Rocco Morabito’s daughters remember how you could smell the newsprint on him when he came home from working at his old Jacksonville Journal. Perhaps it was in his blood, he loved the newspaper game so much.

 

Just one thing interrupted his long career at the now-gone afternoon paper: World War II.

As the ball turret gunner on a B-17, he somehow survived 34 combat missions under some of the most hazardous conditions possible, his 5-foot-5-inch body curled up in that fragile, cramped compartment that hung from the belly of the bomber.

Rocco didn’t talk much about that. In a long interview with the Journal upon his retirement, he told many newspaper stories, while summing up his war experience this way: “I went in the Army Air Corps and when I was discharged came back to the Journal.”

Thirty-four missions, 17 words.

He was always ready to run out for a hot story for the Journal: Tina and Anne Morabito recall how, even as chatty teenagers, they couldn’t tie up the home phone at night, for fear of their father missing a call from a fire department source.

Rocco died in 2009, at 88. His daughters still have his camera, a battered Rolleiflex, the one with which he took The Photo on July 17, 1967: A Jacksonville lineman, high atop a utility pole, giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another lineman who dangled from a safety belt after touching a live power line.

The Journal pushed past deadline that day to get Rocco’s photo in, and copy editor Bob Pate gave it a zinger of a caption: The Kiss of Life. That name stuck as Rocco’s photo ran in newspapers around the world, as it won the Pulitzer Prize, and as it lived on for the next five decades.


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The photo became inseparable from their father, inseparable from his family’s lives. “I’ve seen that picture every day of my life for 50 years,” Anne Morabito said, “and I still get goosebumps. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it now.”

At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where it’s on permanent display with other Pulitzer-winning photographs, “The Kiss of Life” still leaves visitors spellbound, said Indira Williams Babic, the museum’s director of photography and visual resources.

It has everything a great news photo needs, she said: Technical skill, timeliness and a compelling story.

“This image fits all the criteria, which is why we picked it and why it stops people in their tracks,” Babic said. “It’s a great photo, photographically, and really shows that super exciting moment. It has that imminent-danger element to it that draws young and old, and it also has that great altruistic factor: a human helping another human, saving a life in a really dicey position.”

‘DIDN’T LOOK GOOD’

There was luck involved in Rocco getting that photo — and Rocco later wondered if there wasn’t some divine intervention as well — but it was clear it wouldn’t have happened if he weren’t a newsprint-in-the-blood newspaperman.

His Journal career began at 10, when he sold the paper on the street corner. In high school he worked in the mail room and later oversaw news carriers until the world war interrupted.

In all, he spent 42 years at the paper, 33 of them as a photographer. He retired in 1982, a half-dozen years before his Journal published its last issue.

On the morning of the photo, Sean Connery in “You Only Live Twice” was in the theaters and $1.95 got you all the boiled shrimp you wanted at Charlie Thomas’ Oyster House. A couple of hours ahead of the Journal’s noon deadline, Rocco headed out to cover some striking train workers. On the way, he passed some Jacksonville Electric Authority lineman working on several poles on West 26th Street. He filed that away in his brain: Linemen, silhouetted against the sky up there, made for good pictures.

He got what he needed at the train strike and, though deadline was approaching, made sure to circle back to the linemen. He still had a little film left in his camera, after all.

That’s when he heard people crying out, and saw Randall Champion, hanging upside down on his safety belt, unconscious, from atop a pole.

Rocco stopped, took a couple of pictures, then got on his two-way radio in his car to call the newsroom: Someone’s hurt. Get an ambulance. Only then did he reload his Rolleiflex and begin snapping away again.

By this point, Champion’s friend, fellow lineman J.D. Thompson, had run from another pole about 400 feet away and was scrambling up toward Champion. Above him was another lineman in a bucket lift; that man had cut the wire and killed it, but couldn’t get the bucket close enough to Champion to help him.

Thompson, who’s now 76, said Champion wasn’t breathing, and his face was bluish-gray. “It didn’t look good at all,” he said last week.

He gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and struck him on the chest, as lineman had been trained to do. Within a few breaths, Champion opened his eyes and began breathing.

Thompson has been called a hero, many times, but he’s not crazy about that.

“If there were other people there, if I hadn’t gotten there first, they would have done the exact same thing I did. It’s been done many times before; people’s lives were saved,” he said. “But there were no pictures.”

‘THAT’S OUR ROCCO!’

This time there were pictures, and Rocco knew what he had inside his Rolleiflex.

He radioed the paper once more: “I think I’ve got a pretty good picture,” he told editor Dick Bussard.

Indeed: Bussard pushed the deadline back as Morabito, back at the office, developed the film himself. Pate came up with “The Kiss of Life.” And that afternoon, the photo and caption found space on the front page, next to a dispatch about a prison fire in West Florida that killed 37, a report on a riot in New Jersey and a story on that train strike.

A brief description of the accident accompanied the photo, along with the promise of more photos on page 13. There was no credit for Rocco on the front; his name was found only in the small print at the end of a commendably complete story that went with five pictures inside.

That might have been it. But the Associated Press picked up the photo and just about every newspaper used it. Thompson even heard about it from a cousin in Alaska, in those pre-internet days.

Ten months later, in May 1968, word spread around the Journal newsroom: Rocco had won the Pulitzer, the top prize in journalism, for news photography.

The newspaper threw a party, where his Journal buddies hoisted Morabito on their shoulders. “That’s Our Rocco!” proclaimed a Journal editorial.

His photo lives on.

“It’s like every generation discovers the picture,” Thompson said. “My sister-in-law recently found on Facebook a lineman in Washington state who has this tattooed on his arm. I looked at it — it was a great job.”

Thompson worked 30 years for JEA, as did Champion, who died in 2002 at 64. They stayed friends, and even appeared together on TV’s “To Tell the Truth.”

After Rocco’s photo, the linemen became friends with the newspaperman. By doing that, they joined a club that was far from exclusive.

“I didn’t know Rocco at the time,” Thompson said, “but everybody else in Jacksonville seemed to know him. Everybody had some story about him.”

Morabito’s daughters say their dad was proud of earning the Pulitzer, but wasn’t the kind to brag that he had done anything alone.

“He always said ‘we,’ and when he said ‘we’ I think he meant the paper, the church, his family,” Tina Morabito said. “He loved that paper, right up there with his B-17; that’s what he was proud of, being a newspaperman.”

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082