A Picture Perfect Life

I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Bruce Johnson. Or, as he was known for years on KOMO radio when Larry Nelson did commercials for his photography studio, Bruce Rowland– “65th Street’s slickest shutter snapper!”

Back in the 1950s, Bruce’s dad launched Rowland Studios just east of Greenlake, in the Ravenna area. I can’t tell you how many years he was in that same studio, but he was there more than not, right on 65th street, just off Roosevelt. That’s where Bruce learned the craft of taking amazing, beautiful, well-thought-out pictures, eventually taking over his father’s business. Bruce continues to take phenomenal pictures, using both cameras and his cellphone. He’s just got that eye, that vision, and always will.

I met Bruce back in the day when I was Larry Nelson’s producer on KOMO and Bruce and Ballard attorney Tom Treece were pretty much part of Lar’s Three Amigos. They weren’t always together as a trio, but usually when I’d see one and he would leave, the other would soon show up.  Bruce operated Rowland Studios, where practically everyone who worked at KOMO had their portraits done. Yes, that was back in the day of a studio and portraits and packages that cost hundreds of dollars, all shot on film. On top of that, Rowland Studios was pretty much THE school photographer. Anyone who went to school in Seattle has at least school photo tucked away in a book with the word “Rowland” down at the bottom or on the back.
Here’s a video I put together for him, when he was trying to shore up his Senior Picture business.

I knew Bruce as a crazy Swede. He loved to party. On St. Patrick’s Day one year, I remember he came by KOMO radio and visited Larry in the control room with some female friend of his painted green and in a bikini. When I first started at KOMO, he would call up Larry’s office number (an office we shared) and when I answered, he identified himself as Arnie Schmatz, a pseudonym that he liked to use. As I became involved with Larry’s extended family, I would get to know and hear stories about some of Bruce’s hunting buddies. Yes, part of his fall routine was going to Chehalis and returning with lots of stories and a winter’s supply of venison.

At his recent retirement party, there were lots of his pictures on display from over the years, including this one of our buddy, Larry Nelson.

Bruce also took Larry’s last portrait that remains on display in my office to this day. Lar’s quick departure a decade ago from lung cancer really hit Bruce hard. In fact, I believe it was a year later that he gave up drinking and has been dry ever since. He proudly announced he had passed his 9th year of sobriety when I arrived at his party.

Even though I wasn’t close with his family or his three beautiful daughters, I watched them grow up because one of Bruce’s holiday traditions included sending out a photo card with a group shot featuring his three girls. Years ago by themselves, and these days, with their families.

Bruce’s retirement party was held at his oldest daughter’s house, and the second I saw her, I remembered a Christmas card gag from longs ago. Larry Nelson had gone to her wedding and while he was there, had his picture taken with her in her wedding dress. The following Christmas, he sent out the photo with no explanation and of course, everyone on the receiving end immediately thought, “Oh, my God, he got married again. And look how young she is!”

This is the crowd I hung out with.

My KOMO radio days are 34 years behind me, but Bruce and I have stayed in touch and kept up with each other’s lives over the years. Bruce is a colorful part of the tapestry of my life.  As he steps into retirement after taking on cancer and defeating it last year, he continues to post on Facebook his photos of coffee and (insert location here). For all he’s been through, I believe now more than ever that he’s fully embracing the “make every day count” concept and I’m extremely happy for him. So many people say they’re going to start doing that and, like a New Year’s resolution, it’s not long until it was just a short-lived good intention. In the retirement card I gave him, I included a certificate good for one retirement lunch at Mike’s Chili in Ballard, one of his favorite haunts. I look very forward to sitting down and flashing back to the days of Lar and all the crazy times that were had. And I plan to make those happen a little bit more frequently because the good times we enjoy today are the ones we’ll be remembering tomorrow.

Life may not have been perfect for Bruce, but his pictures always are.

Congrats on your retirement, Mr. Johnson-Rowland- Schmatz. A very well-deserved new beginning and I know you’re going to really make this count.

Tim Hunter

Bruce is the one on the right

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