On April 15, 2011, I was struck by the photograph on this news article. The caption attributed it to a photographer for Getty Images named Chris Hondros. I’d never heard of him, but, when I tweeted about it, I specifically mentioned his name. If my good friend, Kevin McCloy, hadn’t been on a Facebook hiatus, he might have seen my message about Hondros and proudly told me that Chris Hondros was one of his best friends from college.
Five days later, on April 20, 2011, Chris Hondros was killed in an RPG attack by Libyan government forces in Misrata. I heard immediately via Facebook from my friend, McCloy, and the next day it was the top news story across the United States.
The following day, The Big Picture, the one news photo blog you should subscribe to if you subscribe to no other, by The Boston Globe, published a stunning series of Hondros’ photographs.
This YouTube video, featuring Hondros, is probably a pretty good example of what day to day life is like in Libya for a photojournalist: a mixture of terror and boredom. I’m such a coward that I back away from the monitor to watch videos like this.
And this short documentary on Hondros is fascinating.
I’m pretty sure Chris Hondros did more for Humanity in his 41 years than most people who die of old age.
Okay, enough from me. With permission, I’d like to share an essay written by one of Chris Hondros’ best friends, Kevin McCloy. All that follows are McCloy’s words.
A tribute to Chris Hondros
What can I say about Chris that hasn’t already been said by so many? He touched so many lives that it seems like my words would be a tiny light in a stadium filled with the flashing bulbs of thousands of cameras, drowned out amongst the glare and glitter. But that is what makes Chris special to me: No matter how famous he became, no matter what high and mighty circles of power he orbited, no matter how many people he could call friend or call him friend, he always, always had time for me, a humble small-town high school history teacher.
I first met Chris in the fall of 1989, when we both were living in University Towers at NC State University. I don’t actually remember the very first moment I met Chris, probably because we were both in a state of illegal inebriation. What I do remember is that there was no awkward or slow development of our friendship. We became instant friends. I was proud to claim part ownership of the “Bar” in Chris and Craig Blasberg’s room. And when I say bar, I mean bar. There were dozens of liquor bottles and mixers, shakers, strainers, genuine bar tumblers, stainless steel shot measures, salt and sugar liners…the whole nine yards. Chris and Craig were proud of their mixing routines, (ala “Cocktail” the movie) and I was instantly welcomed into their lives. (Chris made a notation in a journal I kept of our trip to England together back in ’95, where he wondered if alcohol was the international language of friendship. I think it is.)
For the next three years, I counted Chris as one of my best friends if not the best friend I had. He, Craig, Greg Campbell and I went to Daytona Beach for Spring Break in ’90, and to this day the memories of that trip are still indelibly etched into my mind. We hung out together, we partied together, we traveled together. He always inspired me to do things that I didn’t think I could do. For Chris, there was never an “impossible” thing. There were only those things that hadn’t been accomplished yet. He replied to “You can’t do that,” simply with “C’mon Kevin! Let’s do it!” Even then, I knew his charisma was magnetic. He drew people to him, but never in a domineering way or to attract attention. He made everybody feel natural, as if they had known him for their entire life.
And then I graduated. I got married. I had children. I moved away to a small town. I got a steady job teaching. I settled down from my “wild college” days and worked and raised a family. (All of which I am proud of and enriched by, don’t get me wrong.) But Chris kept right on going. His life at times seemed to me to always be on the edge of failure. I remember visiting him in Raleigh a year or more after I graduated, and he was living in a hallway of a house that had been turned into apartments off of Hillsborough Street. His closet was a refrigerator box, and his bed was a sleeping bag on what looked like a prison mattress. I remember thinking, “Wow..not me.” But Chris never seemed fazed by it. His car (when he had one) always seemed like a piece of junk. He lived out of a suitcase. (When he packed for a 10 day trip to England with me, he had everything he needed for the entire trip in a carry-on and his camera bag. He washed his clothes in the sink every other night. I was flabbergasted. But he was already a world traveler, and I was a green-behind-the-ears neophyte.)
Our lives seemed to be so different and I wouldn’t have been surprised if we drifted apart and never talked again like so many of my friends I had from college. But, he never forgot me and I never forgot him. We would go six months or more with no phone calls (or even emails, which we both discovered when I got on AOL back in ’93. To his last day, that is the email I sent mail to, email@example.com.) Then we would email, then call, he would send me a postcard that was actually one of his photographs with the mailing info on the back, or he would send me a packet of photos, and the contacts would become more frequent until we at last hooked up again, somewhere. He would come to my house, or I would drive to Raleigh, or we would meet half-way somewhere. And no matter how much time had gone by, the last conversation we had was picked up as if no time had passed at all. No matter how different our lives were, we never lost that fundamental respect for each other and the core of our friendship.
