Forward to the Finding Michael Exhibit

At The Rourke Art Museum – March 28, 2010

Text by Robert C. Gaffaney

In 2005 “Mike Lien/Photographer” opened at The Rourke Art Museum and Fargo Moorhead area remembered a favorite son: the great photojournalist who captured the men and events of unfolding history for the New York Times.

Cal Olson wrote, “The Runner,” for the show and the exhibition book; an evocative description of a remarkable man. But while Cal’s portrait was moving and accurate, he recognized that even in death Mike “did not share his full dimension.”

University Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland
February 22, 1977

The doctor nodded to the morning shift nurse and she picked up the clip board, looked at her watch and made a notation. She began disconnecting the probes and the tubes while the Doctor walked down the long hallway to the waiting room.

In Fargo, at the Gaffaney’s store on 619 1st Avenue North, the polished wooden side chair where J.E. had sat in his later years to watch the morning buzz was empty and June was not at the old gray, metal desk fifteen feet away that had been the center of her life for decades.

Both had moved on, but surely June looked up from breakfast in her second floor apartment on Main Avenue as J.E. in his place a few miles away pulled the pipe from his mouth and looked up at the ceiling fan spinning mournfully above.

St. Joseph, Missouri

Five hundred and fifty miles south of Moorhead on Interstate 29 a young woman said to her mother, “Mom, you must be interested! Don’t you want to know about your birth parents?” Mom was interested, but wary. She didn’t stand in the way as her daughter began to trace the 70 year old public records for clues to the origins of Barbara Whalen Katzer.

Fargo, North Dakota

The Forum was spread out on the kitchen table in our Quonset hut: D-6 North Court. I scanned the paper every day for the photos. There was a shot of a Bison basketball game on the front page of the Sports section. My wife came in to the kitchen to warm a bottle. “This guy is good!” I said.

“What guy?”

“Mike Lien: really, really good. You watch. He’ll wind up somewhere.” I lived and breathed photography. I knew. Mike had it all and he would find a bigger stage.

Cotton Lake, Minnesota
Circa 1965

A few miles north of State Route 34 on County 29, just west of Detroit Lakes, is Cotton Lake. While working for The Forum, Mike bought a cabin there. When he wasn’t working he was sailing his catamaran, “The Hooligan.” There were weekend regattas on the lake; Mike competed hard and he won his share.

When he lived on Whitehall Creek Mike helped his friend Jimmy Cantler Oyster and Crab. On the Chesapeake that makes one a “waterman.”

That’s a perfect description for this man of the plains who had such a passion for the wind and the waves.

Pope County, Minnesota

In true Irish Catholic fashion, Edward Gaffaney and his wife Nellie made lots of babies. James Edward was the oldest, and shared with his father that dour toughness that helped the Irish survive the English.

Their common disposition made for a confrontation waiting to happen and it came when James graduated from grade school. James announced he would go on to high school. His father was adamant; was needed on the farm.

So at fourteen years old he left home to make his own way in the world: to get an education; found a business; and to do his part in making more babies. He and his father didn’t speak for twenty years.

Kragnes, Minnesota
January 6, 1997

Near the banks of North Branch of the Buffalo River, about six miles below where it empties into the Red River of the North is a cemetery. A small group of mourners gathered there in the frigid winter gloom: nieces and nephews, June’s long time friend Darlyne; co-workers from Gaffaney’s. Jim Gaffaney Jr. was there; he flew in from Arizona for the service.

This place was a stone’s throw from the roads June travelled as a child between the farm and North Buffalo School. She graduated high school in Moorhead and was working as a teacher in a rural school when she got her big opportunity came: she was hired as a bookkeeper by the Gaffaney’s Office Specialties Company in Fargo.

June was pretty, dark for one of Norwegian heritage. She was a vivacious young woman. She had an Essex automobile in the thirties.

The winter interment was mercifully short. The arctic air was brutal, and what was there for Pastor Elmo say about this lonely life?

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Angie, Barbara Whalen Katzer’s daughter, did find those certificates and forms that follow in the wake of every life. Barbara’s mother was June Aggerholm. Barbara’s father was recorded as “Joe Aggerholm,” though Angie could find no evidence for the existence of such a person.

She traced June to Fargo, North Dakota where she connected with June’s niece and with June’s longtime friend and caregiver.

Fargo, North Dakota

The bookkeeping department was under June’s direct control and the women barely spoke that I ever heard. But in their silence the office girls were watching and listening, and when the coast was clear they talked to the mechanics, clerks, and salesmen.

There was an undercurrent of talk in the store. The mechanics in the shop said something had been going on between J.E. and June for years.

There was a young man who came in to Gaffaney’s sometimes to see June. He rode his bike there. June always had time for him.

St. Joseph, Missouri
Mid 1930s

June took two breaks from Gaffaney’s during the mid 1930’s, allegedly to go to a spa for treatment of arthritis.

In fact, during each of these absences June Aggerholm gave birth to a child: Barbara in 1935; Michael in 1936.

Barbara was born in St. Joseph, Missouri and was adopted by the Whalen family there, having no knowledge of her birth mother until the end of her life when Angie started digging.

