Remembering My Photography Mentor: Jerry Kornaski

🎵 🎶 Kelly Kelly Kelly… 🎶 🎵

🎵 🎶 Kelly Kelly Kelly… 🎶 🎵

Back in my early 20s it was clever to make custom ring tones (or so I thought, I was probably just nerding-out). Jerry’s voice called my name when he rang. I was always quick to pick up when Jerry called.

Jerry was like a second Dad. I am lucky to have two loving and supportive parents, but you can never have too much mom or dad love in your life. And Jerry was the best Bonus Dad I could have asked for.

🎵 🎶 Kelly Kelly Kelly… 🎶 🎵

“Hey Jerry! How are you!!??” 

I was riddled with smiles when I picked up. Just a few months earlier, I had left Carroll County to earn my bachelor’s degree in photography at Savannah College of Art and Design. My parents were behind me 100%, often sending me out with rolls of film and now helping to fund my college tuition… but Jerry was my first professional photography mentor. As an employee freshly shipped from home, 680 miles away, he made the time to check in regularly, to remind me that I was still family, and to hear about my fancy art school experience.

“Hey Kelly… 

…it’s Becky.”

It was Jerry’s daughter. No one else had ever called from Jerry’s number.

The sinking feeling was immediate as I heard the tone in those first four words.

“Dad’s gone.”

The only word I managed to sputter was… “What?”

Becky and I cried on the phone together. The correct description is “ugly cried in a fit of uninterpretable babble”. I’ve always felt kinda like a robot. My heart is hard to reach. This was the first time I truly felt the depths of sadness for someone I loved dearly. 

We neared the end of our call. “We’re hugging you,” Becky said, sending the best support she could manage from herself, her mom, and her two sisters. We hung up. 

My roommate, Susan, must have thought the worst as she observed the emotional wreck unraveling in front of her. After what felt like an eternity of uncontrollable sobbing, I managed to get out the words, “my boss died”. She probably thought I was insane… but she had no clue that Jerry was so much more than a boss. Let me share our story.

In 2001, someone pulled strings during “Shadow Job Week” and I landed a one day experience with Michelle Jones. Michelle was the owner and operator of a lucrative family, wedding, and senior portrait business in my hometown. It was known for years that photography was my path, and someone cared enough at my high school to give me that experience. (It wouldn’t surprise me either if my mom did a little persuading in the background.)

Michelle showed myself and a fellow student all about her business. She gave each of us the photo shoot experience too. She began posing us in flattering afternoon light and snapping our portraits, then gave each of us a turn the with the camera to photograph each other. Michelle sent us home with proofs (which arrived later – these were still the film days).

My one shadow day became two, then three, then the whole week. I oversaw several portrait sessions, stuffed wedding and proofing albums, and much more. At the end of the week, Michelle suggested I apply to work at the local youth sports photo company. I was hot off the presses from quitting my first job as a dishwasher at a poorly managed restaurant, so this sounded like a dream job.

I didn’t learn till nearly 15 years later that Michelle had been greasing the wheels for me to get this job. She was friends with Jerry Kornaski and occasionally partnered with him and his team at Pictures-R-Us. Michelle didn’t have a position for me, but after meeting me, she insisted that Jerry hire me as an assistant. She insisted that I needed him, and he needed me. No one was more right about anything in the world. And Jerry reluctantly obliged after this dorky 15 year old kid walked in with a printed resume.

I worked at Pictures-R-Us as a 10th grader in 2001 through my associates degree in 2006. During one of my first photo shoots with Pictures-R-Us, Jerry handed me a 35mm SLR camera with a hot shoe flash and a huge chunky battery. We pulled half a dozen volunteer soccer kids and we shot a test roll together. When the prints came back, I got great feedback (I only needed to back off a smidge – my dirty habit of “filling the frame” continues to this day). Long story short, Jerry decided to keep me around. Even so, it was a couple years before I was promoted to photographer. It took foooooreeeeever and I never understood why. Almost 20 years later, I realize parents didn’t want to pay good money for their kids to get “professional photos” taken by a 15 year old. So I remained an assistant for a while. But boy howdy, when I did step up to PHOTOGRAPHER, what a great feeling that was!! At 17 or 18 years old, I was officially a Professional Photographer. Jerry took a big risk – he believed in me.

Jerry gave me a job, but it was so much more than that. He encouraged me, loved me, and made me feel like family. As a kid learning to adult, he nurtured me in the absolute perfect ways. He is what every boss and leader should aspire to be.

When I did a great job, he gave me praise. Verbally and written.

When I persevered through tough jobs with hundreds of rowdy kids, he gave credit.

When he needed advice, he asked for and valued my ideas. 

When almost no one was watching, we cracked jokes, belched, and nearly peed our pants at times. 

When I made mistakes (and believe me, I made mistakes) it was a gentle learning experience.

On my first solo flight, I forgot to pack the camera batteries. I will never forget this awful experience. Parents were frustrated and some were furious. We lost the client, and I sauntered back to the shop with my tail between my legs. Jerry got the call before I made it back. With tears in my eyes, he literally laughed, recommended not to forget batteries again, and in a polite way, smiled and said “screw ’em!”.

Jerry must have known that my love language was Words Of Encouragement. Or maybe that was his primary love language too.

And when his employee left for the big leagues, the love and coaching didn’t stop. 

But it did stop. Way too early and way too young. What a special human our earth lost.

As I leaf through my paycheck envelopes, to this day, my eyes flood with tears… and I smile. These pieces of paper are so special to me. I don’t recall a single negative memory or feeling when I think of Jerry. I feel grateful. I wish I could spend more time with him. I wish we could go on photo adventures together. I wish I could introduce him to my kids and my husband. I wish we could have regular dinners together, dishing about cool jobs, good food, stupid people, and joking about things like “the butt-crack of dawn”. We could talk about anything.

Jerry was the perfect boss, mentor, and friend I could have asked for. I wonder where I would be today if that connection had never come to be – would I still be a photographer? Every day I’m grateful I pursued a career in photography. What a lucky kid I was to wiggle my way into Jerry’s life – the world was simply better through his lens. And the value of a mentorship and friend like mine is indescribable.

Letters from Jerry Kornaski to Kelly Heck
Letters from Jerry Kornaski to Kelly Heck
Jerry Kornaski