Writers and photographers come from various backgrounds and walks of life. But it’s hard to match the adventurous background of Gerard “Jerry” Kessens.
Kessens retired on April 1, 1987, after a career spanning 32 years of active service in the U.S. Navy. Most of that time was spent working as a photographer in still, motion picture and aerial photography, processing and printing and camera repair. Well-traveled, within his first five years of naval service he had been to all seven continents. He photographed dignitaries — presidents and vice presidents of the United States, kings and queens, and top military personnel — and the everyday person; activities aboard carriers, heavy cruisers, destroyers and a submarine; and he had flown in numerous types of military aircraft, including a Goodyear blimp.
Kessens’ upbringing in a devout Catholic family in Fort Wayne served him well through the years of Navy service. He came from a family of eight, having two brothers and three sisters. One brother, Thomas, is still living, as well as a sister, Miriam. Miriam is a School Sister of Notre Dame.
Kessens’ father worked at General Electric, as did Jerry for a time. But Jerry also had an early interest in the Lord’s work. Between grade school and high school, he even spent a half year at Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Wawasee, although he confessed that this early training toward becoming a priest “just didn’t seem right.” His father passed away the same year that Jerry graduated from high school, in 1955, and his mother sought work outside the home. Eventually she accepted a job as secretary of St. Peter Church, Fort Wayne, where she spent 18 years.
Kessens had previously considered military service but was unsure about the timing, given the passing of his father. His mother encouraged him to follow his dreams, and he enlisted in the Navy in 1955. He entered as a high school airman recruit, which allowed him to become a photographer. His interest in photography stemmed from experiences in seventh and eighth grades, as well as membership in Central Catholic’s camera club, where he did photos for the school newspaper and yearbook. Developing his skills with for the U.S. Navy fulfilled a dream.
Early assignments included three tours of duty with the Air/Antarctic Development Squadron, and six tours, totaling 10 seasons, with “Operation Deep Freeze” — a mission to shoot aerial photographs of the Antarctic continent from which maps of the desolate region could be made. An LC130 airplane fitted with skis instead of wheels crossed the continent for this purpose, and also carried supplies to a home base of the National Science Foundation on the continent. One mountainous area the young photographer mapped includes what was named “Kessens Peak” in his honor.
On Christmas Eve 1960, Kessens was a passenger on a one-engine DeHavilland Otter plane. Its mission was to resupply a New Zealand field party and to do reconnaissance photography. In a bad-weather landing the plane’s engine blew a push rod, pouring oil over the windshield. The plane came to a stop dangerously close to an icy crevice, and rested atop a second crevice. During a break in the weather the next day, all crew members were safely rescued.
Kessens also served as a Navy air crewman, load master and photographer during the Vietnam War era, flying on C117s and other aircraft.
During his assigned missions in remote areas, Kessens remembered, base Catholic chaplains were not always present; but their availability from time to time kept him grounded in the faith. While stationed in New Orleans, which had no Catholic chaplain, between 1962 and 1965, Kessens served as lector for Masses and became a member of the Holy Name Society. In 1979-80, Father J. William Hines installed him as a eucharistic minister at the Atsugi, Japan, Naval Air Facility, and in the early ’80s, while attached to Fight Squadron 31 aboard the USS Kennedy, Kessens met and shook hands with Pope St. John Paul II, who held a special audience with some 800 of the ship’s crew.
Kessens retired from the U.S. Navy on April 1, 1987, as a chief warrant officer (level) 4, after which he worked for the National Park Service for 12 years — including two years of education at IPFW. Those particular studies were sandwiched between two different years at the Fort Henry National Monument and Historic Shrine; but over the course of his many travels and assignments he attended 14 different universities and colleges, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from the Regent’s College at New York State University. Part of his education had taken place the University of Southern California, as the Navy had a program that sent 12 enlisted photographers a year to school for motion picture / TV director direction and motion picture production.
After Fort Henry, Kessens spent 10 years at the Dayton Aviation Historical Park, run by the National Park Service. It is the fourth location of the Wright Brother’s bicycle shop, where they did research and development of early aviation. During this time, he still enjoyed shooting photos, and continues to do so to this day by working with Today’s Catholic whenever he might be needed.
He remains single, although he came close to marriage on a couple occasions. With a “first love” of photography, Kessens has literally seen the world through his camera lens. He is also currently active as a church usher, board member and president of his neighborhood association, volunteer cameraman for Allen County Public Library’s Access TV, and has membership in two model train clubs.
As a product of parents who lived the faith by example, a sister who became a Catholic nun and the influence of Msgr. John A. Bapst at St. Peter Parish, he feels he has lived a “blessed life” — even though there’s still more adventure to be had, experienced behind the camera that still hangs so comfortably around his neck and near his heart.
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