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Alumni Special: Ken Kerbs

At the Olympics in London, 2012, covering a photo session with the USA Men's basketball

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Ken Kerbs

At the Olympics in London, 2012, covering a photo session with the USA Men's basketball "Dream Team" prior to their Gold-medal winning game.

by Lilia Wood, Alumni Writer

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He’s in Rome, covering the selection of a new Pope — and get this, he’s from Glen Rock High School.

Ken Kerbs is currently a cameraman for CBS News in New York, covering national news for the nearly 200 CBS affiliate stations. He has a job that has brought him into many headline-making situations: including the shooting in Newton, Superstorm Sandy, Obama’s Election Night Headquarters covering the President’s second victory, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the man walking across Niagara Falls, the Olympics in London, the Pope’s visits to Mexico and Cuba, and lots more! I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview Mr. Kerbs and hear about his career after graduating from Glen Rock High School in 1978.

It all began in eighth grade when Mr. Kerbs found his love for photography. His neighbor, a sports editor for the Glen Echo, named Lee Gottesman, asked him to cover an article on the upcoming soccer season. Ken had a darkroom and could develop his own pictures, but he was still inexperienced (considering he had only been interested in photography for about a year). “So, I remember that first assignment on a field across from the town pool on Doremus. It was getting dark; I had no idea the pictures were even in focus, no idea what lens I was using, just a roll of film. Snap, snap, click. I made the prints and he used them in the Echo and the byline said: Photo by Kenny Kerbs. That was so cool.” Mr. Kerbs explained.

Once he had his first successful assignment, the assignments came flooding in and he started to bring his camera to school daily. Only a few years later, Ken became the photo editor, and he finally got to call the shots about the paper. To continue his work with photography and senior year he worked for the Ridgewood Newspaper in the summer.

The crowd reacts to the selection of a new pope (2013).

The crowd reacts to the selection of a new pope (2013).

He only applied to one college, Syracuse University–which angered his guidance counselor. There he studied Anthropology and dual-majored in photojournalism. “It was a terrific mix of majors and the Newhouse School of Public Communications is tops. I recently was invited back there in October to be a coach for a 3-day photojournalism multi-media workshop and really felt like I had made the right choice,” he said. “My professor, Dave Sutherland still teaches there. The program at Newhouse is very serious about journalism ethics and has entered the digital journalism world seamlessly.”

A broom can be very helpful while shooting in a blizzard. Here in Times Square in 2011 while the snow piles up.

A broom can be very helpful while shooting in a blizzard. Here in Times Square in 2011 while the snow piles up.

During Mr. Kerbs’ Junior year of college, he was an intern at The Record in Hackensack. And immediately upon graduating from Syracuse, he worked for The Buffalo Courier-Express. He then spent a year on the staff at a paper in Baltimore.

In his twenties he worked for the business and newsmagazines and traveled the country extensively. But he also found time to travel to some exotic places. “One of my memorable travels included going to the remote fishing islands in the Arctic Circle, the Lofotens in Norway,” he said, “I was alone and traveled for ten days with a tiny English-to-Norwegian dictionary. The sun set at 11:30 p.m. and rose at 4 a.m. while I was there. You slept with blinders on. The light was magnificent. The people are so beautiful. I had many adventures. A friend of mine I went to college with helped me get these photos published in a Norwegian flight magazine along with an article I wrote, too.”

By the time he was 32, he decided to go to graduate school and study documentary film. He attended the Columbia University’s Film Division at The School of the Arts  and experienced an intensive program of film producing, directing, working with actors, and learning the language of cinema. His first student documentary, Butterflies, was a 27-minute film about his family. “I shot it over a 5 day period, then spent the next 6 months editing it in class and with an advisor,” he said, “who happened to be an editor for Woody Allen, a man named Ralph Rosenblum.” To Mr. Kerbs’ surprise, “It was nominated for a student Academy Award. I was floored. It was an exciting time. I thought that would be my ticket to great things! Well, it was and it wasn’t!”

Trying to find his way after film school, he wound up producing marketing and educational videos for the New York Stock Exchange, but after 9/11 everything changed.

Since 2003, Mr. Kerbs has been at CBS News. With this job, he found his calling. To become a successful photographer, one has to have a flexible schedule, considering things may change in a split-second.

“With one phone call, the story could change, as it did when I was on the scene in Newtown just after the shooting,” he said. “I heard in my ear, 26 dead and nearly dropped the phone. But the person telling me that was the senior executive in charge and I knew our gears in our coverage would change in a split second. And, yes, I knew in that moment it was now an international story,” explained Mr. Kerbs.

