In 25 years as a photojournalist, it’s the people I’ll never forget

Dan PowersFile/Sharon Cekada/The Post-Crescent Last fall, I marked my 25th anniversary with The Post-Crescent. It’s

Dan Powers
File/Sharon Cekada/The Post-Crescent

Last fall, I marked my 25th anniversary with The Post-Crescent. It’s incredible how quickly time passes. I’ve spent close to half my life documenting the Fox Cities, Wisconsin and beyond. This journey has given me the privilege to tell the stories of so many.

Over the years, I’ve covered plenty of high-profile events, including three Olympics, five Super Bowls and more Green Bay Packers games than I can remember. Those were all awesome, but my true passion lies in showing you the lives of this community. And just like anything in life, there are certain people that stand out.

Brian Myers was 15 minutes into hockey practice when he lost the edge of his skate doing a no-contact drill called Russian circles.

He crashed into the boards at the Tri-County Ice Arena in Neenah. His coach and teammates rushed to his aid and performed CPR. Brian broke the C-2 vertebra of his spine, an injury survived by only 20% of its victims at the time, in 1997.

Because of the unusual nature of the accident, there was plenty of media attention. Brian’s situation brought me back to my teens, when I had a soccer teammate who broke his neck and lost all movement below the elbow.

I shared that experience with Brian’s parents in the hopes that I could document his recovery, but I was turned down. After it was clear Brian would survive, he and his family reconsidered.

Over 10 months, I documented every aspect of Brian’s life, including moments with his parents, Paul and Mary; sister Kate and brother Peter, along with classmates, friends and members of the community that rallied around him.

I photographed everything from his last day at St. Elizabeth Hospital and his rehabilitation. I was invited to family dinners, his confirmation and his sister’s graduation. It was just incredible how he and his family opened their lives to me.

In the end, besides the photography, I also wrote three stories that ran in a 12-page section and the front page on Christmas Day. I remember gathering copies to give to his family. I was very nervous about dropping them off because I wasn’t sure how they would react. When Brian’s mom, Mary, answered the door that day, she simply gave me a hug. That moment still brings tears to my eyes. Today, Brian is a naturopathic physician in Los Angeles whose activities include rock climbing and mountain biking.

That moment still brings tears to my eyes. Today, Brian is a naturopathic physician in Los Angeles whose activities include rock climbing and mountain biking.

That moment still brings tears to my eyes. Today, Brian is a naturopathic physician in Los Angeles whose activities include rock climbing and mountain biking.
Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent

I grew up in Milwaukee. At age 9, my family moved to the suburbs in Bayside. I am a city boy. I always have been and probably always will be. So, in 2006, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of a project called Dairyland Redefined.

I spent the entire summer documenting everything from urban sprawl to megafarms. We researched all things dairy farming to explore what the future would hold for traditional farms in our area.

The bulk of my focus was on the Voight family farm owned by Steve and Sue Voight of Shiocton. This was a family farm by definition. Steve’s father, Stanley, worked the farm, as well as two of his sons, Tim and Mitch.

Steve’s father, Stanley, worked the farm, as well as two of his sons, Tim and Mitch. It was an incredible learning experience, and I must say I have never seen people work so hard. It’s a 24/7 job that runs 365 days a year.

Again, it was an incredible time spent with a family willing to allow a stranger share their story. I was smiling the entire time and I’m happy to say they are still in business!

Steve’s father, Stanley, worked the farm, as well as two of his sons, Tim and Mitch. It was an incredible learning experience, and I must say I have never seen people work so hard. It’s a 24/7 job that runs 365 days a year. Again, it was an incredible time spent with a family willing to allow a stranger share their story. I was smiling the entire time and I’m happy to say they are still in business!

Steve’s father, Stanley, worked the farm, as well as two of his sons, Tim and Mitch. It was an incredible learning experience, and I must…
Steve’s father, Stanley, worked the farm, as well as two of his sons, Tim and Mitch. It was an incredible learning experience, and I must say I have never seen people work so hard. It’s a 24/7 job that runs 365 days a year. Again, it was an incredible time spent with a family willing to allow a stranger share their story. I was smiling the entire time and I’m happy to say they are still in business!
Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent

I don’t remember how I was introduced to John Reece, but he’s someone I will never forget.

John is a former Appleton firefighter who now has paraplegia after jumping headfirst into a shallow area of Lake Poygan in 2001.

Our paths crossed in 2008 when what started out as a daily news story became a longer endeavor that resulted in a narrated photo package telling John’s story in his own words.

I’m not a very religious person, but I was in awe at how much John’s faith kept him upbeat and optimistic. I saw his compassion for others, his love of his children and parents and his endearing positive attitude.

Along the way, I took some very intimate and personal images. I even had a reader complain about an image I took of him being bathed by a caregiver. John invited me into his life with no barriers, not even something as raw as that.

His willingness to share his forever-changed life to help others is quite remarkable. I’m a better person having met him.

“Dan is part of the family” is how Walt Zerrenner often introduces me. Walt and his wife, Aline, have been the focus of my camera since 2011.

In 2007, Aline was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment that progressed into full advanced Alzheimer’s. When I first met the Zerrenners, we had discussions about what they wanted to accomplish.

Alzheimer’s, is, after all, an incredibly unforgiving disease. All the two of them really wanted to do was help others by sharing their story.
From 2011 to 2016, I documented their lives. This time, I included video as a major part of the project. It’s tough to balance capturing images and recording video at the same time.

You miss things, but when things come together, video can be very powerful, such as showing Aline crying in the arms of Walt the day she moved out of her home into a memory care community. The toll it takes on the caregiver is heavy as well.

