By Donald R. Winslow
News Photographer magazine
HOUSTON, TX – Kerwin Plevka, 54, the assistant director of photography for theHouston Chronicle, was found dead in his home late yesterday afternoon. The staff learned of Plevka’s death from the newspaper’s executive vice president and editor, Jeff Cohen, after their long-time coworker uncharacteristically failed to show up at the office on Friday and did not answer his phone.
Cohen told the staff that assistant managing editor for graphics Ernie Williamson asked a police officer to go by Plevka’s house to check on him and that’s when he was found dead. A Harris County sheriff’s deputy at the scene told the newspaper that there were no signs of trauma and that the medical investigator would inspect the scene. A cause of death has not been determined.
“I’ll remember Kerwin as someone who elevated the visual journalism of the newspaper,” Cohen wrote in a note to the staff. “He went out of his way to help everyone around him – editors, photographers, page designers. On top of that, he was a damn nice guy. We’ll miss him.”
Houston-based sports photojournalist Robert Seale, who shoots forSporting News, wrote on the SportsShooter.com Web site, “Kerwin won many awards during his career and was well liked by all who had the pleasure of working with him, shooting alongside him, or having an after-work beer or motorcycle ride with him.”
Seale toldNews Photographermagazine tonight, “I was an intern at theChroniclein 1992 and Kerwin took me under his wing. He took care of me and he taught me how to shoot baseball. He used to enjoy telling me a story about when he was a United Press International stringer back in Kansas and, at some point, someone took him to a world series game and put him in the first base pit next to the great baseball shooter Rusty Kennedy, who was shooting for the Associated Press. Kerwin said it was a make-or-break moment for him, but he did okay that day and ended up getting the UPI job.”
Chroniclestaff photojournalist Karen Warren worked with Plevka and tonight she said, “He always brought an air of professionalism to everything he did. They broke the mold with Kerwin. He was a fabulous guy, a lot of fun to be around, and before he was our assistant director of photography we shot together all the time and he was fun and intense.” As a photographer Plevka won many awards, including a 1999 National Headliner Award for a picture of a bar boxer taking a last drag off a cigarette while the referee inspected his boxing gloves at the start of the match (photograph at bottom of page). He also won Texas Associated Press Managing Editor Awards, and has a photograph in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
“A few weeks ago he went to great pains to throw a birthday party at the house for his daughter, Olivia, 15, who's a freshman in high school,” Warren said. “He just doted on her, she lives with her mom but he wanted to have this great party for her. He was talking about how much he spent on this huge cake and what fun it was.”
In addition to his daughter he is survived by his mother, Eileen, of Belleville, KS; his former wife, Ingrid; and his brother, John Plevka, who is the associate managing editor for news at thePeoria Journal Starin Peoria, IL.
“Kerwin was into his Harley motorcycles,” Warren said, “and he belonged to a club and went on weekend rides. A couple of years ago he took two weeks of vacation and rode up to Kansas, where he’s from, to see his mother, and then rode back. And he was also into astronomy, and he had a camera connected to a telescope and he loved doing that too.”
Plevka was a Kansas State University graduate who was a newspaper photographer in Missouri working for theBlue Springs Examinerand theIndependence Examiner, as well as theWestport Truckermagazine. He also worked for UPI in Kansas City, MO, and later in Dallas before moving to theChroniclein 1987. He photographed baseball legend Nolan Ryan delivering his 5,000th career strikeout pitch of his career against batter Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s on August 22, 1989, in Arlington Stadium.
In 1993, Plevka and Associated Press photographer Rick Bowmer were arrested and held at gunpoint face-down, their film confiscated, by Texas state troopers near the scene of the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, TX, a few days after the compound’s fire killed 85 cult members. Plevka and Bowmer were trying to walk in closer for a better vantage point,Chroniclereporter Paul McKay wrote the next day, and the duo thought they were much farther away from the site than they were. But when they walked out of the woods, they were about a half-mile to a mile away, Plevka said. The two photographers were charged with "interfering with the duties of a peace officer," a misdemeanor, and booked into McLennan County Jail.
Eight years later Plevka was nearly killed when he was swept away by storm water on his own street after covering the aftermath of Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.Chroniclereporter Allan Turner wrote on July 14 that Plevka was headed home around 3 a.m. after working all night shooting storm damage when his sport utility vehicle’s engine died while crossing through hubcap-deep water. Plevka grabbed his camera bag and got out, starting to walk home. He apparently fell, and with the heavy bag being swept along with him by the fast-moving water he became trapped neck-deep in a drainage ditch. He had to let go of the bag, filled with his cameras and lenses and all of his day’s work, and cling to a tree for more than an hour while he waited for rescue and as the water continued to rise.
Turner reported that a passing motorist heard Plevka’s calls for help and, using a ski rope, pulled him to safety. Twenty-two people died in Southeast Texas during Tropical Storm Allison’s rampage, but Plevka narrowly escaped being one of them.
There will be a memorial service on Wednesday, February 16, at 2 p.m. at the Calvary Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home, 21723 Aldine Westfield Road, Humble, TX. A second memorial service will be held in Belleville, KS, at the United Presbyterian Church at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 19, with the family meeting with friends one hour before the service.