Marc De Leon
Oct. 6, 1953-April 15, 2006
WBAL-TV photographer Marc De Leon, whose videotaped coverage of news events had appeared on Baltimore television stations for more than a quarter century, died April 15 at Sinai Hospital following what was supposed to be minor elective surgery to stabilize a broken ankle. He was placed on life-support equipment during the surgery after his brain was deprived of oxygen for up to 15 minutes, his family says they were told by physicians. He died three days later, at age 52, after his family decided to to remove him from life support because they were told the lack of oxygen had led to brain death.
The loss of De Leon has had telephones ringing and tears flowing throughout the U.S. television news community, which is a surprisingly tight-knit group connected simply by the movement of journalists who aspire to work in bigger cities or at one of the national networks. For many, the news of De Leon’s sudden death has been a shock. It’s also led to a lot of laughter and smiles as the people who knew him shared stories about him with each other.
While most people reading this may think it’s sad and tragic that this son, husband, brother, father, and grandfather died so prematurely, it may not be clear why he should mean something to those with no connection to him. The answer is simple: If you’ve watched TV news in Baltimore during the last 26 years—from 1980 to ’85 on WMAR (channel 2) and since ’85 on WBAL (channel 11)—Marc De Leon meant something every time he turned on his camera and started shooting tape. The way he looked at the world in the literally thousands of stories he shot during his career in some way probably helped shape your vision of it, too.
“He was my compassionate child,” says his mother, Juanita, as she sits in the family room in her son’s house. The walls are crowded with pictures, mostly of Marc and his wife Cassandra’s two children—daughter Isoke, 24, and son Ayinde, 20—and their 14-month-old grandson, named Ayinde Jr. but affectionately referred to as Yemi. The space not filled with pictures is loaded with shelves of various types of African percussion instruments that Marc constructed himself and played.
De Leon’s compassion for people informed his photography. He was never the type to shove his camera into the face of a person who had just suffered a tragedy, a stereotype often perpetuated by hourlong TV dramas. Instead he laid back and tried to do his job as unobtrusively as possible, curious about the people he was photographing but not wanting to increase their pain.
His curiosity about the world—what his longtime friend ABC Nightline correspondent and former WBAL reporter Vicki Mabrey called his “boundless enthusiasm”—also led him into some trouble with his parents when he was a teenager. His parents both tell pieces of the story. De Leon had told them he was spending the weekend at some kind of Boy Scout jamboree. When he was later than expected getting back to his Brooklyn, N.Y. home, his parents made some calls to his friends to see where he might be. While they were trying to discover his whereabouts, his cousin called and told them Marc wasn’t with the Boy Scouts—he and his girlfriend had gone to Washington to meet the Black Panthers.
“He had to save the world,” his mother says with a smile. When he got home, confronted with the knowledge that his parents knew where he had been, he told them, “I want to help my black brothers.”
“Your black brother,” his father, Frederick, said, referring to Frederick Jr., “is asleep in the other room.”
After receiving an associate’s degree from the two-year Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., he got a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After school, he went back to Brooklyn, where he met his wife, Cassandra. “I taught kindergarten, and he was my teacher’s aide,” Cassandra says of their meeting in 1976. They got married in 1977 and moved to Charlotte, N.C., where Marc had gotten his first job in television. They then moved to Raleigh, N.C., and by 1980 he had secured a job at WMAR, where he worked for five years before moving to WBAL.
When De Leon got the job in Charlotte his parents went down to see the young couple. During the visit, his father says, Marc “turns to me and whispers, ‘Don’t tell these people, but I’d do this for nothing.’ He loved his job.”
After moving to Baltimore, Marc and Cassandra had their two children and gave them names from the African language Benin. They chose the name Isoke for their daughter, is now a scientist working in advanced research on genetic diseases, because it means “a satisfying gift from God.” They picked the name Ayinde, which means “we prayed and he came,” for their son.
De Leon was well-liked and respected by photographers from the other Baltimore television stations. Stan Heist, chief photographer for WBFF-TV (channel 45), says that when he first arrived here about three years ago Marc left a deep impression on him.
“He’s one of those photographers who’s there to help lend a hand. . . . He was one of the people who first explained that we all watch out for each other,” Heist says, referring to the dangers news photographers face on the street. Indeed, being a television news photographer can be very dangerous work at times. At least two photographers shot at; numerous photographers facing hails of rocks, bottles, and bricks; photographers physically assaulted while at their most vulnerable—with their eyes at the viewfinder shooting videotape. Sounds like Iraq or Afghanistan, maybe? But it’s not. It has all happened on the streets of Baltimore over the last 15 years. And although such things don’t happen on a regular basis, danger can come out of nowhere at any time, during even the most routine stories. Being a good photographer isn’t just having a good eye and a good sense of what makes a story. It also requires a certain amount of bravery that is never talked about inside TV newsrooms where everyone knows the potential dangers.
“He was a person before he was a photographer,” Heist says. “Not a cameraperson, but a person with a camera. And, that’s what a lot of us strive to be.”
“He would just bounce into a room,” says Mabrey. She notes that no matter how ridiculous or sometimes downright dumb a story assignment was, “no matter what silly assignment they threw at us, he would just laugh.”
“He was an amazing person,” says former WBAL reporter and current Baltimore Police Department spokesman Matt Jablow. He talks about two grueling days they spent on New York’s Long Island during the sniper terror here in 2002. They went to Long Island to do stories about a sniper incident that happened there in the mid-1990s and how Suffolk County police had gotten their man. They spent two straight days working, dealing with severe technical problems that affected their ability to get the story sent back to WBAL. It never phased De Leon, though. Like he did in so many other situations, he just laughed his way through it. “He was a wonderful human being,” Jablow says.
Longtime friend and WBAL fixture reporter Rob Roblin worked on many stories over the years with De Leon. “He loved to laugh. He had a wonderful sense of humor,” Roblin says. “He enjoyed life to the fullest. He loved his family. He loved the simplest things. He loved his job.” One of Roblin’s dearest memories of him is when they were working on a story in Ocean City. He says it was a beautiful day. Marc was walking into the edge of the tide with a cable, setting up a shot. De Leon, Roblin says, suddenly just smiled and said, “‘Man, this is great! I love this country! I just looove this country!!! I looove America!!!’”
Marc De Leon is survived not only by the family and friends who loved him. He’s also survived by much of Baltimore—the stories and lives he showed with his camera and the people who watched them: you.
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