NOTES FROM A LOYAL FRIEND
Joan Raider ©2010

Fargo, North Dakota 1967-68
New York City, 1968-69
Baltimore -Washington, D.C. 1969-1972

Joan met Michael in the fall of 1967 during auditions for Shakespeare’s Othello at the Fargo-MoorheadCommunity Theatre. A recent east coast transplant with a degree in broadcasting and film, she had beennewly hired by KFME as a producer-director. This glimpse into the first year of their ensuing friendshipis told in her own words:

I saw him for the first time during the casting of the play. I, stood on stage under the bright lights readingfor the part of Emilia into a dark, mostly empty space. He sat next to the director at a worktable half wayup the center aisle, in silhouette. What caught my attention was the angle of his chair, which wasbalancing precariously on its two back legs while his own, were propped, quite comfortably, or so itseemed, on top of the table. My awareness of him watching me covet the character I wished to play waspalpable. Slowly, he lowered his feet to the floor and leaned forward, listening.

In addition to being a member of the theatre’s Board of Directors, Michael Benjamin Lien was also castin a small, supporting role as the Duke of Venice. Program credits listed him as ‘M.B. Lien’. I thought tomyself, “Just who does he think he is, C.B. DeMille?” But from the very first rehearsal, he made itabundantly clear exactly how I should address him: “Just Mike,” he said firmly. He did not like beingcalled Michael. It reminded him too much of his childhood.

By the time I met him, Mike Lien was thirty-one. Shaping his persona and creating his own history hadalready become a lifetime project. Seeing the world through the lens of his camera was proof-positive thatwhatever he was focusing on really existed in the moment, dimension and depth of his consciousness.Seeing his photo credits in the Fargo Forum was an affirmation of the professional stature and expertisehe had achieved. It was also a shout-out to persons unnamed that he mattered in this world.

Mike was a man with an attitude. He had an air about him that was, at once, imposing and laid-back. Hepossessed the qualities of a leader, and the undercover proclivities of a loner. At times, full of bluster andbravado, his great sense of humor was witty, insightful but never offensive. He had a particular knack forimitating old men and took great pleasure replicating their Irish and Scandinavian accents andmannerisms. Along with a keen eye, he had a sharp ear and a passion for wordplay.

Mike’s talents were many. During Othello, he staged and photographed production shots, helped designand build sets, and mixed a brilliant soundtrack of musical interludes for act openers and scene transitionsthat conveyed just the right tone of mystery and foreboding. To garner extra publicity, he persuadedO’Meara’s clothing store to publish a multi-page, full-color ad featuring costumed cast members posingwith chic models wearing the latest spring fashions. After rehearsals, when the cast would gather at theold Rex Café for rare roast beef sandwiches and a Heineken, he would entertain us all with hilariousencounters he’d had that day with nature, beast or brethren, trying to make an ordinary photo assignmentworthy of the Forum’s front page. Mike was his own noble character in the play of life, always takingcritical measure of his performance whatever its form: comic, tragic or heroic.

Throughout the run of the play, our friendship grew easily and increasingly strong. In addition to dramaand photography, Mike and I shared a mutual love of classical music, reading poetry out loud and talkingpolitics. Early on, I had mentioned to him that I was volunteering at the Children’s Village, reading booksand improvising role-plays with a cottage-full of eight-year old boys who were in foster care. Theseweekly visits provided me a great deal of personal satisfaction, and when I would express my concern toMike over a youngster’s emotional wellbeing or uncertain future, I noticed he would become moreattentive. Little did I know that my involvement with these kids would be the catalyst for his entrustingme with the secrets and circumstances of his own, inner-child’s wounded heart. For the truth, was thatMike, himself, had grown up living with a foster family.

