Wayne A. Ratzenberger Sr., who spent decades working as a photojournalist in the region, including for the Shelton and Huntington Herald weekly newspapers, has died.
Ratzenberger, 73, worked at Hersam Acorn Newspapers and its predecessor, Hometown Publications, to capture moments that helped define communities such as Shelton. He previously had worked for more than two decades for the Post Publishing Co. in Bridgeport, which produced the daily Bridgeport Post and Telegram newspapers (now the Connecticut Post).
He won many awards during a photography career that spanned almost four decades.
His wake will take place Wednesday evening and the funeral on Thursday (see details at the end of this article).
The longtime news photographer and freelance photojournalist died May 21, in Lord Chamberlain Rehabilitation Center in Stratford, with his family at his side, after a two-year-long battle with cancer.
Ratzenberger was born in 1939 in Bridgeport and grew up in Stratford. He was the son of the late Elmer Z. and Mary (Wargo) Ratzenberger. He was a 1958 graduate of Stratford High School.
Began taking photos in high school
Ratzenberger began his lifelong love affair with photography in high school, chronicling school events and learning how to photograph weddings.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of sergeant, Ratzenberger returned to Stratford working full-time at the former Avco-Lycoming Army Engine Plant, and part-time on weekends photographing weddings and in photo sales.
He also attended the Germain School of Photography in New York City, and the School of Modern Photography in New Jersey.
Photographed many presidents during career
In 1976, he was hired by the then-Bridgeport Post and Telegram as a news photographer. His career there spanned 25 years as a news photographer, photo editor, and finally, overseeing the newspaper’s transition to the digital age as the manager of the digital imaging department.
Ratzenberger was known for his skilled portraiture and feature photography.
During his tenure he photographed many presidents and presidential candidates as they made their way through Connecticut, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama’s visit to the Webster Bank Arena in 2010.
Whitehead replica incident
A signature moment in his career came on Dec. 29, 1986, when he was at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford to document the flight of a replica of the aircraft flown by Gustave Whitehead, now officially recognized as the first man to fly according to the publication, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.
With Whitehead devotee Andy Kosch at the controls, the aircraft made its way down the runway where Ratzenberger was stationed to better capture the aircraft as it soared into the air.
The replica did manage to get off the ground, but not high enough to clear him. Realizing at the last minute that the plane was not lifting off, Ratzenberger used his left arm to shield his head as the plane’s tire struck him, breaking his arm and knocking him to the tarmac.
In addition to the broken arm, he suffered cuts, bruises and a gash to the head.
In an ironic twist, Ratzenberger’s grandfather, Joseph Ratzenberger, was a witness to the real Whitehead flight of 1901, and was quoted as a witness in news accounts of the day. The accident put him out of work for several weeks.
L’Ambiance Plaza, won many awards
Just a few days after his return to work in April 1987, his arm just out of a sling, Ratzenberger was the first photographer to gain entry after the collapse of the L’Ambiance Plaza construction project in Bridgeport, capturing images that were distributed nationwide and were later reprinted in Newsweek magazine.
His photography garnered him many awards, including recognition from the Connecticut Society of Professional Photojournalists, United Press International, New England Press Association, and the 1986 National Softball Media Association Annual Awards Best Single Story Photo Coverage.
Began working at Hometown Publications
After his stint at the Connecticut Post, Ratzenberger was hired as a staff photographer in 2001 by the then-Hometown Publications (publisher of the Shelton Herald), a string of weeklies covering towns in greater Bridgeport and the Naugatuck Valley, now owned by Hersam Acorn Newspapers.
He loved being back on the street, capturing news and features throughout the papers’ coverage area, and he enjoyed working with all of his colleagues at the Hersam Acorn papers.
Active freelance career
Ratzenberger also had numerous freelance clients — nonprofit, commercial, health care, and higher education, including the American Red Cross, Sacred Heart University’s Art Gallery, St. Vincent’s Medical Center and Griffin Hospital.
He was the official photographer for the Barnum Festival since 2000, capturing hundreds of images through the years of festival events and personalities. In 2012, he served as executive aide to Ringmaster Frank Carroll.
Wayne was a 33rd degree Mason, and a member in long-standing of St. John’s Fidelity Lodge No. 3, the Police Square Club and the Garibaldi Society. He was a member of the National Press Photographers Association and Connecticut News Photographers.
His two sons by his first marriage, Wayne A. Ratzenberger Jr., of Spooner, Wisc., and David P. Ratzenberger of Lehigh Acres, Fla., both have fond memories of accompanying their father to work and learning about the world of newspapers and photography.
“My father would take me with him to his Sunday assignments, showing me what was good subject matter, how to light a photo correctly, and how to develop negatives,” said his older son, Wayne Jr., recalling that on one of these trips he took a picture that eventually won a second place in a statewide contest.
Ratzenberger was an avid dog lover, something he shared with his younger son, David. Together, he and David trained their golden retriever, Brandy, taking her to obedience trials where she and David won many ribbons.
David also learned much about photography from his father, accompanying him on assignments and into the darkroom to learn how to develop photos.
“My father taught me that it’s important to do the thing you love most for work because you’ll never have to work again,” David said.
In addition to his two sons, Wayne is survived by his wife, Elaine K. Ficarra, and his two loving dogs Desi and Lucy.
Calling hours will be held Wednesday, May 29, from 4 to 8 p.m., at the Larson Funeral Home, 2496 North Ave., Bridgeport. A service celebrating his life will be held Thursday, May 30 at 11 a.m., in the United Congregational Church, 877 Park Ave., Bridgeport.
To leave a condolence on line go to www.larsonfh.com.