Through the Lens Retired photographer captures 25 years of state gubernatorial history

Michelle James, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.
·10 min read

Apr. 10—To say Steve Rotsch enjoyed his first drive along West Virginia's country roads might be a bit of a stretch.

He wasn't driving deep into a holler or attempting to navigate a bumpy one-lane back road — not yet anyway.

That first trip was from Charleston to Flatwoods, down Interstate 77.

"And I was scared of the mountains," Rotsch said with a laugh. "On the Interstate. I've never had a feeling like that ever since, no matter where I've been."

In fairness, Rotsch was fresh out of Illinois where the flat terrain didn't do much to prepare him for his new home in the Mountain State.

That was 1985, and with that first trip now 36 years in the rearview, Rotsch has added a few more memorable drives to his resume.

"I've been places on one-lane and dirt roads I probably shouldn't have been," he said. "Every county and probably every major and secondary road. All around the state."

And he's documented every country mile in photograph.

Rotsch has traveled for work and for pleasure, as his portfolio shows, and when the world rights itself — i.e., his wife receives her Covid vaccines — he'll travel again.

When that happens, however, it will be strictly for pleasure.

He's a man of leisure these days as he retired in December after serving as the West Virginia governor's photographer, a position he held under five different administrations.

----Rotsch's journey into professional photography, much like the windy country roads over which he has traveled over the past three decades, wasn't quite a straight line.

Had he followed his original path at the University of Southern Illinois, he might have recently retired from a career as a sportswriter instead.

But at some point — he can't remember just when — in his journalism studies, he picked up his uncle's Yashica camera and fell in love.

"Then it was like I was hit in the head," he said.

In addition to school, Rotsch, who was in his late teens or early 20s, worked full-time as a Class A water operator for Staunton, Ill. He said he knew he couldn't really embrace his dream of becoming a photographer until he had his own equipment though, so until he could save enough money, he used his uncle's.

When he finally bought his own Nikon camera and lens — he couldn't afford a flash right away — he was ready to go.

His uncle, a welder by trade, taught him the basics and built him a dark room in his basement, and he took whatever photography classes the school had to offer.

The rest, he learned through one of the many photography jobs he held down during the nine years he attended college.

"I was 17 when I started college and went all the way through," he said, adding it took him so long to graduate, the school dropped the photojournalism sequence and his advisor taught him one-on-one to enable him to receive the specialty.

He was busy during those years though, as, in addition to the water plant, he worked three other part-time jobs.

Among the most interesting of those jobs was his time as a coroner's and forensics photographer.

"That was probably the first real photography job I ever had," he said. "I didn't really think that one through, but I'm glad I did it. It made me grow up a little bit."

After he graduated in 1983, Rotsch worked as a reporter and photographer at the Springfield State Journal and then at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

It was a connection formed in St. Louis that led him to the Mountain State.

"Someone I knew who worked at the St. Louis Associated Press became bureau chief in Charleston and asked me to come work for the AP as a photographer," he said.

It was Rotsch's first offer to leave writing completely behind and focus on photos.

"I took the leap," he said.

His main job, at least at first, was covering the legislature, and whatever other news and standalone photos he found. That's how, he said, he ended up on I-77 headed to a pelt auction in Flatwoods when he first arrived.

"My area was basically the state of West Virginia," he said.

Rotsch said he enjoyed his time with the AP, speaking of two stories specifically.

One assignment was when President Gerald Ford's would-be assassin Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, who was imprisoned in Alderson, went on the lam for several days.

He said the prison ran out of cream and sugar while they waited for her recapture, forcing him to drink his coffee black.

"I haven't had cream or sugar in my coffee since," he said. "So that's one thing Squeaky did for me."

He also walked away with a good story while shooting the unveiling of a statue of late Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager.

"He's standing there looking at the statue and he wouldn't turn around," Rotsch said. "The photographers are all saying, 'Chuck, Chuck, turn around,' and he won't. So I grab his arm and he turned around and called me a 'Goddamn root weevil.'"

It worked out as everyone got the money shot, and, years later when now U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin was serving as governor, Rotsch was able to spend time with Yeager again.

"I told him the story and kind of apologized for grabbing his arm," he said with a laugh. "I told him what he called me and he said, 'Well, were 'ya?'"

----Rotsch described his job as the governor's photographer as serving as a documentarian of sorts, but only during work events.

"I don't know if you can explain it all," he said. "I had a schedule of things that were happening during the day and night — all things that were associated with him as the governor, not private or family things.

