The first time I saw Norman Y. Lono in the Daily News newsroom I thought, “Who sent for Gen. George Custer?”
In a newsroom populated with oddballs, eccentrics, egotists, and castoffs, Lono made an instant impression: Matchstick skinny, jeans that seemed painted on, a cumulus of shoulder-length blond hair.
“Who’s that?” I asked a staffer.
“The new photographer,” he said.
It was 1976, the Bicentennial year, and by the time the low-key Lono left in 1983, he had made a huge splash in Philly. Our town was too small for his ambitions, which included acting on the New York stage. That required moving to the Big Apple, which he did because he was a risk-taker.
He had many adventures in his career, including one that was supernatural.
Lono returned to the Big Pretzel last week to pick up something he had left behind — a 2-by-4-foot blow-up of a famous shot he made of Mayor Frank Rizzo, taken from a low angle, making the big man look even bigger. He shot it that way, he says, to not draw attention to himself.
The photo hung in the Daily News newsroom for decades, until the vultures who then owned the company sold it for peanuts and we — the Daily News and the Inquirer — were exiled to the third floor of what had been Strawbridge’s at Eighth and Market. The mighty had fallen, and the next time we were downsized a ton of memorabilia had to be tossed.
Former director of photography Michael Mercanti rescued the Rizzo blow-up and sent word to Lono, who drove down last week from his home in Tenafly, N.J., to claim it.
It was the first time I had seen him in 35 years. He still had the Custer hairdo, plus a few extra pounds, like me.
Lono made a living as an actor, his income supplemented by photo assignments from New York dailies, and now Britain’s Daily Mail.
Our brightest memory was an off-duty assignment that almost killed us.
In 1979, four Daily News staffers — me, Lono, photo editor Will Everly, and reporter Julia Lawlor — decided to learn to skydive at a New Jersey school.
Everly was the most athletic of us, a lean 6-footer with a Fu Manchu mustache and a Marlboro stuck in his mouth. Lawlor was petite, with moonbeam skin and eyes like a Margaret Keane painting.
Long story short: Lawlor landed safely in a pea patch, Lono fractured his coccyx on landing, I twisted my knee, Everly dislocated his shoulder leaving the single-engine plane at 3,000 feet.
Lono found Everly writhing on the ground. “Take my hand!” Everly screamed. Lono did, and Everly pitched his body back, snapping his dislocated shoulder back into its socket.
None of us ever made a second jump.
Reminiscing with me in the newsroom that now houses both newspapers and our shared website, Lono says he experienced an actual close-to-death moment in Beirut, shortly before the Marine barracks was blown up in 1983. He was shooting film and a sniper was shooting bullets at him, showering his head with “chopped, broken bits of leaves,” he says.
Interestingly, in the eight years he was here, the Montreal-born Lono ended up producing some of Philadelphia’s most iconic photographs. His secret was preparation.
He won second place in the World Press Photo Awards for his coverage of the first MOVE shootout with police, in Powelton Village in 1978.
“Norman had a clear view of the beating of Delbert Africa at the 1978 MOVE confrontation because he and Daily News reporter Kitty Caparella hid from police in an adjacent apartment building the night before,” Mercanti recalls.
He also was versatile enough to shoot sports.
He didn’t drop the ball when, in the ninth inning of the sixth and final game of the 1980 World Series, the Kansas City Royals’ Frank White hit a foul popup near the first-base dugout. Phillies catcher Bob Boone bobbled it and after it fell out of his glove, first baseman Pete Rose caught it for the second out. With the bases loaded and the Phillies leading, 4-1, Tug McGraw then struck out Willie Wilson for the last out, making the Phillies World Champions.
After that, “no photographer would dare cover a game without a wide-angle lens,” Mercanti says.
Lono doesn’t like celebrities, he says, “because they usually have an ax to grind."
But Mother Teresa was an exception. He covered her when she visited Philadelphia in 1976.
In the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, always planning his next shot, Lono lay in wait along the Communion rail for the woman who would become a saint. As she approached, Lono raised his camera in hands covered with painful warts, a lifetime affliction. As Mother Teresa passed, she ran her hand over Lono’s and said, “It’s going to be all right.” He snapped the picture, but was puzzled by what she said.