By Deborah Ward, NYSUT Director of Communications
Jon Richard Flemming, an essential member of NYSUT’s Communications team for decades, died July 13, 2011 at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany after a valiant battle with a long illness.
He will be remembered as an experienced labor photographer and designer, and as a family man whose deep devotion to his wife, Anne, and their four children was apparent to all who knew him.
Known as “Rick” to his colleagues, he retired from NYSUT in 2010 after more than 35 years of service in design, computer graphics and photography. At a NYSUT Board of Directors meeting, held in conjunction with an exhibit honoring Rick’s union work on the occasion of his retirement, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi paid tribute to him, saying: “Rick’s career as a dedicated union designer and photographer produced a body of work that captures the vibrant spirit of NYSUT almost from its inception to the present day.”
That work, Iannuzzi said yesterday, “will live on forever as a pivotal element of NYSUT’s history. NYSUT extends its deepest condolences to Anne and her family, and hope they will take comfort in Rick’s enduring legacy.”
As a graphic artist in Communications, Rick brought his creativity to bear on everything from NYSUT’s member publication to ad campaigns to posters and more. His service spanned decades of radical change in graphic art, and Rick evolved with the changing times, moving from an era of “clip art” and rubber cement to creating work entirely on a computer.
Similarly, his photo work advanced from the days of film photography to a digital era, with Rick leading the way in the use of a digital camera that revolutionized coverage of NYSUT Representative Assemblies.
He may have been best remembered as NYSUT’s go-to photographer, where he brought a sharp focus to more than three decades of RAs and countless rallies and news events. His iconic photo of Al Shanker at the keyboard captured the legendary labor leader in a special moment, and Al’s family always said it was one of their favorite photos of the American Federation of Teachers’ president.
Rick went to any length to photograph members in action. Once, at a NYSUT rally in New York City, he climbed onto a truck to get a great angle for a mammoth photo that ended up wrapped around the front and back covers of New York Teacher.
He worked for NYSUT from its earliest days, where he traveled the state with then-President Tom Hobart and captured photos showing the growth of a union. As a native of Newburgh, Rick especially enjoyed it when work assignments took him back to his hometown.
Rick’s pride and joy in his family was apparent to all who knew him. He and his wife, Anne, a NYSUT member and teacher at Ichabod Crane Central School in Columbia County, had four children: John Thomas Buckley, Peter Joseph Williams, Laura Anne, and Michael Patrick Richard.
Rick loved to share stories and photos of his children, and his colleagues shared his enjoyment of their growth and progress. His wife, Anne, says of her husband: “He loved life, and he fought to the end.”
Here are some remembrances from Rick’s colleagues:
“If Rick took a liking to you, you had a friend for life,” said Frank Maurizio. “He was someone who was interested and interesting. He was loyal and had your back, no matter what. He was someone you could count on.”
Liza Frenette recalls: “I was fortunate to be able to work occasionally with Rick on different assignments over the years- I had the notepad, he had the camera. We teamed up to cover news and features for New York Teacher.
“One such assignment came after a shooting had taken place at Columbia High School in East Greenbush. A student snuck a gun into school and went on a shooting spree in the hallways and classroom. It was terrifying. The two teachers who had stopped the gunman – one was shot in the leg with buckshot – were heroes in the truest sense. Shortly after the shooting, we asked to meet with them and, although they were not yet back at work, they agreed to share their life-altering story with New York Teacher. We were both aware of the sensitivity of the story, and both teachers had told us they were still in a kind of shock, nervous about meeting with us, nervous about going back to school, etc. When we walked into the school with the two teachers, one student rushed the injured teacher and grasped him in a hug, crying, both emotional.
“Rick didn’t barge in for the shot. He respected this moment of privacy between a teacher and a student – a teacher who had risked his life just days earlier, and a teacher who had asked us to be respectful of his emotions.
“Another assignment was much simpler. After weeks and weeks of being cooped up, both in the office and at the annual NYSUT convention – stuck to our computers like flypaper – we had a chance for an assignment interviewing a NYSUT member in nearby Saratoga. Rick was the photographer and, lo and behold, I finally got to ride in his prized white sports car! Finally, it was spring, and finally, I got to ride in that awesome car. We joked and laughed and, when we arrived, Rick really put the man at ease as he shot his photo. We were able to do the interview and photo shoot outside in a park near the member’s work site, enjoying the fresh air and new greenery. We even got to stop for lunch, so it made for a wonderful day.
“Rick was devoted to his children, and often talked about their latest projects, achievements, mishaps, etc. He would post photos or articles about them around the office.”
From Harriet Juron: “While assisting him on a photo shoot for the Board of Directors, we chatted and he told me how he met his wife. It was an interesting story and I was glad to hear about it. I got to know him on a more personal level that evening and always appreciated our talk. He was so committed to his family. After he retired, I really missed hearing him laugh; I used to tease him and tell him it was a ‘Snidely Whiplash’-kind of laugh.”
From Matt Smith: “I was brand new at NYSUT, maybe on the job for three days. Rick walked into the doorway of my office and, without even introducing himself, said: ‘I’ve been here almost four decades. If I can give you any advice, it’s this: Max out the 401k.’ He then turned around and walked out.
“I was sitting there, wondering who the hell that guy was, but I admired the delivery of the message I had just received: concise; droll; serious but, at the same time, a little bratty and mischievous. I started laughing. And four years later, I still laugh about that every time I think of it. It was vintage Rick. And it was the first of many laughs I had with him.”
From Kevin Hart, formerly a NYSUT staffer and now at the National Education Association: “Rick had an infectious laugh you could hear from across the office. He was a walking encyclopedia who had lived the history of NYSUT and of the New York state labor movement. I was fortunate that Rick took me under his wing and we were able to work together closely on several campaigns. When deadlines were tight and pressure was high, Rick always seemed to do his best work. He will be missed.”