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Back Story: Cockeysville man captured Gettysburg reunion

Lightner photographed veterans who met for the final reunion of North and South in 1938

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:27 PM EDT, July 11, 2013

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Growing up in Beechfield during the 1930s, James K. Lightner had an interest in photography and history.

That interest led the 11-year-old Lightner and his parents to join the crowds that invaded Gettysburg during the first few days of July 1938.

They went to honor the 2,000 Union and Confederate veterans — their average age was 94 — who traveled in 26 Pullman cars from nearly every state in the Union (only Rhode Island went unrepresented) to stand on hallowed ground one more time to mark the 75th anniversary of the historic battle.

It was to be the final reunion of the Gettysburg foes.

Rather than sleeping aboard the comfortable Pullmans that brought them there, the veterans slept and ate in two canvas tent cities, one for the Union, marked by a pole from which an American flag waved, while the Stars and Bars waved over the encampment of the Confederacy.

Lightner, who with his wife of 56 years, Thelma, owns the commercial firm Lightner Photography, recalled the journey.

"We drove up there — no interstates in those days — up York Road. It seemed to take a long time," he said. "I remember the weather was very hot and hazy, but being there meant so much to me.

"It was a real thrill for me. I remember the veterans — they were all elderly — sitting around on camp stools. Some were in wheelchairs, while others were signing autographs. Many were wearing heavy woolen uniforms in that terrible heat."

As he sat talking at his Cockeysville home, Lightner was fingering the small black Bakelite Art Deco-styled Eastman Kodak Bullet Camera that he used that day to take pictures of the veterans.

"I probably got it in 1938, and it still works," he said, while showing how the camera functioned.

Lightner, who was somewhat shy in those days, described his picture-taking technique.

"I was not pushy with the camera, and I was able to sneak up and get my pictures. I was also kind of stingy when it came to taking pictures. After all, I had frugal parents," he said.

"I only had one roll of film, which was 129-size film, so I only took two pictures. Verichrome film was expensive in those days," said Lightner.

He carefully removed the two negatives from an envelope and showed them to a visitor.

"They are still in very good shape," he said. "This morning, I put them on the scanner and pulled off two copies. A good negative is a heck of a good thing."

Lightner remembers the days when it wasn't easy pursuing photography.

"Today, anyone, including a 5-year-old, can be a good photographer, but back in those days, I did my own developing," he said. "I had to go to the basement at night, turn off all the lights, put a roll of film in the tray of chemicals, and rock it back and forth for 10 minutes while standing in the pitch black."

He recalled a piece of advice he received from a boss when he worked at Blakeslee-Lane Inc., the old Mount Vernon photo lab.

"He said, 'If you can't get it taken in one, then you can't get it in two,' " recalled Lightner with a laugh. "He was our money man and watched how we used film."

A 1945 graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington, he served in the Navy during the waning days of World War II.

"They sent me to radio school, and when I got on a ship, there was a photo darkroom and no one knew what to do, so rather than working in radio, I was in charge of taking all of the ship's pictures. I really lucked out," he said.

After the war, he entered what is now Loyola University Maryland and graduated in 1949.

Photography led him to his future wife.

"My cousin was getting married who had gone to Loyola with Jim, who had been hired to take the photographs," said Thelma Lightner, a native of Oxford, Pa. "Three months later, he called me for a date."

The couple raised five children. They have six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Lightner, who is still working, said he visits Gettysburg at least once a year.

"For me, Gettysburg has always had a certain aura," he said. "It is a special place."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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