Looking back, like into the frame of a photo from long ago, I wish I had noticed what Jerry Mellman was like in the moments he was photographing sports players in action. It was decades back, when I was a little girl, that I went to a Nuggets basketball game, and I got lucky and sat on the court with the press; the court being the box seats of a basketball game, and the press being Jerry Mellman.
As the IJN sports photographer, and like an uncle to all of us at the IJN family, from time to time he used to treat us to games. Being a sports enthusiast as a kid, my brother Mattis was the one who most often benefitted from Jerry’s generosity. They truly had a sports bond that forged a lifelong friendship between the two.
Jerry was a legend with all the sports players and teams, be it the Broncos, the Rockies, the Nuggets — you name the sport and they all knew Jerry and loved him. He was the honorary grandfather of sports in Colorado.
Usually, when you picture sports photographers or other media covering a story, one word comes to mind: pushy. You gotta get that story. You gotta get that quote. You gotta get that photo! But Jerry Mellman was one of the least pushy, quietest, calmest and most patient people I have ever known.
Now I wish I had paid more attention to his in-the-moment photography manner.
How did he do it? Game after game, rain or shine, decade after decade, he was there.
If anyone has seen all the iterations of Denver sports through the last half a century, it’s Jerry.
Remarkably, even in his eighties and into his nineties, he was at the IJN offices, dropping off his usual envelope of sports photos, as low-key and quiet as usual. It was he who could strike up a conversation with a teen or a millennial, bridging all the gaps, because he always had his finger on the pulse of sports and his heart was truly in it. Before you knew it, two people, old and young, were engaged in a genuine exchange.
I recall a few years ago landing at a Shabbat meal table crowded with some pre-teen boys. They wanted to know about the sports page at the IJN and who captures those “cool photos”? They were practically drooling at the thought of the lucky person who had that job. They even went on to ask if there’s a chance they could go to a game and send in their own photos.
I had to laugh, thinking of Jerry and of young pre-teen boys pining for the job of a man in his eighties.
It’s true. Jerry had many a guy’s dream job. And certainly a dream job that, despite the challenges of old age, he lived until the very end.
He never lost that little kid thrill of going to a sports game. That was Jerry.
I wonder if that was part of his magic in befriending and even mentoring young people. My brother’s age is probably the same as Jerry’s grandson. Yet almost every time my brother came in from Israel to Denver on a visit he and Jerry would go to the East Side Kosher Deli and shoot the breeze. As different as they were, my brother, young by comparison, religiously observant, a Talmud scholar, and Jerry, less religious, older, lawyer and sports enthusiast — but with Jerry it made no difference. Friendship was friendship. And the IJN surrogate family truly was like his family.
The thing is, Jerry was never even a formal photographer. It was “just” his passion, his hobby. Jerry was a successful attorney who just happened to love sports and photography. Somehow, he made the connection with my grandmother, Miriam Goldberg, offering to photograph sports games for the IJN, and the rest, as they say, is history.
You pretty much knew that a few days after every IJN staff birthday party, a tradition my grandmother started when she took the helm of the IJN, you’d receive an envelope of photos as a gift from Jerry. One of many of his multitudes of acts of quiet kindness.
Everyone would be there in the photos, silly birthday hat and all, capturing the spirit of the luncheon — except for him. His place in this world was behind the lens, capturing everyone else’s memories for perpetuity. Though Jerry was a quiet guy, when the moment came for pictures, you knew. Without him saying much, whether you liked being photographed or not you could never turn Jerry away.
You just didn’t say no to Jerry.
He was too nice. Just too much of a gentleman for you to be the one to disappoint him.
Because that’s what it would have been. A disappointment.
To Jerry, pictures were personal.
They were his way of communicating in the world, his way of showing you love in this world.
When his wife Gen passed away in 2013, and he was sitting shiva, so broken-hearted to lose his partner and the love of his life, it was a bit overwhelming for this shy man suddenly to be thrust into the limelight. After expressing my condolences to Jerry, he asked me to sit near his daughter so he could take a picture of the both of us. Because, yes, he had his trusty camera on him. And in that moment when he asked to take the picture, to me it felt like a coded, tender way of his showing his appreciation for my presence and the gesture of the homebaked challahs I had brought.
Jerry translated his emotions into photographs. And so, if you want a glimpse of Jerry, he’s right there. In every picture he has ever taken.
My dream was to throw Jerry a surprise party with Peyton Manning as guest of honor. Boy do I feel terrible it never happened. I made a call or two, but it was right around Super Bowl season, so it was obviously not a possibility. I wish I had followed up on that. I just know Manning would have shown up for Jerry.
I always took note of Jerry’s sports photos in the IJN. In addition to his sharp eye, Jerry must have had an intuitive sense, coupled with unending patience. He must have known just right moment for a perfect shot. How else to explain his ultra non-aggressive approach, yet on point photos, capturing the sensory experience, beauty and tension of the game?
In my own way, I hope I have painted a “picture” of Jerry to you, dear reader, because all of us at the IJN will miss this beloved friend so dearly. The thought of participating in an IJN birthday lunch without Jerry, tall, with his thick head of grey hair and shy smile, snapping up memories for us all to keep, is almost inconceivable.
While everyone but Jerry was consistently the subject of his photos, this is my little way of, for once, framing Jerry Mellman as the subject.
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