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Dan Weber’s Just Sayin’: So long, Joe Munson – a Northern Kentucky original like no one else ever


They’ll say goodbye to Joe Munson Friday on the banks of the Mississippi some 45 miles south of St. Louis where he was born. But Joe was one of us, a Northern Kentuckian most of his life – except for his days with the CIA in Cambodia although like everybody else from the U.S. in those crazy Vietnam War days, the Lloyd Memorial grad wasn’t really supposed to be there.

But then photo pro Joe probably wasn’t supposed to be a translator, either. He just had a gift, as those who went with him for Thai food will tell you. When we lost Joe last week at the age of 81, we googled him just for the heck of it. And that’s where you realize the limitations of the internet. Because we came across Joe’s Linkedin.com profile. Who knew he had one? Then we realized he’d never used it. That’s more like it.

Joe Munson (Photo provided)

Good thing he didn’t because the first line of Joe’s entry could not have been more off the mark: “People similar to Joe Munson” the website offered. See, there’s the problem. There was no one “similar to Joe Munson.” And for those of us who worked with Joe during his nearly three decades at The Kentucky Post and Scripps-Howard as a photojournalist, we can vouch for that.

There was only one Joe Munson, but a million stories from those who had the pleasure of spending time with this unlike-anybody-else-you’ve-ever-met character who seems to have hiked every major trail in America. Joe could hook you up for free cable back in the day when that was a thing or park his baby blue Porsche 911, a car that would have been the envy if you were valet parking it at one of the hot clubs in West LA, right there at 421 Madison Avenue in downtown Covington.

As we said, everybody has their own stories. Joe operated on so many levels. All I know is he gave me two of the best moments I’ll ever have, or had, in this business. The first came in the first spring I was at the Post and Joe was assigned as my photographer for a high school baseball game.

“Danny Boy, I don’t know nothin’ about baseball,” Joe informed me as we huddled behind home plate to game-plan. Indeed, Joe let me know he’d never actually been to a baseball game, never saw one on TV either.

So I came up with a plan that I told Joe would get him a photo with the runner and the fielder and the ball and the base all in it. Can’t ask for more than that. You just go down behind first base and let the play come to you, I told Joe. You’ll see. Behind first base is your place. Joe nodded his head, smiled and said that sounded great. Just one question as we stood there behind home plate.

“WHICH WAY’S FIRST BASE?” Joe asked.

Actually, Joe would tell us sports guys he didn’t know anything about sports across the board. He knew so much about so many things way more complicated than any of us could comprehend that he’d had little time for sports. That was the rap on the “Father of the A-bomb” Robert Oppenheimer, I’m told. Didn’t know or care about sports.

But Joe did care about the Indianapolis 500. And took off as much time as he could in May to photograph the events at the Speedway. And one year, out of the blue, a Covington guy qualified for the 500, as much of a surprise to him as it was to us. So I got credentialed and it was off to a race that my dad and his buds had gone to since they were in college.

What a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be down on that grid before the race with the drivers and celebs and a crowd of 250,000-300,000 looking on. And then the race started and our guy lasted an entire lap as I recall and that was it. We had 199 laps to go and what to do now, I asked Joe.

Paul Newman

Joe had an answer, of course. Down in the first turn, where you could see the cars coming down the straightaway and making that all-important first left turn. There was this beautiful oak tree with a circumference of 30 feet at least — it’s no longer there, having given way to a grandstand — but then it was fenced off so you had to have credentials to get there. And it gave you plenty of shade. And you could rest up against the trunk. And just watch the cars go by. Not a bad deal. A quiet spot with a view in this most hectic of all sporting events. Cool.

And so we went. And hung out. And were enjoying the race. And then I noticed a couple of guys had come around the other side of the tree to basically the same spot. One of them, the guy elbow-to-elbow next to Joe had one of those white Nomex racing suits on so I knew he was connected to one of the crews.

And then I looked closer. And realized who Joe was elbow-to-elbow next to. And started nudging Joe. And giving him the side-eye and head-nod to check out who was next to him because we were so close I couldn’t say anything. And after a minute or so, Joe got this “Ah ha” look on his face. And in that direct way of his, blurted out: “Are you Steve McQueen?”

Actually, not a bad guess. McQueen was a native of Indianapolis and had been a big racing guy. But before Joe got his answer, the guy with the blazing blue eyes – I don’t usually notice those things but in his case you just couldn’t help it — started laughing uncontrollably.

And then, PAUL NEWMAN says, “No, I’m the guy who’s still alive.” Only found out later that because of acting and racing, those two had developed a rivalry of sorts — Newman and McQueen, who died much too young at the age of 50 in 1980. And Newman would have the last laugh, thanks to Joe.

You could tell Newman loved it that he’d run into someone — with a press credential at that — who didn’t know who he was. And Joe Munson was the perfect person to play that role. And so we spent another hour or so before heading back to the pits, just some guys watching the 500. Paul Newman and Joe Munson, elbow-to-elbow, hanging out under an oak tree at the Speedway.

Perfect.

For those of us who knew Joe — and for Paul Newman, too.

Contact Dan Weber at dweber3440@aol.com. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter)


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2 Comments

  1. Drew Lombardo says:

    Dan, you are still the best writer in greater Cincinnati but especially covering No. KY sports.

  2. Barbara Livingston says:

    What a great read. Never got to know Joe, but it was always obvious he was a character. As a lowly artist, all the photographers were considered, “characters!” Fond memories— privileged to have been a small part of The Cincinnati and Kentucky Post.

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