If a picture is worth a thousand words then Tom Rousseau, 89, has enough for several libraries in his Spokane Valley home.
He started snapping photos while still in high school in Dearborn, Michigan.
“I got a box camera,” he recalled. “I built my own darkroom at home.”
He grinned. “My parents didn’t like it much.”
When he graduated in 1943 at 17 he wanted to join the Marines, but he was too young and his father refused to sign for him.
Rousseau shrugged. “So, I went to photographic school in New York and then joined the Marines the day I turned 18.”
Because of his aptitude he was sent to photography school at the Naval Training Station in Pensacola, Florida.
He wasn’t a student long.
“My instructor called me up and said, ‘You know more than I do. I’m going to put you on my staff,’ ” Rousseau said.
His instructor was none other than actor Leif Erickson who served as a combat photographer during the war. A black and white photo shows the tall actor towering next to Rousseau.
More photos offer a sampling of Rousseau’s work during World War II. His assignment was to photograph military planes and all their mechanisms, but he also captured V-J celebrations and other slices of military life.
After his discharge he moved to Spokane. “My first job was as a Culligan man,” he said.
But soon the military beckoned again with the onset of the Korean War.
“I was sent overseas to Korea. They gave me an ID card that allowed me travel anywhere I needed to go to take pictures.”
This time instead of planes, he focused on people. From political speeches on palatial grounds to families huddled on sidewalks, Rousseau captured the effect the war had on Koreans. One photo in particular stands out – a mother nursing her baby as she crouches on the edge of a street while an older woman cooks nearby.
“That was their restaurant – there on the street. They had no home – no place to go,” said Rousseau.
He served a total of 11 1/2 years in the Marine Corps, eventually returning to Spokane where he opened an insurance company in 1963.
Being a civilian and running his own insurance agency in no way hampered his love of photography. Instead, he found a new outlet through his involvement with the El Katif Shrine.
He documented parades, events and, of course, the Shrine Circus. Several framed photos of elephant behinds reveal his wicked sense of humor.
Why elephant rears? “Made me laugh,” he said, grinning.
Rousseau also appeared before the camera during his stint as “Flash the Clown.”
“Why do you suppose they called me Flash?” he asked, with a twinkle in his eye. “Because I was always flashing my … camera!”
In 1983, he was appointed as the international imperial photographer for the Shriners. He served in that position until 2011.
“I traveled from Shrine center to Shrine center across the U.S. and in Mexico and Canada, too,” he said. “I took pictures at all the Shrine events. Well, all the important ones.”
In addition to his work with the Shriners, he coached American Legion baseball for 22 seasons, was instrumental in establishing Edgecliff Park and started the Cub Scout group at Pratt Elementary.
A room filled with fez hats, plaques, ribbons and awards demonstrates just how valuable his work has been to the Shriners. It was an unpaid job he took on because he loved taking photos and valued the organization’s mission to help children.
On Friday, his 90th birthday, the Shriners are hosting a special celebration to honor and celebrate his service and contribution.
Rousseau keeps a case full of cameras and equipment ready to go. His love of photography hasn’t dimmed. “Most of the time I have my camera with me,” he said.
He’s still keeping an eye out for moments and memories to preserve, but the why of his fascination with photography remains a mystery.
When asked what compels him to capture life through the lens, he smiled, shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I just can’t explain it.”
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