Harry Sweet, a pioneering Northern California television news photographer with great foresight who kept all his footage and went on to donate more than a quarter-century of Sacramento history on film to local archives, died Thursday with pneumonia, his family said. He was 93.
Mr. Sweet was a historic figure in broadcast journalism as the first television news photographer in the Sacramento Valley. He started at KCCC (now known as FOX 40) in 1953 and filmed the capital’s first TV broadcast, which included a special greeting from Gov. Goodwin Knight. In 1957, he joined KCRA and went on to witness decades of history through the camera lens.
He filmed leaders and celebrities, including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford; five California governors; entertainment legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; and major sports stars. He filmed infamous figures, including death-row inmates Caryl Chessman and Aaron Mitchell, mass murderer Juan Corona, and Patty Hearst and her captors.
He traveled more than 2 million miles on assignments in more than 30 countries – and survived five plane crashes. Besides innovating techniques in time-lapse photography and pioneering camera shots that are used today, he filmed a moving story with music about the Sierra Nevada ghost town of Bodie that won national recognition, former KCRA news photographer Mel Boyd said.
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“He was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, and I think it was because he was a creative person,” Boyd said. “He wasn’t always trying to be first at things; he was trying to be good at what he did and to be innovative.”
Mr. Sweet took home film cans from work “to keep a record of how I was progressing professionally,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1985.
Over time, he amassed hundreds of thousands of feet of news film that overflowed his closets, garage and backyard storage shed. When space limitations forced him to move his collection back to KCRA, he persuaded station officials to donate the footage to the city of Sacramento.
Before retiring in 1988, he spent four years editing and indexing the material for KCRA and for the Center for Sacramento History, the city’s archive. Today, the center’s KCRA Film Collection contains more than 9 million feet of 16mm news film from 1957 to 1982, including images of historic regional and national events that have been licensed in major film documentaries.
“We thought he was a little crazy,” former KCRA anchorman Stan Atkinson said. “Back in the ’50s, we just thought you shoot the film, use it and throw it out. Harry had that sixth sense about history, and he knew it would be valuable in time.”
In 1990, Sacramento station KOVR planned to dump more than 1,100 miles of news film in preparation for moving to a studio in West Sacramento. Instead, Mr. Sweet rented a U-Haul van, retrieved the footage and drove it to California State University, Sacramento.
Today, the Harry Sweet Film Collection at the campus Library Media Center preserves footage of major events from 1967 to 1981 – including Ronald Reagan’s 1967 gubernatorial inauguration, Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and the Hearst kidnapping – as a learning and research tool.
Born with a twin sister in 1920 to Armenian immigrants in Fresno, Mr. Sweet was 5 when his family moved to Sacramento. He graduated from Sacramento High School and worked as a watchmaker and in a civilian job at McClellan Air Force Base before going into broadcasting.
He married Mauvis Allen in 1942 and had four children. Although he traveled often for work, he was a devoted husband and father who “always had great stories when he got home and brought great souvenirs,” his daughter Sue Norton said. A lifelong bowler with a 195 average in his 70s, he played the sport with his wife and children every Sunday for many years at Country Club Lanes.
“That was our family time,” his daughter said. “Our motto was, ‘The family that bowls together never splits up.’ ”
Mr. Sweet’s wife of 61 years died in 2003. In addition to Norton, he is survived by three sons, Michael, Mark and Tim; 15 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.
A service is planned from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 31 in the Sky Room at Country Club Lanes, 2600 Watt Ave., Sacramento.