Fireworks over the Bell Tower at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reflections of Carolina’s Old Well in multiple raindrops. An American flag unfurled in the breeze with the space shuttle launching in the background.
These were just three of the photographs Dan Sears took in some 50 years in the news business and as University photographer at Carolina from 1992 to 2015, where he had earned a degree in journalism in 1974.
Dan, who died May 25 at 71, will be remembered in a celebration of life at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 3, at Walker’s Funeral Home, 120 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. In lieu of flowers, mourners may contribute to animal shelters, animal rescue organizations or law enforcement or military foundations, such as the Wounded Warriors Project.
Through his career at the News Reporter in Whiteville, the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News, the Associated Press, United Press International and at Carolina, he took some of the most iconic pictures of our time. He shot Masters golf tournaments, NASCAR races, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at the PTL Club, ACC basketball tournaments, UNC commencements and much more.
“He covered every major event in the South,” said close friend Jamie Moncrief, who worked for Dan as a freelancer for UPI. “His photography was absolutely spectacular.”
Dan’s photos appeared in publications including LIFE, TIME, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Vanity Fair, National Geographic on the web, Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine and Carolina Alumni Review and on unc.edu.
“He was the photographer of record for so much of our history,” said Mike McFarland, director of University relations and Dan’s boss at UNC. “He captured the sense of place, the people, the beautiful campus and the mission of the University in the most professional of ways.”
Part of Dan's success stemmed from his personality.
“Dan could talk to anybody,” Moncrief said. “He could always smoodge and get us into any event.
“People enjoyed being around him because he was so funny. He was wickedly fast when it came to commenting. Dan had a one liner for every situation.”
Justin Smith owns the News Reporter, where Dan worked summers and every other weekend while a student at Carolina. Smith was Dan’s intern when Smith was a student. He said Dan could put people at ease and get the best possible photos of those who came to have their portraits made in the studio that Dan had created. He treated each person as though theirs was the most important photo he had ever taken.
Dan also created a searchable online database of Carolina photos.
At the Star-News, Dan became chief photographer and shot a young Michael Jordan while he was playing for Laney High School. Moncrief was shooting as a student photographer for nearby Hoggard High.
“I’d stand right next to Dan and shoot right over his shoulder,” Moncrief said. “He would get photographs that blew mine out of the water.”
Dan’s Jordan high school photos have been printed in newspapers, books, magazines and biographies. They were the property of the Star-News, which Moncrief said has made thousands on them. Dan didn’t get a cent.
Dan lived at Wrightsville Beach during that time, resuming a passion for sailing that he’d developed on Lake Waccamaw growing up.
He became a ham radio operator, learning Morse Code, broadcasting all over the world and exchanging postcards with his new far-flung friends. Dan and wife Marisa towed a trailer of radio equipment to events including marathons and bicycle races. Dan coordinated communications to make sure any participant who got in trouble could get emergency services.
In retirement, Dan enjoyed reading books about World War II and shooting scenes that are disappearing from the South, such as old tobacco barns, with his beloved Hasselblad cameras.
From 2007 to 2015, Patty Courtright edited the University Gazette, now called The Well, for which Dan shot photos. She said Dan valued an honest day’s work and had a compassionate side that not everyone got to see.
“He was absolutely one of the truest people I’ve ever known,” she said. “There was no pretense about him. He was professional and courteous … His guide star was his ethics. He believed in honesty and hard work.
“He really loved the University — the best parts of what the University stood for — and he used his skill to portray that in the best possible way.”