By Nathan Ham
There’s a good chance that if you have ever had children playing sports, a family portrait done or hosted a special event in the High Country, you know who Bob Caldwell is.
Bob spent 40 years of his life taking photos, developing film and putting smiles on people’s faces in Boone. Bob passed away unexpectedly on December 5 at Frye Regional Hospital in Hickory at the age of 68.
The memories that his friends and family have will continue on, and the thousands of photos he had taken over the years will always be there to remind everyone how much he appreciated the art of photography and how much he cared about so many of the people that he met during his life.
There will be a special memorial service this Saturday, 2 p.m., at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located at 1484 Old U.S. Highway 421 South in Boone. Following the service there will be a brief gathering at LaQuinta Inn & Suites for people to share stories and memories of Bob.
Getting to Know Bob
Bob Caldwell, the youngest of three children by William and Mildred Caldwell, attended Frank L. Ashley High School in Gastonia where he graduated in 1968. After that, he moved to Boone and attended Appalachian State University until 1972 when he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Bob grew up loving the outdoors and loved being a boy scout. Even when he moved to Boone, he was a camp leader for several years.
“I worked with Bob for several summers at Schiele Scout Reservation in the 60s where we both were staff members. He was a great counselor and dedicated to scouting. I am sure many scouts’ lives were enriched from his teachings and example,” said Allen Smith in one of the many tribute messages shared online.
Following graduation at App State, Caldwell got a job working at a mill in South Carolina in a department similar to what human resources is today. However, he quickly found out he did not like that kind of work.
“Photography had always been an interest to him. His mom had developed x-rays during World War II as a nurse and when he was little, she showed him how to develop film so that had always been an interest to him as a kid,” said his wife, Sharon.
While at App State, Caldwell worked for George Flowers taking photographs and helped out doing stringer work for the Associated Press, going out and taking photos for special events, weather events and anything that Flowers sent him out to cover.
Flowers grew up near Hickory and got his first start in the media world at WHKY, a local radio station, before joining the Navy in 1942. In 1944, Flowers began his freelance photography but continued to work in the radio industry, helping build stations across the High Country.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Flowers started his photography business in Boone. Local photography shop owner Palmer Blair was killed in an airplane crash and Flowers chose to purchase the shop and establish his own business, Flowers Photo Shop. He was one of the key figures in helping Digital Watauga get off the ground when he donated 4 million negatives and prints to the Boone Chamber of Commerce that chronicled life in the county from 1957 to 2004.
Thanks to the bond built between Caldwell and Flowers, Bob would often drive Flowers around later in life to doctor appointments and trips to the store to spend time with his photography mentor. Flowers passed away on January 15, 2008.
Bob followed his photography dreams and went on to attend Randolph Technical Institute where he graduated in 1978 with a fine arts degree in photography. That same year, he moved back to Boone and started Bob Caldwell Photography, a business that he treasured and worked at until his last days.
One thing that people may not have known about Bob was his constant battle with anxiety and depression issues, something he dealt with for a large portion of his life. Sharon says that Bob often used photography as a way to get to know people better.
“I think for Bob, it was a medium to break the ice with people and maybe a protection for him with a camera to hold up,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how much anxiety he had with situations he didn’t have control over. I always thought he was pretty brave dealing with it.”
Bob still had a lot of friends in Boone and it was a comfortable location for him, so that’s one of the reasons why he chose to move back here and open his photography business.
Caldwell was doing cheerleading camp photos and other sports shots when Watauga Parks and Recreation decided to reach out to him to see if he would be interesting in taking photos for the many youth sports they had to offer.
“I came to know him when he began photographing my boys as they played ball for parks and rec,” said Nancy Lawson. “Every time I saw him he always said ‘if you ever want anyone to photograph that red hair of yours, just let me know.’ He was a kind man with an infectious smile and warm hard. He will truly be missed.”
Many people enjoyed how Bob interacted with the children and their families while still doing top quality professional work to photograph these sports memories for families to treasure.