"My job was to capture everything the governor does at work."

But before he took the job as governor's photographer, Rotsch left West Virginia behind, or at least thought he had, when he traveled to Michigan to freelance for The Associated Press in 1990.

Two years later, however, in 1992, he got a call from former governor Gaston Caperton's press secretary and he headed back.

"I said, 'I'll be there Monday.'"

Rotsch served in the same position during Caperton's second term as well, but was not hired to serve under former Gov. Cecil Underwood when he took office in 1996.

"I applied but they hired someone else," he said, explaining he worked as a photojournalist in Clarksburg during Underwood's tenure.

But in 2001, one year into former Gov. Bob Wise's only term, Rotsch was again offered the position.

He said he kind of presumed he would be back on the hunt when Manchin took office, but Manchin's first day on the job he said, "You're going to stay on, right?"

After that, Rotsch never applied for the job again, working under Earl Ray Tomblin and, most recently Jim Justice.

And it was one he enjoyed, too.

He said he almost needs to look at photos to remember everything that happened over 25 years, but some things stick out.

"There were a lot of good things," he said. "Some bad."

The deadly 2016 flooding is something burned in his memory.

As are the mining tragedies at Sago and Upper Big Branch.

"The mine disasters probably stand out more than anything because I got to see both sides," he said. "I got to see the people side and the mine side. I had access to almost everything because wherever the governor went, I got to go."

He mentioned the jubilant announcement that 12 miners were alive at Sago followed by the the announcement that only one miner survived.

"So I get in my car and I leave and I get almost to the Interstate and I hear, '12 dead' and I made a U-turn and went back," he said. "There's a church not very far from the mine and that's where everybody (miners' families) was. When I got there, oh Lord, it was horrible.

"They had hope and it was taken away."

----Rotsch, 66, said he's been thinking about retirement for several years and decided early in 2020 to go ahead and make the move.

"I'm old," he said, laughing before adding he had 60 days of leave banked and would have lost 20 at the end of 2020 if he hadn't retired. "You can only carry over 40 (days)."

Retirement doesn't mean he'll put down his camera though.

Along with former state tourism photographer Steve Shaluta, he presents twice-yearly weekend photography workshops at Twin Falls Resort State Park.

That's where he met his wife Carla, who works as the business manager for the West Virginia Division of Highways.

"She paid to meet me at a workshop," he joked, adding, "And she's outshot me the last two or three times now."

Pre-Covid-19, the couple traveled on photography adventures and both remain active with Three Rivers Avian Center in Summers County, where he also gives workshops twice a year as fundraisers for non-profit rescue and rehabilitation center.

"I'm really lucky she likes to photograph," he said of his wife. "And she's good."

Rotsch has already received his Covid vaccine and said they plan to start traveling as soon as Carla receives hers.

"My mom died (of Covid) in November and I hadn't been able to see her for almost a year at that time, so our first trip is probably going to be out to Illinois for some kind of memorial service," he said.

"Until then we're just laying low. It's hard to plan right now."

And though the end of 2020 marked Rotsch's official retirement, he nearly retired during Manchin's term.

"I'm legally blind," he said, explaining he has a condition that causes his eyes to lock shut at random times.

"I guess it happened gradually, but it was when Manchin was governor it became really noticeable," he said, adding he told the former governor's chief of staff he planned to quit because he couldn't see.

"The next day, the governor said, 'I want you to see my guy,'" Rotsch continued. "I had been to four or five ophthalmologists at that point. This guy was 2 1/2 blocks from the Capitol."

Within the first five minutes of his visit, Rotsch said he had a diagnosis and plan.

"I have blepharospasms," he said of the condition, which is treated with multiple Botox injections four times a year.

"...Without Manchin, I don't know how long it would have taken," he said. "I'd probably be on disability."

But that doesn't mean Manchin is his favorite governor. Or if he is, Rotsch isn't saying.

"One of the reasons I stayed in this job is I have a bad memory," he said. "I rode in the cars with everybody. In airplanes. I heard all their conversations but I don't remember them.

"So I'm not going there," he continued, refusing to play favorites. "But I'll tell you this. They all wanted to do well for this state and for the people."

And that was part of Rotsch's goal as well.

In addition to capturing West Virginia gubernatorial history, he said he did his best to ensure every person who encountered a governor left with a good memory.

"I took a lot of pictures of people with governors and my one thought through it all was, 'This is probably the only time they're going to meet this governor or any governor and I want to make it special to them,' and hopefully I did for a lot of people."