Volunteer and foundational member of WKU photojournalism program passes away


A picture of Larry Powell on the back of his book, Hunger of The Heart. The book is a collection of images about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Rebekah Alvey

Although Larry Powell was in great pain due to a head injury he had obtained during his time in the Vietnam War, he still kept those around him at the highest priority. So when a water line in his farmhouse backyard needed fixing, he wanted to to repair it for his family.  

Powell had spent 15 years in and out of hospitals and the injury had become more severe causing him to go to Duke Hospital. Before he left, he went out to dig and repair the water line on equipment that jarred his head and back further.

“He did it because that’s the type of person he was,” his wife Betty Powell said. “He wouldn’t let us go without water.”

After surgeries that Betty Powell said saved his life, the couple moved to Bowling Green for Betty to receive her undergraduate degree at WKU. 

Larry Powell began volunteering at WKU. He never received a paycheck or had a professor’s status. However, his friends and colleagues said Powell was a key member of the photojournalism program.

Larry Powell passed away on Nov. 29, 2016, at the age of 70 while at home with his wife, children and grandchild after being diagnosed with single cell carcinoma late July.

While at WKU, Larry enrolled in the basic photography class in 1985, taught by Dave LaBelle, who is now director of the photojournalism program at Kent State University.

LaBelle said in no time, he could tell that Larry was interested in photography. Within six months, Larry began volunteering as a lab manager. He stayed in this position for 10 years.

“Photojournalism and WKU may have saved his life,” LaBelle said. “He found a purpose in the program and found a place to put his energy.”

Mike Morse, former director of the photojournalism program, said Larry Powell mentored many students in the same way a teacher would. Morse said Larry was a blessing to the photojournalism program because he arrived at the same time the program was being built. 

Morse said the program didn’t start with a lot of resources, so they built the program on heart rather than money. Because the program was in its infancy, students were encouraged to take a lot of ownership and were not only required to be learners but contributors. Morse said Larry Powell embodied these ideas and used them to help make the program successful.

Kim O’Connor, a current Victim-Witness Coordinator with the Ada County Prosecuting Attorneys Office in Boise, Idaho, worked as a lab assistant for Powell and said he took pride in what WKU was and what it meant. She said students wanted to live up to the program he helped establish. 

“He taught us to care about people, to listen to them and to help be a voice for those who don’t have one,” O’Connor said. 

As a lab manager, Larry Powell influenced and interacted with several photojournalism students. One student, Ken Harper, who is now a professor of multimedia photojournalism and design at Syracuse University, initially met Powell while touring WKU and then became one of his lab assistants. 

“He scared the shit out of me,” Harper said with a laugh. “He would stare at you with one eye and ask you to get real with yourself.”

Harper said Larry was a father figure to many students in the lab and was the first person people would go to for advice. Harper said he had a deep understanding of the world and often offered students invaluable lessons about that understanding.

Above all else, Morse said Larry Powell was determined to see things done right and would call people out if they weren’t. O’Connor said he was always direct and didn’t sugar coat things to students. 

Betty Powell said Larry viewed photojournalism as a way to know what is genuine and wanted to pass this idea onto students and also believed if anything was worth doing, it was worth doing right.

LaBelle said Larry Powell was a great advocate for students and would do what was best for them. He said despite having no higher education, Powell helped many students launch their careers in photojournalism.

Morse and Powell also worked to create the Larry Powell Endowment Fund, a $1500 scholarship offered to a full-time sophomore, junior or senior majoring in photojournalism.

Betty Powell said they created the scholarship after selling a tape collection. She said Larry was proud to have something that would continue to benefit the students.

With all the work Larry Powell did for WKU, including serving on a Foundation board with Morse, he was never an official employee. Harper said Larry was a man of service and believed in helping others even when it didn’t benefit himself. He said the camaraderie inside the program was more important to Larry and he was reimbursed through the students, energy and experiences. 

“He loved his job, and we loved him for having it,” Harper said. 

Throughout his time at WKU, Larry Powell also helped with the Mountain Workshops while working on individual projects. In 1995, Larry published a book entitled Hunger of the Heart: Communion at the Wall.

The book features photographs taken at the Vietnam Memorial Wall where Betty Powell said he met a lot of people and became a part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Larry visited the wall every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, later going just on Veterans Day. 

LaBelle said Larry always wanted to compile a story on the wall, so he encouraged Larry and went with him on the first trip. LaBelle said it was an emotional trip for Larry and he would get upset watching other photographers setting up shots.

Another long-term project of Larry Powell’s focused on a local Klan community. Larry would find out about meetings and photograph them without them noticing. Harper said Larry would get students into rallies as well and knew the grandmothers that made Klan uniforms. 

Betty Powell recalled a time when he traveled to Wisconsin to cover a Klan march and was in the middle of the action when a fight broke out between a Klansman and reporter Geraldo Rivera. She said he was courageous but also knew not to cross the line. 

“He was probably on the line with that one,” Betty said referring to the Klan coverage.

Harper said this friendly attitude was something Larry transferred to his students. Harper said he thinks about Larry Powell every day and is reminded of him through a print of Larry’s hanging in his living room. Harper said he considers the impact Larry had on him when he thinks about how to interact with his students.

“Scrappy, no excuses, live life to the fullest because you have the opportunity to do so, that was Larry,” Harper said.

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].