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THE PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES OF A FEMALE PIONEER

During her 35-year career as one of this country's first women news photographers, Elizabeth "Libby" Kahle captured Buffalo's public life and private lives on film. Using a Speed Graphic camera favored by photographers of an earlier era, she recorded presidents and generals, fires and fatalities, children and the celebrities who passed this way.

Her first assignment at the Courier-Express was to take the picture of a body that had washed ashore on the banks of the Niagara River.

"I went down to the foot of Austin Street," recalls Kahle, who is celebrating her 100th birthday today. sept. 27 "It was an old rum runner. Oh, he wasn't pretty."

Undeterred, she finished the job. The photo ran the next day. And she went back for more.

Her collection of classic black and white photographs, some framed and matted, begin in the the 1930s and record the era when Buffalo's streets were tree-lined and the city was visited by well-known figures such as Judy Garland, a young John F. Kennedy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jimmy Durante, Jack Dempsey.

Asked if she remembers Garland's appearance, Kahle fires back: "I remember everybody."

Pushed to pick a favorite, she says she always liked the spur-of-the-moment ones. That includes a picture of Anne Larkin, taken in 1942, when she was a young girl licking an ice cream cone.

"You don't stage a picture like that," said Kahle, who clearly enjoyed bantering with a Buffalo News photographer, interested in the equipment that present-day news photographers use.

Another treasured memory is taking a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt, sitting in the back seat of a car and holding a bouquet of flowers.

"I was coming back from an assignment and I saw a Rolls Royce ahead of me on Delaware Avenue, and not everybody drives around in a Rolls Royce," said Kahle.

Pulling in front of the car, she spotted Mrs. Roosevelt, who was in town in 1941, unannounced, to visit the wife of a National Democratic Committee member.

"They knew me and gave me permission to take the picture," Kahle said. "Whenever Mrs. Roosevelt came to town, I was with her all day. She was my beat. She was just like a friend, easy to be with.

"So when I got back and handed it to my editor, he said, "How did you get this?' and I said "Oh, didn't you know Mrs. Roosevelt was in town?'

"It was always the most fun to scoop your editor."

Kahle started work in 1931 as a society reporter "when Buffalo had a social life."

"You'd write that "so and so' went to New York or "so and so' gave a party," said Kahle, who came from a prominent Buffalo family.

Her mother, Louise Lewis Kahle, was a suffragette who was jailed in Washington, D.C. Her grandmother, Charlotte Pierson Lewis, founded the Homeopathic Hospital, which today is Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle, and the "Home for the Friendless."

"In other words, it was naughty girls who were pregnant," said Kahle. "This made a nice home for them and their babies were taken care of."

Best known, perhaps, may be her grandfather, State Supreme Court Justice Loran L. Lewis, who came out of retirement at age 76 to defend Leon Czoglosz, William McKinley's assassin.

Kahle started taking pictures with a box camera when she was a child.

"I've always been mechanical," she said. "So I didn't have to be taught too much. I think you can figure out what interests you."

As she flips through photos, many jar memories. One shows a construction beam being hoisted along by a crane.

Kahle had been told to get a picture of the last beam being set into place.

"So I went and waited and waited and waited for the last beam," she said.

When her editor asked what was taking so long, she told him she was waiting for the final beam.

"He said, "Take the picture - any beam will do,'" she said, laughing as she tells the story on herself.

Kahle said she doesn't remember that she ever missed a shot that she went after.

"You could always make something do," she said.

Asked if she missed her career after she retired at age 65 in 1965, Kahle said: "Oh, I had my social life then," referring to her membership at the Garret and Twentieth Century clubs. She also remained active at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where she once taught Sunday school.

Throughout the hourlong interview, Kahle proves what one former colleague said of her: "One thing about Libby is that she was never caught without an opinion."

On the occasion of turning 100, however, she refrains from dispensing advice: "I wouldn't think of trying to do that."

But she does have this parting comment: "Be sure I get credit for those photographs."

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