Professor Emeritus John Ahlhauser dies

The Media School Report • March 31, 2016
John Ahlhauser (Courtesy photo)
John Ahlhauser (Courtesy photo)

John Ahlhauser, MA’73, PhD’78, photojournalist and professor emeritus of journalism at Indiana University for more than 20 years, died March 29 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was 92.

A funeral service will be at 2 p.m. April 16 at the chapel at St. John’s on the Lake, 1840 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. 

Beginning in 1973, Ahlhauser taught photojournalism at IU until his retirement in 1990, sharing the skills and insights he developed during 25 years as a staff photographer at the Milwaukee Journal. With late photojournalism professor Will Counts, he formed a team that taught and mentored hundreds of students, many of whom went on to successful careers and won the profession’s top accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. The two established the Counts/Ahlhauser Scholarship, which continues to help support photojournalism students today.

He also was regarded as a visionary, foreseeing the development of electronic news delivery before the existence of the Internet.

Former School of Journalism dean Trevor Brown, who was a faculty member and then dean during Ahlhauser’s tenure, said Ahlhauser became one of the school’s most beloved professors.

“His dedication to photojournalism straddled the profession and academe throughout his career; as member and president of the National Press Photographers Association and in workshops and classes, he inspired professionals and students to refine their talent and practice their craft and art responsibly and ethically,” Brown said.  “John was a citizen of town and gown who in his humane and gentle way cared for all of us.”

Born in 1923 in Milwaukee, Ahlhauser earned his undergraduate degree from Marquette University in 1948, having served in the South Pacific during World War II. After graduation, he began work at the Journal, where his assignments included the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s and the inaugurations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

He was president of National Press Photographers Association from 1967 to 1968 and won NPPA’s Joseph Sprague Award in 1977. The NPPA notice of his death calls him an “iconic Milwaukee Journal photojournalist.” In 1991 he was inducted into the Milwaukee Press Club’s Media Hall of Fame and won service awards from the Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky news photographers associations.

Photo by Jay Seawell John Ahlhauser
Professor Emeritus John Ahlhauser talked to students and alumni during school-sponsored event in Chicago in 2011. (Jay Seawell, BAJ’09 | The Media School)

After moving to Bloomington in the early 1970s, Ahlhauser worked on his master’s and doctoral degrees while teaching in the School of Journalism. Several of his students won national and international photojournalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

With his wife, Lois, Ahlhauser founded the Kalish Workshop in 1990, which set the standard for visual editing workshops and continues to attract participants from all over the world. John directed the workshop for eight years, and Lois took care of the business side of the enterprise. The Kalish now is based at the Rochester Institute of Technology and is overseen by an advisory board that includes several of Ahlhauser’s former students.

Ahlhauser also was a founder of the National Press Photographers Foundation and was its president for many years. In addition to the Sprague Memorial Award, NPPA presented him with the Robin F. Garland Educator Award in 1981 and several other awards. He received Marquette University’s ByLine Award in 1985 and the IU Media School’s Distinguished Alumni Award in Journalism in 2015.

Many of Ahlhauser’s former students stayed in touch with him over the years and remember him fondly.

“Professor Ahlhauser was a wonderful mentor and inspiring teacher,” said Jim Kelly, MA’88, PhD’90, associate professor of journalism at IU and director of undergraduate studies in The Media School. Kelly studied under Ahlhauser as a graduate student. “I have been teaching photojournalism for 30 years now, and I am still using many of the instructional approaches I learned from John.”

Kelly said Ahlhauser’s life as a professor was “a perfect balance of service to the journalism profession and teaching excellence informed by research on the scholarly topics that would eventually transform and ultimately define the news industry.”

“He will be missed in Ernie Pyle Hall and in newspapers across the country, where dozens of his former students create the news photos that grace the screens of our computers and mobile phones—just as he predicted they someday would,” he said.

Kelly said Ahlhauser was “inspirational and disarmingly approachable,” sentiments echoed by other former students.

“He was such a kind person, a gentle-natured person,” said Melissa Farlow, BA’74, who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Courier-Journal and Times in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1976 and went on to become a photographer for National Geographic. “He was always genuine, always present, never harried, always focused on having an engaged conversation.”

Farlow said Ahlhauser’s gentle demeanor belied his vision and drive.

“He was a leader and yet not the kind of personality you tend to think of as leader,” she said. “He wasn’t domineering. He was this quiet, steady force.”

Ahlhauser’s vision of electronic news delivery didn’t mesh with the personality he presented to students, she said.

“He wasn’t someone who was a technology geek,” Farlow said. “He was more of just a real human being. At the time, we kind of thought he was a little crazy, but he was right, and he was way ahead of his time.”

Farlow said Ahlhauser brought invaluable real-world experience to the photojournalism program, teaching her to set up lighting so she could photograph a sports event, but his impact as a person was just as meaningful.

Ahlhauser at centennial
From left, associate professor Jim Kelly, Professor Emeritus Claude Cookman, Vivian Counts, and Lois and John Ahlhauser attended the journalism centennial celebration brunch in the Frangipani Room of the IU Memorial Union in 2011. (Courtesy photo)

“When you’re a student, you have a lot of insecurity about your work and your value and how you measure up,” she said. “Having someone like John you could talk to and show your work to had a strong influence. He believed in you, and so you could believe in yourself.”

Bill Foley, ’77, BA’07, said the combination of Ahlhauser and Counts’s characters and teaching habits was “amazing.”

“They complemented each other and gave everything they had to the students,” said Foley, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.

“Those guys showed me this is what I wanted to do: I wanted to take pictures, I wanted to document the world, and I wanted to tell stories. I have to thank Ahlhauser and Counts for their help and advice in getting me started.”

Don Winslow, ’76, says he would not have had a career without Ahlhauser, who helped him get started when he decided to switch from pre-med studies to journalism. Among many pieces of advice he gave Winslow, one was to join the NPPA student chapter that Ahlhauser sponsored so students could begin establishing themselves among the national network of photojournalists. That advice, Winslow said, proved critical to his career.

Ahlhauser continued to help Winslow for many more years, recommending him for jobs at papers in, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Indiana. Winslow will move April 4 from his position as longtime editor of the NPPA’s News Photographer magazine to managing editor of content for the Amarillo (Texas) Globe News and AGN Media, and he was about to share the news with Ahlhauser.

“Twice in the past year, I’ve cried uncontrollably,” Winslow said Wednesday. “The first was when (three-time Pulitzer winner) Michel du Cille, BA’85, one of John’s dearest students, friends and biggest success stories, died in Liberia while covering the Ebola pandemic, and I had to call John and Lois and break the news to them before it hit the presses. It was like having to tell a father that his son was dead.

“And the second time was today. Yes, John was 92 and had a full and amazing life, and gave so deeply of himself and his gifts, and we should all be so lucky to have the family he’s had, both his own kids and those he adopted who sat gazing at him every day in class. But still, the world was a better place with John in it. It was a bit brighter yesterday and a bit dimmer tonight.”

Ahlhauser is survived by his wife, Lois, six children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.