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Chester County Press

100-year-old photographer Bob Adams and the rest of his story

07/27/2021 03:46PM ● By Steven Hoffman

By Betsy Brewer Brantner

Contributing Writer

Robert Alison Adams, Jr. was born on Feb. 15, 1921. In some ways, his early years were a rehearsal for what was to come 100 years later. Bob was born during the Spanish Flu pandemic and a few years before the Great Depression. Now, all these decades later, he has survived the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and the economic ramifications that resulted from that. He is currently in a nursing home, but don’t think his memory has faded. Not even a bit. His memory is as clear as the pictures that he captured as a photographer, and he has strong recollection of everything that happened in his 100 years. You can find numerous interviews that he has done on YouTube. All are a must-see. 

Adams used his photography skills to document memories for many people who lived in the Oxford area—and for people from outside of the area. He was the photographer of choice for the local dignitaries and famous visitors at nearby Lincoln University. The list of those people he photographed reads like a who’s-who of influential people during the last half of the 20th Century: Queen Elizabeth II, King George VI, Lt. General James Doolittle of the 8th Air Force in Europe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Marian Anderson, Julian Bond, and many more.

Philip Merrill, a historian, author, and television personality, had this to say about Adams: “He is the most important photographer in Oxford’s history next to Alexander McCormick. The legacy Adams had is beyond anything that any everyday person, lay person or scholar could have. His accomplishments over the decades he photographed in Oxford are mind-boggling.”

It is impossible to research the history of Oxford without seeing a photo captured by Adams. He shot photos for postcards, weddings, class photos of Oxford school students, engagements, anniversaries, graduation photos, business events, and beauty pageants. In 2016, an image that he captured with his camera of the Octoraro Hotel was placed on an ornament that was sold by the Oxford Arts Alliance. At times, when he served in the war, he took photos that still keep him up at night. 

Adams’ home and his photography business were on Locust Street, where he and his wife Mary raised their three daughters, Terry, Regina and Gale.

All through the years and even after he retired, he was a resource for many. Whenever a local dignitary was being honored or researched, people would go to Adams for photos. People outside of Oxford who wanted to do research on an historic figure or property in the borough would start with Adams.

Over the last few decades, Jahan Sheikholeslami, one of the founders of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. and the Oxford Arts Alliance, built a relationship with Adams. Sheikholeslami is an architect, and he rented space from Adams for his business. The architect was a newcomer to the area, but he was soon smitten with the Oxford community. Sheikholeslami remembers many conversations with Adams during that time, and one has to wonder if those conversations between the two helped inspire Sheikholeslami to accomplish what he did for the community—he helped establish two of the most important organizations in the community and so much more.

“I often think of him,” Sheikholeslami said. “I rented a space there for a number of years. He would give me a tour of his photography studio, photos and negatives. I always hoped all of that could be preserved. He was a chronicler of history. He was a wonderful representative of the community.”

There was a lot of interest in the Locust Street property at that time, with many people thinking it would make a great location for a bed and breakfast. It might have just been the good energy that floated around the building that caught everyone’s attention.

Adams speaks lovingly of his family and the late-night games of hide-and-seek they all enjoyed in the backyard. He tells the story of one hide-and-seek adventure that actually had the cops coming to his residence looking for what was reported as a possible peeping Tom. It was just him hiding from his daughters behind a nearby shrub. As they say, it was all fun and games until the cops showed up. 

Throughout all of his memories, his beloved wife Mary and his children always kept a smile on Adams’ face and kept his focus on being a Godly man, a good husband and father, and a dedicated worker. He and Mary would often sing duets at the Oxford Methodist Church. He is still remembered by current members of the church.

Bob was a good husband and father, and he was a skilled photographer, but that is just the beginning of his story. He was also a beloved bus driver for many years. Ken Woodward, the former high school principal and now a member of the Oxford Area Historical Association, still has fond memories of Bob when he drove the bus. 

