For 45 years, Wally McNamee served as the eyes of the nation, his photographs taking readers of The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine into the company of royalty or the depths of war.
In one of life’s bitter ironies, he slowly lost his eyesight in retirement on Hilton Head Island.
He died Nov. 17 at age 84 in Fairfax, Va., where he had recently moved to be near family.
“I got the word as I landed in Japan (Monday), 43 years to the day from when Wally and I accompanied President Ford here on his historic visit in 1974,” his friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly posted on Facebook.
“Wally covered every president from Ike to W, and only left the photo game when he was sidetracked with macular degeneration. Wally’s departure is a profound loss to the world of journalism, his friends, but particularly to his son Win McNamee and two daughters Julia and Kim.”
McNamee retired to an island he loved with his late wife, Nikki, a former aide to Gov. Carroll Campbell, in 2000. He swapped his dance at the heart of history for Carolina shag dancing shoes. He gave an occasional lecture to the local Camera Club or to retirees at The Seabrook. In 2004, a retrospective exhibit of this eyewitness to history’s work was displayed at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.
But there were few signs that this islander was one of the most respected photojournalists in Washington, four times winning the White House News Photographers’ Association Photographer of the Year Award and its Lifetime Achievement Award.
He had carefully framed our views of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the spills of 20 years of the Olympic Games, and the grind of Vietnam.
More than 300,000 of McNamee’s images are archived at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Highlights of this remarkable archive include Washington politicians both in Congress and on the campaign trail, celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger, the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, the American bicentennial, the Iran-Contra affair, the disaster at Three Mile Island, country singer Willie Nelson, and the lifestyles of everyday Americans,” a guide to the archive says.
He was the photographer for Newsweek’s Special Projects Unit, which won a National Magazine Award for “Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us,” an investigation 10 years after the conflict into the lives of people who had served in Vietnam, the archive says.
But his life may not fit the image many have of the media today.
Win McNamee, himself a staff photographer with Getty Images, says the father who was best man at his wedding was an optimist.
“He served in the United States Marine Corps, a fact he took great pride in and was I believe central to his sense of identity — a somewhat nouveau phrase that would likely cause him to chuckle,” Win wrote on Facebook. “He was kind, supportive, patient, and the very best role model. He was also funny, uncommonly creative, charming, endlessly interesting and wise.”
He said his father retired right after the macular degeneration was diagnosed.
“His response was so much like him,” Win said. “He said he would give himself a day, and then he would get on with things. He thought it was important in life to play the hand you were dealt the best you can. He had a very optimistic side.”
McNamee was a child of Virginia, graduating from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington before enrolling in George Washington University.
As a copy boy at The Washington Post, he gravitated to the action of the photographers. He joined the Marine Corps, serving tours in Korea and Japan as a photographer following boot camp on Parris Island near Hilton Head.
In 1955, he joined the Post as a photographer, and in 1968 moved to Newsweek to expand his horizons.
“He loved everything about Hilton Head,” Win McNamee said.
He played golf as long as possible, happy to find it was something he could do solely on peripheral vision. He and Nikki, who died in 2013, moved to the Club Course neighborhood so he could walk to the Sea Pines Country Club when he could no longer drive.
“If you worked in Washington as a news photographer in the ’60s through ’00s,” Kennerly said, “you knew Wally McNamee, and you were: 1) Out shot by him. 2) Helped out by him. 3) Told a joke by him. 4) Inspired by him. 5) In awe of him. 6) His friend.
“He was the shooter’s shooter, and those of us who knew him well, loved him dearly. It’s a sad day for our business. They just don’t make them like Wally McNamee anymore. His quiet strength and incredible professionalism will outlast us all.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., with inurnment at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.