While in Siberia in minus 25 degrees Farenheit on an oil installation, Ken wears a fur-lined helmut while filming the workers drilling for natural gas.

While in Siberia in minus 25 degrees Farenheit on an oil installation, Ken wears a fur-lined helmut while filming the workers drilling for natural gas.

Another quality a professional photojournalist needs is to be able to multi-task and be adventurous, up to any of the challenges that an assignment may bring. “Growing up in Glen Rock, you are somewhat protected (thank God) from the harsh realities of the world. Work in any medium or large city for a few years and you become almost like an experienced war veteran. I recall my first week in Buffalo when I’m in a rundown neighborhood searching for a murder weapon with the cops. I’m 22. I’m thinking, ‘My mom would kill me if she knew where I was!’”

“Those formative years I would never give up,” he recalls, “I covered a World Series, big football games, little crooked politicians, murder/suicides, homelessness, and marches on Washington. All with very primitive black and white film cameras without motor drives. Today’s digital does help in some ways, but you still have to literally be at the scene.”

Mr. Kerbs strongly believes that if someone loves journalism, story-telling, truth,  and protecting the First Amendment, then being part of The Glen Echo is the way to go. Also, he thinks students should go strong in English, History and Science.  “Even if there are some subjects that are outside your comfort zone, stick with them, sweat them out, seek out people to help you and bounce ideas off of, because it is when you least expect it, a subject will come up that you always say, ‘Gee, I wish I had taken physics, or understood what they were trying to do during the Civil War…’ that will get you out of a pickle!!! Trust me.”

I asked Mr. Kerbs what his fondest memory of Glen Rock High School is. He said, “High School was the place I developed the confidence to do photography as a journalist, a photojournalist. I don’t even think I head that word until I was a junior. As a senior I was yearbook editor. Alan Sponzilli, the art teacher and yearbook advisor whose name you may have heard before, was my mentor. He passed away in 2005 and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, wishing I could tell him of the funny stories I come upon in my travels! If I requested a motor-drive to shoot a galloping horse with my camera, on Monday he’d show up with it on the desk for me to use! Under my senior picture in the ’78 yearbook he secretly added a two words to my surprise: ‘Mr. Squares.’ This was a poke after a huge argument we had as a staff over whether to keep the archaic-looking, OVAL shapes of the senior photos intact; I thought RECTANGLES would appear more modern! They changed it the year after I graduated!”

Mr. Kerbs continued, “Teachers like Mr. Deaett challenged us to think critically about history and politics. The theater performances put on by my classmates were amazing under the direction of Okey Chenoweth. I was below the stage snapping away! My coaches in baseball (Brady, Zaiser, and McDermott) and soccer (Bill Carbone) pushed us and toughened us up. (I was on that 76 Championship soccer team but barely remember!!) And the Glen Echo advisers throughout those years worked as hard as I’m sure Mr. Toncic does with you. The new website, by the way, is awesome and has so many opportunities for multi-media that are very exciting.”

Sometimes it's best to not have a camera around your neck or on your shoulder. Here, Ken leads a bunch of pre-schoolers in Ghana, Africa, in jumping jacks during a break from shooting.

Sometimes it’s best to not have a camera around your neck or on your shoulder. Here, Ken leads a bunch of pre-schoolers in Ghana, Africa, in jumping jacks during a break from shooting.

“So, Glen Rock High is a special place. Parents care. Teachers care. But students carry the ball,” he said, “The administration works hard to keep the standards up. The most troubling thing you learn as your travel around the country and the world, is that most of the problems go straight back to the fact that the poorer communities are not graduating kids from high school, let alone educating them. You hear about equal opportunity, but that’s a myth. You don’t have to travel very far from Harristown Road to find this out. I’ve been on assignments where I had to have police protection in some communities. I’ve seen it in countless schools in my travels in the south, the Midwest, and the schools in and around the tri-state area. It’s shameful. Glen Rock High–the exception.”

“You are so lucky to be there that in the morning when you enter GRHS and close the door behind you, I bet you sense how special it is,” he said, “Don’t leave regretting you should have, could have, would have. Just do it, now!”

[Mr. Kerbs encourages any GRHS student who might consider a career in journalism, photography, film to contact him if you have any questions or ideas you want to share. [email protected]]

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Alumni Special: Ken Kerbs”

  1. anon 2 on March 21st, 2013 10:17 pm

    Very thorough reporting, I’m think it’s so cool that Mr. Kerbs has gotten to see so much of the world…

  2. DStein13 on April 10th, 2013 2:18 pm

    Very cool career path!

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Alumni Special: Ken Kerbs