“It worked out well because he didn’t cause them any problems and we always tried to treat people well so I think he got good feedback from them,” said Sharon. “He was good at interacting with people and good at organizing. He was good at photography and he knew a lot so I think he always wanted to produce something that looked really nice.”
Bob would end up taking generational pictures of families capturing some of the most special moments of peoples’ lives. Many of his photos would capture babies growing into toddlers, who eventually grew up to play sports and then went on to graduate school, get married and have families of their own. Bob was there to capture those memories that are still kept in numerous scrapbooks and photo albums. With that we can always remember that Bob’s work will always be around.
Life Outside of Photography
Sharon left her home state of Connecticut and spent some time living in North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia. It was her time living in Virginia when she traveled to Boone with some friends to help a local Jehovah’s Witness congregation. That’s when she met Bob.
“Bob was a good letter writer and could talk on the phone a long time. Bob was a very straight-forward person and he liked me for me. I appreciated that,” Sharon said.
Sharon and Bob got married at Fitzgerald’s Orchard, an apple orchard in Tyro, Virginia in 1983.
Bob had long been known to be a big talker on the phone. He would call friends every week, sometimes several times a week, to check in on them and share some stories. Ken Ketchie, publisher of the High Country Press, has known Bob since he first opened his photography business.
“I bet there have been thousands of calls from Bob, going back to when phones were connected to a telephone poll. Back then you didn’t know who was calling, but I remember us betting that it was Bob,” Ketchie said. “Bob would get to know everyone in the office and would talk to whoever picked up the phone.”
Sharon can still remember when they first met that he would call so often despite the long distance charges.
Ketchie says that when cell phones became popular, that gave Bob the opportunity to talk from wherever he was, which must have been heaven for him.
“With cell phones you could see it would be Bob calling and there were times when you just couldn’t answer, but his phone calls were always entertaining and most often for a reason. Bob loved helping us out with photography, from talking about cameras to getting things fixed, buying something new or setting up a picture, Bob was always there to help. He was always part of our newspaper gang,” says Ketchie. “I’m really going to miss those phone calls.”
Other health problems started to show up for him later in life. Bob developed diabetes but was eventually able to beat the disease after having gastric bypass surgery that allowed him to lose 160 pounds. Later on, he began having kidney dialysis that started in October of 2013 that was attributed in large part to the medicine he took early in life to battle his anxiety and depression. But even while he was there at the clinic, he still had his phone and knew how to put it to use calling friends and family to talk about how their days are going.
“He could talk all night long from one coast to the other to people that were awake at the time,” joked Sarah Luciano, Bob’s sister-in-law. “He always wanted to press you to talk about yourself. We didn’t like to talk about ourselves but he was like a good reporter, he would really try to get you to talk. He was interested in you and wanted to learn about you.”
Bob’s generosity in the community was passed along to so many people, including other photographers and artists that were trying to improve their own work.
“Bob helped me with an artistic project this past summer relating to photography of some of my paintings. (He) gave me tons of advice, was kind and generous, followed up with phone calls and just went out of his way to be helpful. I can’t believe he’s gone,” said Julia Ralston.
Bob was well known for bringing breakfast, lunch and snacks to his friends, particularly going on donut runs to drop off some sweet treats across town. First it was Granny’s Donuts and then eventually Krispy Kreme Donuts when they opened in Boone.
“He was a big supporter of Granny’s and Krispy Kreme,” Sharon joked. “But it really was a way for him to show that he cared about people.”
Bob will truly be missed in the High Country by those that knew him, cared about him and were impacted in some way by his generosity, friendship and his wonderful photography.
“We have lost a funny, gentle, generous and talented presence with Bob’s passing. I’ll miss his friendly asides as we crossed paths, his humorous comments and reflections that lightened the day, and his wonderful photography that helped to stamp loving memories for so many people over so many years,” said Murray Hawkinson. “Condolences to his loving and talented wife, Sharon, whose presence in Bob’s life added so much to his happiness and contentment. We’ll miss him greatly.”