“I always looked forward to seeing his smiling face at the end of school each day,” Woodward said, explaining that just seeing Bob on the bus platform brought him smiles, too. Countless Oxford school children, now adults, still call him their favorite bus driver.

Bob’s father was a mushroom grower who owned property behind what is now BB’s Grocery Outlet.

“Back then,” Adams explained, “we were surrounded by farms and there were many farms still in the borough.” 

Like other people his age who lived in or near the borough, Adams was there when Oxford was right on the cusp of growing into something totally different. Oxford changed from the small agricultural community where everyone knew each other into a community with a much larger population than in the years before World War II. World War II brought a lot of changes to the world, and Oxford would not escape those changes.

At that time, Adams’ father had his eye on getting elected to Oxford Borough Council because he wanted to get a public sewer system for the borough. Bob’s uncle, Howard Brown, was Borough Manager at the time. Bob’s father was elected to borough council and eventually the borough did install a public sewer system that set the stage for growth over a period of several decades.

Bob loved growing up in Oxford, and he always called the area his home. He attended Oxford schools and graduated from high school in 1938. He had planned to join his uncles in their carpentry business, but by the time he graduated, the Browns’ carpentry business was no more. The Great Depression ended their business. Marion Brown became the postmaster in Oxford and Norman Brown went to work in Bainbridge, and, of course, Howard was the Borough Manager in Oxford.

After graduation, Adams started doing odd jobs, like mowing, or whatever anyone needed, to make a modest living or to pay for a night at the local movie theatre to watch a cowboy film.

Long before he had graduated, Bob was focused on something else: Mary Stillwell. He tells the story of how she caught his eye.

“I saw her dancing in an operetta when I was a senior and she was a freshman,” he explained. “At that time, the school performed an operetta every year at the Met Theatre.”

The Met Theatre was located on Third Street, where the Boston Market is today.

Bob was quite taken with Mary, who would become his wife, but she was not permitted to date until she was 16. So he would pass messages to her through his brother, who was in her class. Eventually, Mary turned 16 and Bob did ask her out. On their first date, they went to see a movie at the Met.  A typical date back then was going to a cowboy movie. The lines to watch a movie were often long and winding up one street and down another.

Bob and Mary dated almost three years before he had to go off to war. Mary graduated in 1941, and she got a call from her cousin informing her that the Pentagon was hiring. Her cousin told her to pack a bag and go there. She did, and she got a great job where she stayed until she transferred to Bainbridge. Adams would travel to Washington, D.C. and visit her on the weekends.

Meanwhile, Bob’s uncle, Howard Brown, who was Borough Manager, was watching over the installation of the public sewer system. Bob’s father owned a few dump trucks, and before long Bob was driving those trucks back and forth to Coatesville to pick up workers, and then using the trucks to help with the dig-out and dirt removal for the sewer system project. Adams and his family were paid by the borough, but others were paid by the WPA. On May 6, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of many Great Depression relief programs created under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had signed the month before. The WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and other federal assistance programs put unemployed Americans to work in return for temporary financial assistance. Out of the 10 million jobless men in the United States in 1935, 3 million were helped by WPA jobs alone. Typical WPA workers were paid $15 to $90 dollars a month. It remains today as the most vigorous attempt in history to stimulate the U.S. economy. In 1939, the WPA was renamed the Works Projects Administration. The WPA lived for only eight years.

The sewage project in Oxford was funded by the WPA. 

“We picked up the men at the railroad station in Coatesville in a dump truck,” Adams explained. “They put temporary seats for about 14 or 15 people in the truck and we brought them back to Oxford.  And we had to haul a lot of dirt away. That gave me a daily job until Pearl Harbor.” 

He continued, “I hadn’t decided to go into the military till after Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. I was always interested in flying, and was going to join the aviation cadets, so I found out when I could take the test at the armory. I took all the written exams, passed all of them, then had to pass physical exams. But they told me I had flat feet and that stopped that. My draft number was getting closer and closer to being called, so I decided to enlist in the Army Air Force.”