It is not known exactly where Michael was born, but it was likely in or near Fargo. He
was placed with foster parents, though his birth mother maintained contact.

Michael’s full sister, Barbara Whalen married Joseph Katzer and lived on a farm in Kansas until she died in May of 2009. As far as anyone knows, Mike never knew he had a full sister.

Fargo, North Dakota

Gail Lien was 14 when the child came into their lives. “The woman from Gaffaney’s” brought him to the house. He was about ten months old.

“He was beautiful” Gail said. “We all fell in love with him.”

The woman, who Gail knew as Mike’s Guardian, never told them his birthday so the family gave him one. They estimated and picked a date; the records show that Michael Benjamin Lien was born on November 4, 1936.

Alfred and Pauline Lien had two older sons, Burton and Marvel; a family of six with Gail and Michael. They loved the boy and wanted to adopt him but the Guardian said no.

December, 1972

“What a hoot that night was!” Chick said. He was describing the “Medieval Feast” in London. Mike and Chick shared a camera, so there are shots of both; drinking ale, eating with their fingers and cavorting with the serving wenches.

The same was true for daytime shots on the street, each of posing under a Piccadilly Circus sign, each having fun with an anonymous platinum blond in front of a busy London department store.

Mike was at his creative best that trip. Liberated from recording famous men shaking hands and signing documents he shot everything that interested him: sunsets on the Thames; a street vendor selling patriotic pins; a stall offering playing cards and dart boards; a small boy on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street; an older couple walking in the park dwarfed by the city.

Thirty seven years later the Ektachrome slides tell the story: what a hoot that trip was!

Fargo, North Dakota

Joan and Michael met at the stage production of Othello at the Community Theatre. He shot the cast and production photos and she played Emilia.

They became friends. Michael told her things he shared with no one else; he knew his mother, he knew who his father was, he had seen his brothers.

She told him “You have done all in your power to earn the acceptance of your family. It’s time for you to make your own life.

Calistoga, California

For thirty two years Chick had hauled the carton of slides and box of prints from home to home. Now they lay open on the coffee table of his home in the California wine country.

They were colleagues and friends; Mike introduced Chick to his wife, he was best man at the wedding. Through all the moves in Chick’s years with AP and US News they had carried this legacy of their fallen friend.

They were with him at the end at the hospital in Baltimore. Yvonne began to tell about it; she was holding his hand, he squeezed it.

She bowed her head and didn’t finish; even after all these years.

Algonquin, Illinois

Slides were spread across the light table and I was hunched forward with the loupe, as I had been on evenings and weekends for months.

I looked at an image of a Colts running back turning the corner on a sweep. Tom Matte looked a little soft I thought. But I looked again; everything in the scene was rock solid! He was shooting Ektachrome, ASA 160, at night through a telephoto with the lens wide open, probably a thirtieth of a second, and the shot was right on the money.

That was Mike. Always perfect in even the most difficult situations: superb composition; great sense of timing; accurate focus and exposure; and never the slightest sign of camera movement.

The world saw his work in sports and politics, but he was interested in everything. And his remarkable creativity and skill served him wherever he turned the camera.

Annapolis, Maryland

Cars were parked up and down Red Cedar Road and still they came. There were more than a hundred guests in the back yard of Mike’s home at his little marina on Whitehall Creek,

There came to celebrate Michael Lien’s life and work; colleagues and friends from Washington D.C. and New York, and local friends and neighbors from Annapolis.

Mike’s ashes were there, displayed on a table, and treated with reverence and respect by all even as they drinks flowed.

It was a good old fashioned Irish wake where the tears and the laughter flowed in equal measure. What a fine celebration!

Chesapeake Bay

One morning in late February of 1977 a crabbing boat pulled away from the dock on Whitehall Creek. It wound its way into the Bay where it made its way south, leaving the Bay Bridge behind.

About a mile south of the Naval Academy the pilot shut down the engines and the coasted to a stop.

As the boat bobbed up and down on the choppy waters the waterman lifted an urn, held it high, then twisted off the top, and slowly spilled the contents into the Chesapeake.

Most of the ashes fell into the water, but the wind captured some and carried them south towards the open expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

Moorhead, Minnesota
March 2010

On March 28, 2010, the second Michael Lien show opens at the Rourke Art Museum. Many members of Mike’s family will be there; his birth families, the Gaffaneys and the Aggerholms. Perhaps Mike’s sister Gail can come, the last of his foster family.

Some of Mike’s friends will be there. He had many, many friends; friends of all ages; friends from all walks of life. His mentors and guides are gone; Cal Olson, Doc Cantor and his wife. Some of those he taught and mentored will come.

And there will be those who admired him from a distance: a creative, intelligent, driven genius who accomplished so much.

At 6:53 PM on December 4th, 1976, Mike Lien was in the back seat of an automobile involved in a head on collision on a narrow road near his home in Annapolis. He died two and a half months later.

Thirty three years after that terrible day we gather together; colleagues, admirers, friends, and family, to say “Welcome home Michael, we’re proud of you!”