Dave Lawrence, Nick Liberante and Trip Wells

Dave Lawrence, Nick Liberante and Trip Wells considered themselves the three amigos. Liberante, a longtime teacher at Patrick Henry High School, well-known Ashland photographer, and Richmond Suburban News freelance photojournalist died last Wednesday.

(Editor’s note: The following is a personal tribute to Nick Liberante, who joined the Richmond Suburban News family in 2016 as a freelance photojournalist. Our prayers and condolences are with Nick’s family.Complete obituary.)

When I first met Nick Liberante in 2009, he was my competitor. He was a photographer for the Herald-Progress and I was a reporter and photographer for the Mechanicsville Local. Before long, he became my friend, and, in 2016, he switched from being my competitor to one of our contracted photojournalists.

The most important of those roles was being my friend.

And my friend – a long-time presence in Hanover County as a husband, father, grandfather, journalist and teacher at Patrick Henry High School – yielded to an intransigent cancer last Wednesday afternoon. He was 70.

In 2014, a year after I became sports editor of The Local, I jokingly wrote that Nick – then still a competitor – was a pain in my depth of field. He certainly had a knack of finding himself between me and whomever I was trying to shoot, but I could not find fault with that. In the heat of battle, photographers do what they have to do to get their best shot, and, more often than not, Nick got the best.

When the Herald-Progress relieved themselves of his services, I gladly brought him onboard. He never disappointed me or Managing Editor Melody Kinser, shooting sports, news, and feature photos – including a spectacular snow scene from December that we submitted to the Virginia Press Association news contest earlier this year.

That shot has the look of a painting. It was taken at the Ashland train station. The sky is dark, and the streets and sidewalks are covered in several inches of snow. A woman walks her dog past a stopped train. Snowflakes emerge from the darkness, reflecting the light of the lamps decorated for the Christmas season. Despite the visible flourishes of a festive atmosphere, the mood that emerges is one of silence and solitude.

Nicholas Liberante was much more than a photographer. Born in Syracuse, New York, on Jan. 16, 1949, to Al and Elizabeth Liberante, he came to Virginia in 1977, taking a job in August of that year teaching English at Patrick Henry High School. It was a job he held until he retired in June 2013. Most of that time, he advised some combination of the school’s newspaper, yearbook, and photography programs.

His interest in photography intensified during his time at Patrick Henry. He was mentored by Wilton Tenney, a biology professor at the University of Richmond, whose wife, Eleanor, taught with Nick at Patrick Henry. Mr. Tenney took photos of students and their activities, giving them away to the school and the families of his subjects. He mentored promising photographers such as Nick, as well as two other Local freelancers, Joel Klein and Jim Ridolphi.

Nick continued Mr. Tenney’s legacy, helping families with photos of their children and mentoring other aspiring photographers, such as Scott Jackson, a former student of Nick’s at Patrick Henry.

“He’d send me photographs. I’d send him photographs,” Jackson said. “I kept every one he sent me. It was probably 70 or 80 over the years that he liked and I liked, and we would talk shop. We did that on and off for years. … I always considered Liberante kind of a mentor and a really good friend. I loved talking photography with him.”

Nick’s and my shared love of literature drew us together as we got to know each other on the sidelines. We both loved the written word, but not always the same examples of it. For example, our scorecards were both “Yes!” on Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”; I gagged my way through J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”, which he loved; and he couldn’t get into Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, which I loved. On some things, we would have to agree to disagree. Oftentimes, the topics on which we disagreed produced the most interesting – enlightening – discussions.

That love of literature fueled his education – a master’s degree in English literature from Canisius College in 1976 – as well as his teaching career.

Nick the teacher has left quite a legacy, including his former student and our colleague Rob Witham, who worked with Nick at the Herald-Progress until it folded and who now writes for Richmond Suburban News. Both Witham and Jackson said Nick had a reputation that could strike fear into the heart of any would-be slacker.

“I had heard the stories about how notorious his classes were and how people didn’t get A’s. He was going to challenge you in ways that you had never been challenged before,” Witham said of his first class with Nick, in English as a junior at Patrick Henry. “I still remember the day: first day of school, August 29, 1983. I can’t remember the number, but it was in B Building, down the breezeway and into the classroom I go. Assigned seats alphabetically, so I’m at the top of the final row, which is right at his desk. I’m like, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”

Witham was not much of a reader at the time. But he was so inspired by Nick’s English class that he took Nick’s advanced novel class in his senior year. He got a C in the class – his only C in high school – but he said he would not have changed that experience for anything.