Bob was sworn in and given two weeks to get his affairs in order. He drove down to visit Mary at The Pentagon, and then came back home.  

“I had an hour to be at Coatesville and catch the train, then on to New Cumberland,” he explained. “After that, we went on to the barber shop, and I watched as all my hair fell on the floor. We were all bald. After that, we went to the barracks where we got shots in each arm.”

From there, Adams went to the Quartermaster building and he was outfitted in his new wardrobe for the next four years. They each got three sets of khakis, ties, socks and shoes. About 50 or 60 enlistees were picked up at Coatesville, which was an important stop for many in those days. 

Defense women from all over the country came through there on their way to Oxford and the surrounding areas. They would work in the dangerous ammunition plants in nearby Elkton, Maryland. Many of those women would stay and get married in Elkton during or after the war.

From New Cumberland, Bob’s group was loaded on a passenger train and transported to Miami, which was being utilized by the Air Force. The living quarters were snug. The soldiers slept on cots, with six men in a room.

Although Miami might sound like a nice place to vacation, it was not a great locale for basic training. 

“We had a grueling regimen for 16 weeks,” Bob explained. “Basic training was rough. It was hot in August, September and October. In the twelfth week, we were notified to fill out a form and tell the Air Force what we wanted to do. At that time the Air force had a lot of schools around the country. We were allowed to put down three choices. I chose photography for all three. When it was all said and done, I was told I had to take communications or I might be on KP (food service) before I’d get a call. Two weeks later, I got called to go to Denver for photography school.”

He went on to Lowry Field in Denver. Bob had already learned a lot about photography from his cousin. He already knew how to develop film in a darkroom. To this day, he is always excited when talking about photography and this part of his training was fun. 

“There, I learned aerial cameras,” he said. “It took some knowledge to learn how to take photos of bombs dropping. If you took the camera and put it on the floor, it would be two feet high. It was a 10-inch-by-10-inch photo paper on a 100-foot roll. The way it worked was, we turned it on and let it run out of film. The camera itself was put in a camera well. We had clips on all four sides, and we took shots every two seconds after bombs started to drop. We gave them time to drop off the bombs and could see if you hit target. At 12,000 or 13,000 feet high, the lens in the cameras have to be good. The bombers would fly in a formation of 12 to 17.”

Adams did an extensive amount of training before he left the country. There was a lot involved in getting a bombing group together. They arrived at Wendover Flats on Christmas Eve. They were getting a bomb group together, but still lacking part of the team. They went to Nebraska, where Adams did his first flying. The pilot, co-pilot, bombardier navigator and the engineer all trained together. They would fly out on bombing missions and would be dropping 50 pound powder bombs. 

“It would take an hour to fly to the location,” he recalled. “I had a hand-held camera, not like any camera you saw. You couldn’t focus; it was pre-focused. I had to get down on my knees to where the camera was sitting. They gave me a parachute to use if I needed it. They would tell me when they released the bomb. I followed it down on the camera, and when it exploded, I would call back on my ear phones and let them know. That was repeated until all 20 bombs were dropped and you had photographed all of it. We did that for several days. There were four photographers doing this. They all worked together in the same lab at the same time.”

Eventually, they ended up in Wisconsin at a tent city. That was in May of 1942. In May of 1943, Bob went to England.

Adams was asked if he was afraid of the preparation and going off to war.

“I wasn’t really afraid until we got overseas,” he replied.

Eventually the group was taken to Camp Shank in New York. They were given a 12-hour leave because they were leaving the state. Bob called his parents and future wife to see if they could meet in Philadelphia.

After a kiss goodbye in Philadelphia, he headed off across the seas toward the war. His life would change forever.

Part 2 of this story will appear in next week’s Chester County Press.