And in a very real way to me, I think that is why we stayed such close friends. We lived vicariously through each other. I’m sure Chris had other married friends, friends with children and stable, stereotypical jobs. But, I always felt, (and part of Chris’ charm is that he never gainsaid me on this) that our bond was our yin/yang relationship. I was endlessly fascinated by his life and his career. He was a world traveler, jetting around, going to dangerous places and doing important work. As his career took off, I was deeply thrilled for him, and sinfully proud of the fact that I could call him friend. I constantly visited his website. I used his photos in my classes. I bragged about him to my friends and my students. I invited him to my classes. He did seminars for my students on international events. I grinned like the Cheshire Cat as my students sat enraptured by his storytelling (and good looks.) “This is my friend,” I thought. He made me cool in the eyes of my students, and I will admit that it made me feel good.
And I like to think that I provided a balance to Chris in his life. He was the consummate bachelor to my status as husband and father. He helped me to move to my new house, the first I bought and I marveled at some of his “apartments.” He had adventures, I had a domestic life. And we always, always kept up with each others lives.
The last time I saw Chris, I visited him in New York in the fall of ’09. I stayed with him a couple of days. He was already famed and rewarded for his amazing work, yet he treated me like he always had, his close friend. While I was there, he held his first party at his new apartment, his “housewarming” party as he called it. I still remember thinking how small it was… 900 square feet, and he called it large. I felt almost dwarfed by the personalities there, the editors and award-winning photographers and journalists. I was a small-town kid who was now a small-town grownup with a small-town job. But nobody treated me that way, especially Chris. During my time there, we talked about endless things. As those who knew Chris can attest, he could discourse on everything with knowledge and confidence, and I found him intellectually fascinating. But, I got the feeling during that trip that something was changing about him. We even discussed it. He was ready to settle down. He wanted to be a father, and he felt that although time wasn’t run completely out yet, he needed to set the stage. We discussed how it was interesting that our lives seemed to coming back together and crossing paths. My children were growing up and would be out of the house in just a few years, and he hadn’t even had any yet. I was looking forward to a time when I had done everything I could for my kids and the next steps for my wife and me would be without them, and he was contemplating what it would be like to be married and have kids. We parted as we always had, with hugs and warm wishes and demands from each other to call, email or contact sooner than six months later and I flew back home to NC. I never saw him face to face again.
The last time I talked to Chris on the phone was this spring, and he told me he was engaged. I was ecstatic for him. I could imagine him with a wife and kids. We talked of his plans for the future, and I told him that I was looking forward to giving him advice for once because I already had been through children. I knew that the woman who captured his heart had to be an amazing woman, and I was looking forward to meeting her and their wedding. I thought I had all the time in the world till then. He had gone to all these dangerous places and came out every time without a scratch.
And then of course came that terrible day when I first found out he had been taken from us. I am not ashamed to say that although I am a 41 year old 255 lb grown man, I wept like a baby. I haven’t cried like that since I lost my father. Chris’ loss was a loss for the world, for the people he helped, for his friends, for me, for his family, and especially for his fiance, and I wept for all of them. I wept for all the memories that I will never get to share with him again, all of the advice that I could have finally given him about having kids and all of the things that we could have still shared. But most of all, I wept for the children that he will never have, never hold and never raise. I wept for the fact that the world will not see what amazing kids he and his wife could have brought up. I am weeping still.
Of course the world keeps turning. Lives are lost every day for noble and inane reasons. I will forever admire Chris for his nobility. He died doing what he loved, doing his best for people he had never met in a way that few others can ever match. He left behind loved ones, and we will miss him terribly. But the greatest thing about Chris is that he was so loved because he was such a great soul. He made all of us better for having been in our lives.
I will never forget him.
I can only hope that whatever comes after this life, I will see him again sitting there with a chess set, a set of drinks on the table already mixed, his crooked grin and his smooth voice welcoming me with a sweep of his hand to the seat opposite him, and we will talk forever about everything.
Goodbye my friend. Goodbye Chris. Rest in peace brother.
Chris Hondros 3/14/1970 – 4/20/2011