“It didn’t take me long to understand that while his reputation for being tough was certainly true and warranted, that, No. 1, I was listening to who would be one of the most intelligent human beings I would ever know,” Witham said. “He would be on my Mount Rushmore of intelligence. He never flaunted it. He never came across as someone who knew it all – though he practically did. So I began to understand him in that way and began to soak it in like a sponge.”

Nick’s photographic eye fed his critical eye as a teacher. Instead of a visual image, he took care to give the students detailed feedback, usually in the form of red ink on returned assignments.

“He had the uncanny ability to take you into the moment in-between, where there are two people whose lives at that moment, what they’re doing, are hanging in the balance and they’re waiting. You could see a thousand words in their faces,” Witham said. “And that’s exactly how he taught. He always looked for the things that other people could not see, so that you could understand how to think in a new way, in a different way, in a more critical way. …

“The first paper you get back, you’re scared to death of the red pen. The red ink is like, ‘Oh God!’ The more you see, the worse you think it’s going to be. By second semester, you’re craving red ink, because, even if you don’t get the grade that you want, you’re getting all of this incredible feedback that, if you’re smart enough, you use to apply and get better next time.”

Despite the workload, despite the red ink, Nick inspired loyalty among his students.

“The last person I wanted to disappoint was him,” Jackson said. “He connected with his students – all of them. … He kind of approached a trust with you that was reciprocated. The trust went both ways.”

His teaching style – strict, yet gentle – applied to his parenting style, said his daughter, Laura Liberante Hosaflook. One of the better examples of that involved her brother, Paul.

Trip Wells, who subsequently became one of Nick’s best friends, first encountered Nick shortly after he and Nick’s son, an intern at Channel 36 at the time, created the long-running sports show, “The Score,” which was broadcast by Hanover County Public Schools – first on Channel 36 and later on TV99.

“We had been doing [the show] for a couple of months,” Wells said. “I think it was November when I got this email from Nick – I didn’t know who he was – and it was entitled, ‘About Paul.’ It basically went into that I needed to do a better job of telling Paul to fix his hair before going on-air, and tuck his shirt in and be more professional on-air.

“And then he got into the journalistic side: Make sure that Paul understands the sporting events and the things that he’s going to be saying on-air, not just babbling about things. He wanted his son to come off as professional and clean on-air. That’s the first communication I had, and I was thinking, ‘Who’s this parent trying to micromanage this whole situation?’ ”

But they stayed in touch, Nick became a fan of the show in addition to a devoted father.

Trip and Nick met in person a few months after that initial email at a basketball game – at Patrick Henry, appropriately – and the friendship grew. Nick became something of a surrogate father for Trip, whose actual father had died of cancer. Nick roped Wells into mountain biking – they often took annual bike trips together to places like the Greenbrier Trail in West Virginia – and they frequently hiked together in area parks, shared an interest in yoga, and went on sushi “man-dates” together, where Nick would get the Ninja vs. Samurai special.

It’s safe to say Nick was multi-faceted. The man who loved literature turned me onto Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” – not much of a reach for a man proud of his past union memberships, which includes the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters. Nick paid his way through college as a truck driver, and applied those same driving skills in the National Guard from 1970 to 1976, from which he earned an honorable discharge.

As devoted as he was to his students and friends, Nick was more devoted to his family. He gave his wife, Dr. Christine Privitera, whom he married on Aug. 12, 1978, what he called the “Princess Treatment.” He cooked. He did the laundry. He cleaned house – and did an excellent job of that as I can attest. He drove her to and from her pediatric practice when the weather turned foul. One of his specialties was his own pizzas, which he prepared every Sunday – and that he often sent Wells photos of as if they were his prized children.

Of all the roles that Nick played in life – of all of what his son called the “universes” he created just for each of the special people in is life – I think his favorite role was as grandfather, or “Blib-Blib,” to Rose, 12, and Caleb, 9. There were days, usually Saturdays, when I would ask him if he could take an assignment, but he said no because he was on granddad duty.

And that was all right with me. Rest in peace, Nick. You are missed.

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