It was impressive to see how the two of them stayed brave together and faced it head on. Recently, Walt and Aline celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.

Aline now resides at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna. I consider Walt and Aline my friends. And although I talk to Walt here and there and even share an occasional lunch with him, it has been a few years since I updated readers on their situation. I hope to do so in the near future.

“She may be little but she’s fierce.”

That’s how Ryan Brennan and his wife, Nina Maroszek Brennan, describe their daughter, Avi. She was born with a unique form of skeletal dysplasia, also known as dwarfism.

I met Avi, her parents, and brothers Ronin and Kieren during an interview in 2017 when she was 2. Within minutes, I knew it could be much more than a single story.

One of the people who helped convince Avi’s parents to allow me to dig deeper was one of her physicians, Dr. Paul Myers. Twenty years earlier, his family had entrusted me with telling the story of their son, Brian. I asked Nina to talk with Paul about his experience and it was a green light after that. What a small world.

Avi is nothing less than a superhero. She has had too many operations to count and yet she doesn’t let anything stop her.

I’ve photographed her at home, during physical therapy and on visits to the hospital. Her brothers watch out for her and her parents protect her.

Everyone adores Avi, so when it was time for her to try school for the first time, alone, that was a tough day.

The funny thing was that I was the only person allowed to be in the school with her since parents had to drop off kids at the entrance. So, my role that day was a combination of photojournalist and spy. I assured Mom and Dad that she did great and so did the school staff.

Of all the images that have been taken of me on the job, an out-of-focus picture taken by Avi’s mom is my favorite. We were at a physical therapy session when Nina needed to talk to the therapist. Avi was getting a little anxious and headed out into the hallway. I told Nina I would follow her. Well, halfway back to the room, Avi looked up to me and reached out her hand for me to hold it. Nina just happened to capture the moment on her phone. It makes my heart melt every time I see it.

As a photojournalist at The Post-Crescent, I capture everything that’s good and bad in our community. Some days are spent documenting life in its simplest form, things like kids playing in a park or building a snowman. Sometimes, we’re called to tragedies such as fires, car accidents and crime scenes. If there were some things I dislike about my work, those would stand out. But it’s also a part of life.

If there were some things I dislike about my work, those would stand out. But it’s also a part of life.

If there were some things I dislike about my work, those would stand out. But it’s also a part of life.
Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent

Even in the most difficult of times, a simple photograph can sometimes make a positive difference.

I would be amiss if I didn’t admit that I’ve had the opportunity for a lot of fun, mainly sports photography.

I absolutely love it at every level, from high school to the pros.

It’s when the adrenaline kicks in!

I have been lucky enough to have covered hundreds of NFL games. My all-time favorite player to photograph is Brett Favre.

And because of my time spent at Lambeau Field and numerous other stadiums, I got the opportunity to photograph five Super Bowls, two of them for The Post-Crescent and three for USA TODAY.

My biggest moment would have to be when I took a photograph of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward scoring a dramatic touchdown on the play of the game against the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit.

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And on that day, it all come together for me. The photo is actually in the Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary book.

Super Bowl XL led me to being asked to photograph my first Olympics for USA TODAY at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. I have been told by numerous colleagues that photographing an Olympics is like photographing 16 Super Bowls back-to-back.

And you swear that you’ll never do another one. Until they ask you again and you accept immediately. It’s the ultimate sports assignment.

Beijing, Rio and Pyeongchang, South Korea, introduced me to people from all over the world.

Folks gather in one place for a brief time to show their love for their country. It’s incredible.

In Beijing, covering Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals was a highlight for sure, but my fondest memory was my first assignment … fencing. Fencing? Yep, I had no idea what to expect and I was super-nervous that my lack of knowledge of the sport was going to be trouble. USA TODAY flew me across the world to represent it and I was anxious, to say the least.

I did a little research the night before and asked a lot of dumb questions the morning of the event. I arrived early to check out the venue. After some initial confusion, I pushed through and got some nice action photographs. But it was during the medals ceremony that I got my best. While we were waiting for the athletes in a huge cluster of photographers, I looked behind us and noticed something unusual. An athlete was back on the piste (the competition area) walking around. At that moment, I asked a New York Times photographer I knew to hold my spot and I moved to check it out. Boy am I glad I moved.

I captured an image of the United States’ Mariel Zagunis kissing the piste with an American flag in hand after defeating teammate Sada Jacobson to win the gold.

I was the only photographer to notice and it was my best image of the day. I can’t even explain what I felt capturing that on my first assignment. It was a sigh of relief and a confidence-booster. On top of that, I happened to share an elevator ride with Zagunis afterward and she let me hold her gold medal. How cool is that?

Despite the long periods of waiting, endless bus rides and the lack of sleep, I would photograph another Olympics in a heartbeat. I still can’t get over how you spend so much time actually NOT taking photographs. It’s like a two-week scene from the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

***

A chance meeting during a high school career day with Milwaukee Journal photojournalist Ron Overdahl piqued my interest in photography. UW-La Crosse professor Gary MacDonald steered me toward it as a career.

Hearing them talk about meeting so many people and experiencing so many things was intoxicating. It’s incredible how rewarding it is to be a storyteller. In my mind, it’s the best job in the world.

Someone once asked me to pick my favorite picture that I’ve taken over the years. Actually, many people have asked me that. So, what’s the answer? Well, to date, I haven’t been able to choose. And I suppose I never will.

Working at The Post Crescent for 25 years has been a blessing. I have been lucky enough to explore our community inside and out. And time here has afforded me the opportunity to travel all over the world as well. I’m grateful for both and can’t wait to take my next image. Who knows? It might be you!