I know those stories Eric told about his exploits while a pilot. He planned for a  time to be a doctor. Mention any symptoms to Gaunt and he knew immediately what ailed you. He had a pool in his backyard when he lived at RPV and he loved to skinny dip. He also loved to cover stories at nudist camps.

He loved Catalina and would send postcards to his friends from the island when he went on
vacation. We kept in touch by phone after he moved to Lincoln, Oregon. Art Rogers was living just south of Lincoln and would visit Jack and Mary Elise.

George Fry visited him in a rest home in Portland about a year ago. Jack and I would call one another on the phone on a regular basis until about a year ago when he had pretty much lost his memory. I would fill him in with the latest happenings at the office. I would encourage him to come south for a visit. He
said he never wanted to come back, even on a visit.

Of course Gaunt was one of a kind. In Hermosa he not only covered fires, he help put them out. He was a volunteer fireman. As Jack’s daughter  Jane said in Jon Thurber’s great story and layout, he would really have enjoyed –if that’s the right word–working the fires this past week.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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