Richard Wisdom, an award-winning Mercury News photographer for nearly three decades, died April 1 in Rio Vista, Calif. He was 81.
He died from congestive heart failure with his family by his side, according to his wife, Kay Wisdom.
Mercury News photographer Richard Wisdom in one of his trademark hats.
Over a 42-year stint as a news photographer in the Bay Area, “The Wiz,” as he was known, distinguished himself for his news instincts and his humanity, capturing subjects as varied as a tragically collapsed Oakland freeway after a 1989 earthquake and a hilariously business-suited runner in San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers.
William Richard Wisdom was born on May 24, 1938, in Tucson, Arizona.
His career as a press photographer began at Tucson High School’s Cactus Chronicle. With the bulky 4×5 Speed Graphic cameras common to the day, Wisdom was able to capture images of visiting dignitaries like President Dwight Eisenhower and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on their annual trips to the desert.
He then landed his first professional jobs at the Tucson Daily Star and the Phoenix Gazette.
In 1973, the man known better as “The Wiz” joined the San Jose Mercury News.
Readers of this paper may remember his 1976 photograph of a lonely, driver-less Chevy Impala perched precariously 110 feet above the ground on a segment of the infamously incomplete Highways 101-280-680 interchange construction project.
The vehicle had been placed there by frustrated local officials trying to force Gov. Jerry Brown to complete the stalled project. It worked.
When the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area in 1989, Wisdom’s photographs of the deadly Cypress Structure collapse in Oakland contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize for General Reporting in 1990.
Geri Migielicz, one of his longtime photo editors at the paper, and now a visiting journalism professor at Stanford, remembered Wisdom for his big “ear-to-ear grin.”
“In an industry known for cynicism,” she added, “where photojournalists did their share of grumbling, Wiz greeted every day, every assignment with enthusiasm.”
And he freely shared his passion for photography with others.
Wisdom was a fixture at National Press Photographers Association workshops for decades, at times traveling across the country to inspire young photojournalism students.
Wisdom’s camera captured plenty of tragedy, too. He was sent to Stockton in 1989 after hearing reports about a deadly schoolyard shooting (not so common at the time).
The tragedy claimed the lives of five children, and wounded 32 others. His photograph of a police officer talking to a young student made the cover of News Photographer Magazine.
Nine years earlier, he had flown to Washington state to document the apocalyptic landscape around the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcano eruption. His photographs captured a forest of splintered trees flattened among destroyed vehicles.
Though he never blinked when covering the worst that news had to offer, it was his love for the brighter side of humanity that defined his photography.
Readers may recall his image of a runner in a business suit competing in San Francisco’s annual Bay to Breakers.
Or his rainy day feature photo of man wearing a bag at a pay phone. (You remember pay phones, right?)
There’s an old saw in news photography that says if your pictures aren’t good enough, maybe you’re not close enough.
Richard Wisdom was always close enough.
Sometimes too close.
Once at the AT&T Golf Tournament, Wisdom was hit square in the top of the head by a Jack Nicklaus drive. The impact left an impressive welt, one that— as legend has it— fellow golfer and comedian Bill Murray tried to kiss to make better.
Sandra Eisert, a former Mercury News design editor who also contributed to the 1990 Pultizer, remembers choosing Wisdom for a particularly sensitive funeral assignment. “Because of his heart, because of his full humanity,” she said, “I knew he could understand that real-life loss better, to understand grief and its swirl of emotion, and connect us to that loss.”
Wiz came back with the front-page photo.
After Wisdom retired from the Mercury News in 2001, he couldn’t let go of the camera. He began shooting for the Brentwood Press near his home in Discovery Bay. And his countless hours volunteering with charities in eastern Contra Costa County earned him a Community Service Award in 2015.
A couple years ago, Wiz was given a ride down main street in Brentwood’s big Holiday Parade to honor him for his humanitarian work. Waving from the front seat of a convertible with his wife, Kay, behind him, he wore another of his trademark hats — perhaps to hide the remaining scar of that brush with Jack Nicklaus. Richard Wisdom was honored one last time, beaming his famous ear-to-ear Wiz grin.
An obituary published in Monday’s Mercury News says a Celebration of Life will be scheduled at a later date after the shelter-in-place order is lifted.