Remembering Sam Yu, Frederick News-Post photographer for 40 years

·5 min read

Sep. 23—Ask anyone who knew Sam Yu, and they'll tell you: If there was anything more iconic about the former Frederick News-Post photographer than the camera always slung around his neck, it was his khaki green Domke vest.

Yu — who died on Wednesday — would don a vest every day, wearing it out until its pockets were torn and tattered. Then, he would purchase another one.

During the nearly 40 years he spent working full-time at the paper, he probably went through dozens of vests, News-Post photographer Bill Green said.

In his vest, his wife, Sherry Johnson, said, Yu stored pens and pencils, little notebooks, a Swiss Army knife, a magnifying glass, sunglasses and dozens of treasures she probably had no idea were there.

It had to weigh at least 15 pounds, she said with a laugh.

Yu died from complications of cancer. He was 71.

There will be a visitation for him on Monday, Johnson said. She's trying to see if she can set out his camera vest for people to see. On Thursday, when she pulled it out of his closet, a little News-Post notebook was still in one of its pockets.

"I'll put his camera next to it," she said. "I think he would get a kick out of that."

Born in June of 1951, Yu spent most of his life in Frederick. He was raised by his father, an astronomy professor at Hood College, and his mother, a homemaker, Johnson said.

Yu was brilliant, Johnson said. He graduated as valedictorian from Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, then — fascinated by science — studied biology at the University of Rochester in New York.

He would have made a good biologist, Johnson said, but his lifelong interest in photography won him over in the end.

C. Kurt Holter, another former News-Post photographer, recommended Yu for a job on the newspaper's photography staff in 1978, and he was hired.

Yu went on to become one of the longest tenured photographers at the paper, Holter said. Yu watched as photography advanced from the darkroom to digital cameras, and documented life in a rapidly evolving Frederick County.

And he had guts, Holter said. Yu, a Chinese American, covered a Ku Klux Klan rally in Braddock Heights, where he and a Black photographer were confronted by a group of white supremacists.

Green, who worked with Yu for many decades, also covered the rally. If his memory serves him correctly, he said, the Klan kicked out the Black photographer, but was confused about what to do with Yu.

Another time, when an Air Force EC-135 crashed in a field north of Walkersville in 1981, Yu snuck into the crash site and took photos of the wreckage. He stuffed the film with his good photos in his socks, so it wouldn't get confiscated by the military, Green remembered.

Bert Anderson, a Frederick businessman who purchased and restored the Everedy Square and Shab Row district, was a great admirer of Yu's work. Yu left an important legacy for the community in the thousands of photographs he took throughout his lifetime, Anderson said.

"The last 30 to 40 years have been an important era in the history of Frederick, and Sam's photography, I think, captured many of those moments," he said. "It will be an important resource here for future historians."

Outside of work, those who knew and loved Yu remember him as a quiet, kind-hearted man with a gentle soul and a sly, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor.

Even when he wasn't on the clock, he always seemed to be armed with a camera.

Nancy Luse, the assistant editor of Frederick Magazine, worked with Yu at the News-Post for years as a news editor and reporter. Once, after getting her appendix removed, she woke up to find Yu at the foot of her hospital bed.

"He said, 'I need to take a picture of you because they're wondering back at the office how you're doing,'" she said. "I was like, 'Sam, let me fix my hair here.'"

Being married to Yu — a bonafide celebrity in the Frederick community — was exciting and unpredictable, Johnson said. Almost every time they went out together, someone recognized Yu as the News-Post photographer who had photographed them.

Then, there were the stories he would tell her about his assignments.

Once, he gave her a call, near hyperventilating. He had taken her son to Camp David to photograph a visit from then-President Bill Clinton, and the little boy had run up to the dignitary. The next day, photos of the two of them were all over the news.

Being a photographer wasn't anything close to a 9-to-5 job for Yu, Johnson said. He kept a police scanner next to their bed, and would run out the door to document fires and car crashes late at night or early in the morning. If he could, Johnson said, he would have had a scanner embedded into his head.

Yu occasionally shared insight from the job in a column for the paper. In one, published in 2009, he recounted what he carried in his photo vest. To his great surprise, many readers found the list entertaining and interesting.

Six years later, he published a similar column, this time describing a "day in the life of a photographer." On Feb. 11, 2015, the day he chronicled in the article, he started work at around 7:30 a.m. and finished at around 10:30 p.m.

"So there you have it," he wrote, "a day from my life. One thing I really like about my job is that no two days are the same. I get to travel all around our county and meet and photograph interesting people."

"Only 364 more days to go," he concluded.

Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier