LOUISVILLE, KY – Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Coers, 62, died of natural causes Sunday at his home in Louisville, the Courier Journal reports tonight.
Coers was a staff photographer for the newspaper in 1975 when it covered controversial court-ordered school busing in Louisville and Jefferson County, and he was a member of the paper’s photographic staff awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for its comprehensive pictorial reporting of the story. He was a member of the Courier-Journal's photography department for 23 years, leaving on disability in 1989 after struggling with Lyme disease.
His photograph of two students on the first day of school at Greenwood Elementary School, a black student and a white student extending hands for a handshake, has been called an iconic image of Louisville’s “turbulent struggle with desegregation,” the newspaper says.
“The two kids were in an almost-empty classroom because angry parents had kept most of the kids out of school,” former Courier-Journal photographer and picture editor Bryan Moss remembers. “His picture of them is one of the more memorable images of the busing coverage. He was a gentle soul, and a great photographer.”
Coers was presented with NPPA’s Humanitarian Award in 1985, the year the honor was founded as part of NPPA’s yearly Awards & Recognitions, after he rode in an ambulance with emergency medical technicians and performed CPR – at their request – as they tried to revive a 77-year-old woman who had collapsed during a heat wave. The photojournalist was on assignment, riding with the crew for a story when the incident happened.
In addition to his busing handshake picture which was part of the Pulitzer-winning portfolio, Coers is also remembered for his pictures depicting the beauty and joy of life in Kentucky, such as black horses standing in a blazingly-white snow-covered field; or members of the state legislature in session in the chambers in 1968 watching a basketball game on an old, fuzzy black-and-white television set; or a coal miner, his face thick with black soot except for his eyes and nose, emerging from a deep, dirty mine after a day of hard labor.
Coers was an Indianapolis native and a 1966 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, and he started at the Courier-Journal shortly after college.
Coers is survived by his former wife, June Clausen Coers; a son, John Coers (Selene), of Ottenheim, KY; and grandchildren, Jessica and Deanna Coers. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Pearson Ratterman Brothers Funeral Home, 12900 Shelbyville Rd., in Louisville, with burial to follow in St. Sylvester Cemetery, in Lincoln County, KY.