The disclosures came a little at a time— a fact here, a remembered incident there— disconnected imagesrecollected over a lifetime of self-imposed, well-guarded silence. But far from being self-pityingsoliloquies or gut-spilling harangues, Mike’s revelations were delivered in soft-spoken, poignant‘snapshots’— reflections of how he had perceived his world growing up— how he had wished his fosterparents had adopted him— and how he had come to understand that that elusive ‘something’ most of uscall love, was absent from his life. Somewhere along the way, he made up a saying that encapsulated theloneliness he felt: “He who cares, cannot.”

Mike didn’t discover the full truth about his parentage until he was in his early-twenties. It was then,when he needed his birth certificate in order to join the Air Force, that he found out he didn’t have one.

It was a cruel truth for him to learn that both his birth parents, though unmarried to each other, workedtogether in a successful business his father owned, just blocks away from his foster family’s home. Evenmore disturbing was learning that his birth father had four older sons by his lawful wife and that they allenjoyed a prominent position and privileged lifestyle in the Fargo community. Though his birth fathernever acknowledged the existence of this fifth son, Mike saw irony in an undeniable truth of his ownevery time he looked in the mirror. “The funny thing,” he told me, “is that I look more like my real fatherthan my half-brothers do!” There was no disguising the deep-seated pain and anguish Mike sufferedknowing these truths. And though he struggled to outgrow the feelings of perennial rejection andresentment, they remained resident in his adult heart all his life.

It was easy for me to champion Mike’s professional prowess and he knew I believed in him, his creativityand his future. A year earlier he had received the NPPA Photographer of the Year Award competingagainst other pros in an eight-state region. Such peer recognition reawakened his desire to think seriouslyabout finally leaving Fargo behind and testing himself in a more demanding market. He had, after all, leftFargo twice before— once to attend the University of Wisconsin, and later, to join the Air Force. Bothtimes he had returned ‘home’.

“Next time, you’ve got to move on, Mike,” I told him. “You don’t have to prove anything to anyone elsebut yourself now. You deserve better. In fact, you deserve the best. You know you do.”

May of 1968 proved pivotal. Mike registered to attend a prestigious news photographers’ seminar inRochester, NY, hosted by Eastman Kodak. He knew the cream of the crop newspapers and magazineswould all be there. He had prepared a fantastic portfolio of work to take with him and was more psychedup than I’d ever seen him before. I drove him to the airport and watched the plane disappear into theeastern sky. Walking back to the car, I reached into my purse to get my keys and discovered an envelopefrom the travel agency he used with his name typed on the front. Inside was his itinerary, and at thebottom, in his typical scrawl, a note: Joan— You’re right about me, you know. But thanks for being ahuman being with me. You know me best. All my love, Mike.

Three days later, he called me from Rochester, very excited. He had been justly rewarded with a trio ofgreat job offers— the Chicago Daily News, the National Geographic, and The New York Times. “I’venever felt so wanted in my life!” he laughed.

“So have you decided which one you’re going to accept?” The truth was, it really didn’t matter. Mike wasgoing to practice his craft at the highest levels in a city big enough to get lost in. Period. He was leavingFargo for ‘good’. He didn’t need to look back any more.

“Actually, I think ‘Photo Credit: Mike Lien, The New York Times’ is going to look great! And I hearthere’s some terrific theatre nearby, too!”

AFTERWORD:

Over the next four years, Mike’s and my paths would cross many times, as I, too, moved back to the eastcoast and worked in New York City and then the Baltimore-Washington area just as he was transferred tothe Times’ D.C. Bureau. I watched him thrive in his new environments and come to peace with hispersonal past. At least, the latter wasn’t staring him in the face every day as it had been when he lived inFargo, ‘the land of his birth’. When I began migrating to the west coast in 1972, I continued keeping aneye out for his photo credits at the newsstand, wondering always, where in the world his next assignmentwould take him.

In the early spring of 1977, I flew back to D.C. for the first time in five years to attend a broadcastconvention, intending to surprise Mike with a visit. But when I called the Times’ photo department andasked for him, the man who answered the phone could only manage to respond with a long hesitation anda controlled, muted flutter in his throat. Very slowly, very gently, very kindly, he told me the awful newsof Mike’s accident and death.

