Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Following Grandfather's Footsteps

National Geographic photo/journalist and foreign correspondent Maynard Owen Williams is my grandfather. I never really knew him, as he lived on the opposite coast, and passed away when I was quite young, but through his writing and photographs, I have grown to understand and respect the man.

His real-life adventures shame our big-screen action heroes. How many others have witnessed the Italian naval bombardment of Beirut in 1912, camped with Lawrence of Arabia, and witnessed the Russian Revolution? Grandpa met his wife in China in 1915, where she was a missionary teacher for girls and he also was a teacher and coach at the boys’ school. He was the foreign correspondent for the Christian Herald from 1916-1918, covering events in China, Russia and Armenia. He escaped from Russia in the spring of 1918, traveling with the Czechoslovak Brigade by rail across Siberia to Vladivostok. On arriving back in the United States, he immediately was commissioned an Army officer and sent back to China with his bride, whom he married in September 1918. Upon being released from his military attaché duties in the spring of 1919, he joined the National Geographic Society as chief of the NGS foreign journalists. In 1923, he was in Egypt, reporting on the opening of King Tut’s tomb. (See photo.) His amazing photos from his travels now grace the walls of many homes. Few owners of his photos have any clue as to the incredible history behind them.

The French Citroen-Haardt expedition, traveling by motor car for nine months across Asia from Beirut to Peking, was his favorite journey. He was the expedition’s photographer, and its only American, and his photos appear in a series of NGS 1931-1932 articles. Between 1918 and 1955 he published more articles and photographs than any other journalist/photographer ever has, or will, in the National Geographic magazine.

Conditions were rough in the early 1900s, but to Grandpa Williams, getting the story was worth every hardship. In The Tomb of Tutankhamen, he wrote, “There is drama in the very air of the place, and I want to be there recording it for the Geographic.” In a letter to Geographic assistant editor John Oliver la Gorce, he said, “It is costing much money here; a thing I regret. But you will get your money's worth. My legs curse you. But my heart says, 'Thank you'.” Whether disassembling a vehicle to cross a river and reassemble it on the other side, live in tents under the worst conditions, or travel by horseback or yak, his pursuit for bringing the world closer remained his first priority. His work was worthy enough for his alma mater, Kalamazoo College, to confer an honorary Ph.D. for literature in 1935, and, after his death, to offer an annual prize in his name for the best creative nonfiction article written by a student. Yes, Grandpa, you were one of the best photo/journalists of your era. I only wish I could have known you better.

When Grandpa retired in 1955 he became a cruise lecturer aboard the S.S. Independence, captivating audiences for eight years with his tales and lantern-slide photographs showing scenes of places passengers would visit, as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. There is no doubt that my self-described “camera coolie and a roughneck” grandfather could have inspired the character “Indiana Jones.” In 1948, he wrote associate editor Gilbert Grosvenor, “Never grieve for me if it is my good fortune to die with my boots on, that's what I most hope for.” In 1963, his wish came true when, camera in hand, the "Curse of Tutankhamen" worked and he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in Antalya, Turkey. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Istanbul, close to Rumili Hissar, where he and his family lived by the Bosphorus for several years in the 1920s. Turkey was the perfect location for God to take him.

So, perhaps it was fate that I follow in his footsteps, traveling the world as I do. I never expected to set foot in China, India, or the UAE, but I consider it a privilege to go there. Like my grandfather, I share my impressions through my photos and writing; through I limit mine to posts on my web page. Even so, I’m sure he’s smiling at me.


Chester Campbell said...

Your grandfather was certainly an interesting fellow, Mark. It's a wonder you didn't turn out to be a historical mystery writer.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Chester, I actually planned to write a novel set during the Civil War, but the more I researched the topic, I realized I could never do it justice. In fact, I'm not sure that anyone, living or dead, really understands the war that pitted brother against brother, and to attempt to portray it acurately would have been ludicrous. Then again, I'm not dead yet . . .

Lisa said...

Some of my fondest memories are of listening to tales from my grandparents' many adventures. Life before cable was far more interesting...too bad kids today don't realize that.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone written your grandfather's bio? If not, why don't you do it? He would make a fascinating subject.
Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

As tempted as I am to write my grandfather's bio, his volumes of writing speak better than anything I could come up with. Kalamazoo College has all of his work on file, thanks to my grandmother keeping a complete notebook, and my father scanning the many frail pieces and then converting them into readable books. The National Geographic has also featured my grandfather and his work, recognizing him as one of their greatest photo/journalists. For a man who never sought personal recognition, his legacy lives on.

Unknown said...


That's just a wonderful story! How fortunate to be following in his footsteps. No wonder you have wanderlust and write so well. Thanks for sharing your heritage.

mtg said...

Wow, that's fascinating. I just learned of your grandfather from a Georgian blog

and wanted to know more about him. Searched online and came across your post. What an honor to be related to such a distinguished person :)
Best to you,

Cousin John said...

Cousin Mark,
As the one who gave up his bed every time Daisy and Maynard came to visit, and one a few years older than you, I got to know a bit more about Grandfather. And raised on the east coast near the family house in Natick Mass, I remember loosing to him at ping-pong, and sitting though slide shows of his most recent trips abroad.

His exploits were of an era when the world was a little known commodity to most people.... he helped to open the eyes of generations.

Nice article!
Cousin John R Williams.... now in Tucson AZ.