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Bob Kotalik, former chief photographer for Chicago Sun-Times, dies at 87

Robert Kotalik

Robert Kotalik

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Updated: July 2, 2013 7:25AM

Bob Kotalik got his first job in journalism in 1942, cleaning out the pigeon loft at the Chicago Sun, a predecessor to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The pigeons ferried film from sporting events. Within a few years, Mr. Kotalik was shooting the film for the Sun-Times.

In a 47-year career with the paper, he chronicled movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and horrific tragedies including the Our Lady of Angels fire before becoming the paper’s chief photographer.

Mr. Kotalik, 87, died Wednesday morning at his home in Mesa, Ariz., of Alzheimer’s disease.

“He had a knack for news and an extra sense of anticipating what was going to happen,” said John H. White, a Pulitzer prize-winning Sun-Times photographer who worked with Mr. Kotalik.

“He knew that you could never publish an excuse, so he always produced,” White said.

Mr. Kotalik was fearless when it came to heights, whether dangling out of a helicopter to get shots of the city burning during the 1968 riots or climbing out on a boom to photograph construction workers high atop Marina City or the Sears Tower.

“I got a thrill out of it,” he told Sun-Times reporter William Braden on the occasion of his retirement in 1990. “When we went to the top of a building, many times we had to crawl up 10 or more floors on wooden ladders,” Kotalik said. “The higher I got the more it thrilled me.”

For much of Kotalik’s career, it was an accepted procedure to pose some news photos — a practice that had fallen out of favor by the time he became a boss.

“I’m not talking about phony pictures,” Kotalik told Braden. “But we’d go into a place with three or four people spread out a little too much and we’d asked them to get closer together. Photographers today won’t do that.”

Mr. Kotalik had another old-school talent: getting the right shot while taking far fewer pictures than photographers do today.

That was a requirement when using the old Speed Graphic cameras, in which the film and flash bulb had to be changed for every shot.

“You had to be choosy with your shots . . . or you’d run out of film,” Mr. Kotalik said.

His former colleagues said Mr. Kotalik had a sense of humor and was always kidding.

Once a woman on the street handed him her camera and asked him to take a picture.

“He kept waving her and her family to move back,” said Rich Cahan, a former Sun-Times photo editor. “Then he turned and ran. When they chased him, just as they were about to catch him, he turned around and took the picture.”

Mr. Kotalik grew up on the West Side and got a job at the Chicago Sun in 1942 through his brother, a staff photographer.

Drafted at the tail end of the war, he saw no action and returned to the paper as photographer in 1947.

A sharp-dressed man-about-town, he met his future wife when he swept into a birthday party with a girl on each arm.

“He put the girls in a cab and asked if he could drive me home,” said his wife, Pearl.

They met in 1962 and were married a year later.

Appointed chief photographer in 1972, he was a tough boss, but he also managed to come off as one of the guys, said Gene Pesek, a former Sun-Times photographer.

“He was a good person to work for because he had been on the street for quite a number of years,” Pesek said. “He knew what to expect.”

“He loved his job, and he loved the fellas he worked with,” his wife said.

Even when his Alzheimer’s was at its worst, “He remembered the names of the people he worked with,” she said.

Other survivors include a stepdaughter, Margie. Services were pending.

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