Mike was just forty years old, with so much promise still ahead of him. In the end, I learned the work ofshaping his persona the way he wanted it to be and creating his own history had taken new form. He had recently become a freelance photographer and ‘waterman’ living on the Chesapeake Bay near thesailboats and down-to-earth working people he so enjoyed. I was happy to know this. It seemed awonderful progression of his desires. But the play had come to an end.

Over a decade passed before I had the courage to call and correspond with Mike’s old mentor, Cal Olson. He wasmost generous with his time, patience, stories, personal thoughts and personal references. Through him I learned ofMike’s close friendship with fellow photographer, Chick Harrity. I finally got to meet Chick and his wife overlunch in D.C. in 1988, just before he retired from U.S. News and World Report. They were especially gracious insharing their reminiscences of Mike with me, because to them, I was a total stranger. Protective instincts for Mike’s privacy were still in play. Such was the enduring loyalty Mike conferred upon those he chose to bring close to him.

Over the years, I would go online to see what new photos of Mike’s had been digitized and republished in newsstories requiring historical context and perspective. In the late fall of 2005, I came across a notice publicizing theRourke Art Museum’s exhibition of his work. Though it had already ended and I had missed seeing it, I was deeplymoved to know such a tribute had been accorded him.

Ultimately, I discovered Bob Gaffaney’s Finding Michael website and was impressed by the great labor of love heand Angie Plumb had undertaken to set the record straight and honor Mike’s legacy. Clearly, the secrets of Mike’sexistence— the ones he had kept hidden for so long, were secrets no more. Yet stunningly, there was one morerevelation even he didn’t know about— that made me gasp when I read it.

Angie’s online genealogy search on behalf of her mother, Barbara, had yielded indisputable documentationconnecting her mom to the Gaffaney family. Barbara, who had been adopted at birth in Missouri a year before Mikewas born, and Mike himself, who had been put into foster care in Fargo ten months after he was born, shared thesame birth parents! They were, in fact, full sister and brother to one another! Without question, the liaison betweentheir birth parents, whether forged through devotion or obligation or a combination of both, had been far morecomplicated than a simple love affair.

In my heart, I believe Mike would have loved knowing he had a sister, and it is bittersweet, these two siblings couldnot have known they were family to one another while both still lived.

It was Angie, who contacted the Gaffaney’s to inform them of their, heretofore, unknown, family connection, and itwas Bob’s idea and open-mindedness to acknowledge and memorialize Mike’s life-story on the website. Bob’sfather was Mike’s oldest half-brother, now deceased. After years of concealment, it had taken this new alliance ofnext-generation cousins to find and reunite this dispersed shadow family and to bring its innocent son and daughterthe integrity they deserved.

Forty-three years have passed since I first met Mike. Memories are still vivid. In my own life, I have always been asearcher, a questioner and an observer. I do not give up easily on quests of the heart. I am also a seeker of justicewhere there has been injustice, intentional or not. But somehow, now, I finally feel a quiet sense of redemption.

I am thankful that the Rourke Museum has become the permanent home of the Mike Lien photo collection and trustFargo-Moorhead residents will enjoy both the communication and the communion Mike intended when he snappedthe shutter and spent hours alone in the darkroom perfecting his art.

Lastly, I am ever hopeful, that men and women everywhere will have the strength of character it requires, to thinkbeyond themselves in the ardor of their love, to the child they may well create together. This sentiment has beentenderly expressed in the last five lines of a poem I cherish. I think of it as a prayer, really, written by Robert Packand titled The Stairs. I gave it to Mike just before he left Fargo for New York.

“If ever I am a father, mayMy children inherit this stilled hourWhen the heart abandons its alarm,Recalling at the top of the stairsSomeone I love descending to them.”

Excerpted from The Stairs, a poem by Robert Pack in his third volume of poetry:Guarded By Women © Copyright, 1963, by Robert Pack