Bill Altnow slept with the police scanner on. Big news, he knew, could happen at any moment. When it did, Altnow was there to capture it.
The longtime photographer for the Free Press in Mankato skipped sleep, vacations and even church to shoot the protests, crashes, fires and football games that defined south-central Minnesota, becoming an intrinsic part of the region’s history himself. Altnow died at his North Mankato, Minn., home Jan. 8. He was 79 years old.
“He was in the right place at the right time many, many times — too many times to be lucky,” said John Cross, photo editor for the Free Press. “His life, his family was really the Free Press. He ate slept and breathed the newspaper business.”
Born in Mankato, Altnow began shooting photos in high school. After attending Mankato State University for two years, he left for a bit — to shoot for the Worthington Daily Globe — but then returned in 1957 to become the Free Press’ first full-time photographer.
Three cameras perpetually hung around his neck. Then there were light meters, battery cases and rolls of film clipped to his belt and “various parts of his clothing,” said Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor, who worked at the paper from 1972 to 1980. “It amazed me that his pants stayed up.”
After becoming the news editor, she regularly arrived at work at 5:30 a.m. to discover fresh photographs on her desk — Altnow’s shots from just a few hours before.
“He was out at all the crashes, day and night,” said Philip Hodapp, who worked for the State Patrol for 34 years and retired as a lieutenant. In the cold, too, “his jacket not even buttoned,” Hodapp said.
Each time, Altnow made sure to take the photos the officers needed, too. Then he’d return to the newspaper headquarters “at 2, 3, 4 in the morning to develop the pictures and make copies for us,” Hodapp said. “What a gentleman he was.”
Altnow never tired of being first to a scene, Jacobs Griekspoor said. “I think he liked feeling like an integral part of everything, an essential piece of the puzzle.”
But “especially on the real serious crashes, you always sensed his humanity, how badly he felt for people,” Hodapp said. “There’s no question about that.”
Altnow took one of his best-known photographs during the Vietnam War protests in the early 1970s — of a man on a motorcycle running over a prone protester who was blocking the street, according to the Free Press.
“Altnow said it happened so fast he literally shot the picture from the hip,” the newspaper said. The image won first place in the Associated Press contest.
Altnow was no fly-on-the-wall photographer — partly because he couldn’t be. “He was as wide as he was tall,” Jacobs Griekspoor said, laughing. He joked about his size, and accompanying failed diets, with the same odd sense of humor he brought to most subjects.
His co-workers collected his quips: “They say the human body is worth $1.98 — but me, I’m worth 6 dollars.” “We’re all idiots in various areas.” “I’d give my left arm to be ambidextrous.”
In his first year at the Free Press, Altnow took a week off to go fishing. It was his first and last vacation. By the time he retired, after 35 years at the paper, he had forgone two years and 48 weeks worth of vacation time, Cross said.
Altnow retired only because of hip and knee problems, he said, and never fully left.
“He still had the scanners,” Cross said. “And when there was news, he’d call with regularity at inconvenient and uncivilized times.”