John Edvard Altberg died at his home on Orcas Island (Eastsound, WA) on Monday, June 19, 2017 from a massive heart attack; he was 75.
John was born on the Island of Oahu (Honolulu, HI) on October 24, 1941, six weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In February of 1942, John and his mother were evacuated from the Hawaiian Islands to California on the SS Lurline. John was raised in McCook, Nebraska. His mother – a kindergarten music teacher, extended family, and his parish priest instilled in him an uncompromising code of integrity and honesty, promoted deep curiosity, a sense of adventure, and unwavering faith in God.
He held an early fascination with photography and with his grandmother, at age eight, converted a large-format view camera into an enlarger, establishing his first basement darkroom. As an adolescent, it was not uncommon for John to walk out of town with a knapsack on his back, a camera around his neck, and a .22 rifle over his shoulder to spend some days solo-adventuring by the Republican River. His trip to Japan at age fifteen to visit his father, Deputy Commander of the U.S. airbase in Misawa, was the seminal transformative experience that set the tone for a life and love of travel, and spawned a deep appreciation for people and places vastly different from his own. John wrote recently that, “the unknowingness of what one will experience on a journey profoundly underscores why exploration of the world and people is so rewarding.”
His upbringing in the Episcopal Church was another powerful influence, and laid the foundation for a life lived in service to God, both in word and deed. He believed that what he experienced on Sunday morning is real; that nothing makes sense if you remove God from the equation – to remove God is to remove hope. John’s faith carried him forward, and he often counseled that, “it is better to believe and be prepared than to find out that you are wrong.”
John attended McCook Junior College, where he met his first wife, Rebecca. She joked that she gravitated to John because she wanted her photo in the yearbook; he says they bonded over the rigors of an impossible English honors course. John and Rebecca married in 1960, and settled in McCook, where they lived until 1969. During this period, they had three children, and John was the proprietor of John’s Camera Shop and John Altberg Photography. Though both businesses were quite successful, the young couple craved more of the world and sought to carve out a different path.
John took a position with the Eastman Kodak Company, and so began an odyssey, which saw his family hopscotch around the United States for thirty years: Rochester, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; and Berkeley, California. In addition to his home-bases, John travelled extensively for work throughout Europe and Asia. During his tenure at Kodak, John was most gratified by his work with the Professional Photography and Education Divisions; he was a college professor at heart. His responsibility was expansive and influential and he directed much of the professional photography messaging for the company. In the last decade of his career, positions included: World-Wide Director of Communications – Professional Photography; World-Wide Director of Professional Photography Education; Regional Manager and Vice President for the Western Region, Professional Division. John’s guiding principle at Kodak mirrored the one upon which George Eastman founded the company: a focus on and dedication to the ease and accessibility of image-making. As such, John believed that the transition from analog to digital technologies needed to happen right away, and that Kodak should lead the way. Unfortunately, he was often a lone voice of innovation at Kodak, and eventually the old guard won out. Through it all, John maintained the camera around his neck, or in later years – his pocket. He was a gifted and visionary photographer in his own right, but did not promote himself professionally while at Kodak.
After retirement in 1999, John once again thought of himself as a “professional” photographer. He co-authored “The Sutton House” in 2008, and had been developing a body of work as a member of Fab Foto Five, to exhibit this summer at the Orcas Island Artists’ Studio Tour. In addition to photography, John explored a vast array of other interests over his lifetime: hunting; flyfishing; piloting gliders; sailing; backpacking; cross-country skiing; a love of classical music and trumpeting; cycling; home improvement and building. It was his nature to read, practice, and ask questions; he had a mind that never forgot a thing it learned. It was important to John to include his family in any activity that he was up to, and so early Altberg Family life was characterized by bicycle trips on Cape Cod, cross-country ski outings in Upstate New York, blustery days sailing on San Francisco Bay, or just a car ride through scenic countryside. John was a stickler for safety, procedure, and protocol; those who did not comply were subject to rebuke, delivered through clenched jaw and piercing blue eyes.
Rebecca died in 1995, and in the years following, John committed himself to study for the Anglican Order of priests. He was ordained in 1998, and was the rector of St. Joseph’s Parish San Mateo until his retirement, just two weeks prior to his death. John met his second wife, Rosemarie, at church and they married in 1997. Rosemarie describes, “a really terrific friendship as the basis for their love.” The two embarked on shared adventures, purchasing a home on Orcas Island in 2002. Over the course of fifteen years, John and Rosemarie fully succumbed to the magic and friendship of the island, and migrated there permanently.
At age 70, John fulfilled his lifelong dream of flying, and obtained his sport pilot’s license. He could often be spotted flying his 1941 Ercoupe 415-C, with star-emblazoned bright yellow wings over the San Juan Islands.
John opened his home, heart and mind to countless individuals, and succeeded in building community and fostering friendships wherever he lived and worked. He was the consummate practical joker and storyteller, but enjoyed lively conversation, respectful debate, and exploration of ideas. He cared deeply for those in every circle of his life, and gave freely of his time, mentorship, and wise counsel; it was normal for him to devote hours of each day lending his ear and expertise to whatever problem was presented to him. It has been said that we will not look upon John’s like again: he was a good man of supreme integrity; talent; creativity; vast knowledge; intelligence; foresight; innovation; common sense; humility; compassion; and sacrifice. John mattered and made a difference in more lives than he ever knew.
John is survived by his wife, Rosemarie Altberg (Nagel); children, John (Beatrice) Altberg II, Mark Altberg, Annie (Chris) Rodriguez; stepchildren Mark (Christy) Nagel; Diane (Ed) Farris; David Nagel; grandchildren, Stefan and Nicholas Altberg; Miguel, Diego, and Gabriela Rodriguez; Rebecca and Matthew Nagel; Jennifer, Karoline, and Robert Farris; sister, Jane Altberg and brother-in-law Dik Munson; sister-in-law, Catherine Schweiger; and nephews, Billy Schweiger, and Christopher and Ian Francis. John was preceded in death by his first wife, Rebecca Altberg (Behnke); his parents Eva Reinek (Prest) and Col. Axel E. Altberg.
Father Craig Looney will celebrate a Requiem Mass at Victorian Valley Chapel, Orcas Island, Thursday, June 29, 2017, 11 a.m. Committal will immediately follow at Woodlawn Cemetery, Orcas Island, 12:30 p.m.. The family extends deep appreciation to the community of Orcas Island for their love and support, nourishing food, and comfortable lodging during this difficult time. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Orcas Senior Center, PO Box 1653, Eastsound, WA 98245.