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Gerard C. Benene, Inquirer photographer and editor

Gerard C. Benene, 64, a prizewinning Inquirer photographer and photo editor, died of kidney failure Wednesday, Dec. 15, at Vitas Hospice in Stratford. He had lived in Blackwood.

Billy Cunningham reacting to the 1975 injury that cost him his playing career. The photograph won many honors.
Billy Cunningham reacting to the 1975 injury that cost him his playing career. The photograph won many honors.Read moreGERARD C. BENENE / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Gerard C. Benene, 64, a prizewinning Inquirer photographer and photo editor, died of kidney failure Wednesday, Dec. 15, at Vitas Hospice in Stratford. He had lived in Blackwood.

Mr. Benene joined The Inquirer as a copy boy while in high school and then worked in the photo lab. He was a staff photographer from 1972 to 1982, when he became a photo editor. He retired in 2005.

In 1973, he won several spot-news awards for a jarring photo of a wounded police officer, shot by another policeman who injured a second officer before killing himself. The incident had taken place a year before at the Reading Air Show, where Mr. Benene had been taking photos.

Years later, he gained notoriety for a photo of another bloody crime victim, the Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno. In March 1980, Bruno was shot in the back of the head in his car in South Philadelphia, presumably by other mobsters.

In 1975, a routine assignment for Mr. Benene turned comical when the subject, Stanley "Apples" Apfelbaum, dove behind a chair and then bolted out of his office to avoid Mr. Benene's lens. The photos were stripped across the front page of The Inquirer the next day with a story about a prosecutor's accusations that Apfelbaum, a senior aide to then-District Attorney Emmett Fitzpatrick, was interfering with cases. Apfelbaum later served time in prison.

A talented sports photographer, Mr. Benene got hooked on photography taking photos of kids playing football and baseball.

In 1976, he won five awards for "Agony," a photo of basketball star Billy Cunningham taken in December 1975 at a 76ers-Knicks game. Cunningham was dribbling to the free-throw line when, as Cunningham later recounted, his knee "just exploded," ending his playing career. Mr. Benene captured Cunningham on the floor holding his knee, his face distorted in pain.

It was a bad foot that ended Mr. Benene's career shooting photos for The Inquirer. He was born with a club foot - his left foot twisted inward - and with spina bifida, which meant he had little sensation in his lower extremities.

As he got older, he developed osteomyelitis, a chronic bone infection, in the foot, said Cathy Campbell Benene, his first wife. His condition was complicated because he couldn't feel it when something was wrong, she said.

Though he walked with an increasingly pronounced limp and used a wheelchair for the last 11 years, he never thought of himself as handicapped, she said. He was always optimistic that his condition would improve and never applied for disability.

Because of his decreased mobility, Mr. Benene switched from shooting photos to assigning photographers and editing their work. He was a photo editor for 23 years and navigated the newsroom in a wheelchair for the last six years before retiring.

"Jerry took young people with raw talent and molded them into professional photographers," said Inquirer senior photographer Clem Murray. "He was a terrific photo editor who always fought hard to get good play for your pictures and was always in your corner."

Though Mr. Benene was a stalwart defender of his photographers and their professional integrity, "he brooked no nonsense or excuses and couldn't tolerate laziness, especially if you were taking the easy way out in the name of creativity," said Mary Lynn Webster, a former colleague and his second wife.

He loved photography, Webster said. "He'd be driving along and say softly, " 'There's an image.' And then a not-so-soft grumble: 'Why can't my guys find that?' "

"Jerry was a major player in our Inquirer photo operation," said Gary Haynes, a former assistant managing editor for photography. "He could do, and did, any job in the house. He was a good photographer, knew the photo lab, and was a good photo editor and administrator."

"Anything you asked Jerry to do, you could count on being done reliably and well," Haynes said.

Mr. Benene helped fashion the Inquirer's system of centralized photo editing, which led to dozens of regional and national awards for photography, Haynes said.

During his years as a photo editor, four Inquirer photographers won Pulitzer Prizes.

He often held court until late into the night with his proteges at the Pen and Pencil Club, a gathering place for journalists in Center City.

Mr. Benene grew up with six siblings in Northeast Philadelphia and graduated from Father Judge High School.

He met his first wife in a hospital while on a mission to help a friend. Fellow Inquirer photographer Joseph Coleman had been hospitalized after being hurt in an automobile accident while on vacation in Wyoming. Mr. Benene arrived to drive Coleman home and met there his future wife, who was a nurse's aide. They married in 1973 and had three children before divorcing in 1984.

In 1991, he married Webster, then a layout and design editor at The Inquirer. They divorced in 1997.

Mr. Benene enjoyed Friday night jazz fests at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, suspense and action films, and concerts at the Mann Center.

He took up jewelry-making, his father's trade, and crafted pieces for his two daughters. He also tried growing bonsai.

Mr. Benene is survived by daughters Sara and Camilla; a son, Gerard; three brothers; a sister; five grandchildren; and his former wives.

Friends may call from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 20, at Egizi Funeral Home, 119 Ganttown Rd., Turnersville. A Funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. at SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 362 Ganttown Rd., Turnersville.