Greg Bassett: Remembering Milt Savage’s big moment

Milt Savage 2

When you cross over the barrier of age 50, people begin dying all around you. I hear it only happens more as you get older.

Last week I lost a true contemporary, Milt Savage.

I first encountered Milt at the old Navar Camera Shop in the then-new Court Plaza Shopping Center. Navar was The Place for those of us teenagers who loved cameras. It stocked darkroom equipment and photo paper, as well as film and virtually unaffordable (to us) camera bodies and lenses.

Milt either worked part time at Navar, or hung out enough there that we all thought he did.

I was a bit different from most photographers. First, I wasn’t very good at it. The act of shooting photos wasn’t fun, mostly because of the stress of achieving the right lighting, focus, subject command and arrangement, focal length, facial expression and the million other things that can go wrong.

The two things I liked were seeing people react to pictures I’d taken and working in the darkroom. I loved the darkroom ─ the science, the precision, the enlarger, the easel, the D-76 and stop bath and fixer and polycontrast filters. To me, that was where photo magic occurred.

Back then, in the photographers’ world, it was rare to find a shooter who excelled in all three facets: 1) camera use, 2) subject control, 3) darkroom skill. Among the acknowledged greats, Brice Stump, for example, excelled at No. 2 and was a certain pro at No. 1, but a disaster at No. 3. John Bozman, everyone knew, was the king of Nos. 1 and 3, but couldn’t touch Brice at No. 2. Mel Toadvine, in his day, was remarkable at No. 2; Orlando Wooten: Nos. 1 and 3.

Milt Savage had the most complete game: He excelled in all three spheres.

Plus, Milt possessed Todd Dudek’s spot-news skills, Joey Gardner’s sports-shooting skills and Gary Marine’s portrait skills.

Greg BassettMilt wasn’t the flashiest of shooters, but he was technically strong in every arena. He was the Cal Ripken of local news photography.

And he had heart. One bizarre episode, historically known as my “Milt Savage Story,” sums up Milt’s heart and determination in news photography.

Somewhere around 1990, there was a barricade standoff in Salisbury off of West Road. It was a domestic situation, with a man keeping some family members from leaving the house.

The Wicomico Sheriff’s Office had surrounded the home; the family was somehow related to a local sports star, and he was called in to enter the home and help to negotiate the situation.

It was a big deal; back then the media landscape was a lot bigger, so there were reporters on the scene from several local radio stations, the two TV stations, The Daily Times ─ heck, I think there was even someone there from the Baltimore Sun. Safe and out of the line of fire, I was in the newsroom on Carroll Street, listening with others to the entire thing on the police scanner.

Milt Savage was our photographer on the scene.

At some point, the scanner crackled that a “subject was approaching the house” and was “crawling in the shrubbery” right next to the home. The subject was “dressed in camouflage” and was periodically extending his arm, camera in hand, up to the windows and blindly shooting photographs.

There was a great deal of back and forth between the officers, asking whose man this was ─ sheriff’s? State cops? City police?

Suddenly, and very clearly, one could hear the unmistakable voice of Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms: “It’s Milt Savage! Get that idiot out of there!”

I wasn’t there to see it, but for years I have worked over in my brain the image of TAC Team-clad deputies running toward the house and dragging Milt out of the bushes and away to safety.

Confronted by the command staff and Sheriff Nelms himself, Milt was ordered to leave the scene immediately.

Milt drove away, but the prospect of returning to The Daily Times without “the shot” was apparently more fear-inducing than facing Nelms a second time.

Milt returned, going into the back yard of the house across the street from the standoff scene. A man who lived in the house was on his back porch; the police had told him to stay there for his safety until events ended. Milt asked the homeowner if he could go inside and shoot photos of the scene from the man’s front window.

The man agreed; Milt was back in business.

At some point, the homeowner had to leave for his work, and told Milt he could stay, as the man’s wife was due home soon.

You might have already figured out what was about to happen.

The woman returned home, and the police escorted her to her back door. They said she could go inside, but cautioned her to remain in the rear of the home, just in case shots were indeed fired across the street.

The woman went inside, only to encounter a bearded, 240-pound man wearing camouflage, ducking down in her living room, aiming what appeared to be a gun (it was a camera with telephoto lens) out her front window.

The woman ran outside, yelling for help. The 60 officers in the vicinity swooped in and dragged Milt out of the house, thereby creating a scene Lower Shore journalism circles will talk about for decades.

This time Sheriff Nelms had Milt arrested. The managing editor had to retrieve Milt from the Sheriff’s Office; no charges were filed, as I recall.

The standoff ended later that day with no similar drama.

I’ve never been quite sure whether to admire Milt’s tenacity in that situation, or laugh at his stupidity. It’s a miracle that he wasn’t accidentally shot, that I do know.

I guess when you add it together, you’d have to conclude Milt Savage had it all: the technical skills, the determination, the gumption, the heart.

I’ll miss him ─ but I’ll always enjoy telling that story.

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