John Metzger -The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat

John Metzger, The Press Democrat's nationally acclaimed director of photography, suffered a heart attack and died Wednesday while enjoying a much-anticipated family reunion in Hawaii.

Metzger, 56, and his wife, Becca, were on Oahu visiting the elder of their two sons, John Jr., an Army specialist who only recently returned to American soil after serving a year in Afghanistan.

Metzger was savoring being with his son, his daughter-in-law and his 15-month-old grandson, Wyatt, when he was bothered by chest pains Monday. His wife said they went to a hospital emergency room in Honolulu, where Metzger was examined and released to resume his vacation.

At about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Becca awoke to find her husband sitting on the floor of their hotel room, gasping for breath before collapsing. Paramedics were unable to revive him.

Shocked colleagues and former employees called the quiet, passionate Metzger a standout among American newspaper photo editors, a man powerfully impressed by the ability of a good picture to tell a story that illuminates what it means to be human.

He won seven regional Photographer of the Year awards before becoming a photo editor and a mentor to younger photographers at a series of newspapers, including the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune, Biddeford (Maine) Journal Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press/Dispatch.

Metzger joined The Press Democrat as director of photography in 1993. Among his charges was staff photographer Annie Wells, whose photos of Santa Rosa firefighters' rescue of a girl caught in a raging creek in 1996 won a Pulitzer Prize. Wells, now a photographer with the Los Angeles Times, said Wednesday, "No one I've worked with had the vision of what a photographer brings to the table that John did.

"Had I not worked with him, I wouldn't be half the photographer I am today," she said.

Catherine Barnett, The Press Democrat's executive editor, said, "John was the consummate picture editor who insisted on a first-rate visual report for this newspaper.

"He directed an award-winning staff with nuanced coaching that coaxed a particular talent from each photographer. His love for journalism is eclipsed only by his deep commitment to his family and his profound pride in his sons."

When Metzger and his wife traveled from their home in Healdsburg to Honolulu last Saturday they hadn't seen their soldier son for more than a year. Metzger was overjoyed to be reunited with John Jr., 21, who recently returned from Afghanistan to Oahu's Schofield Barracks with the Army's 25th Infantry Division.

"At least I got to spend four days with him," John Jr. said by phone from Honolulu.

Becca Metzger said her husband was in bliss as they spent part of Saturday and most of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with John Jr., his wife, Sara, and their toddler son - John and Becca's only grandchild.

Becca Metzger said it is consoling that her husband, who was intensely proud of both of their sons, lived to share those days with John Jr. in Hawaii. And only hours before he was stricken, Metzger had shared a joyful moment by phone with younger son Colin, a 19-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College soccer player who'd told his dad he'd scored the JC's only goal against the semipro Sonoma County Sol.

"I think he was at peace," Becca said of her husband. "I know he was at peace."

Becca met her husband in 1973, when they were working together on a story for National Geographic. At the time, Metzger was studying journalism at the University of Alaska.

Becca said she immediately was impressed, and she remained impressed, by how he loved to shoot pictures of people, pictures that inspired and delighted and informed the readers of a community newspaper.

Early in his career, Metzger became photo editor and mentor to a small staff of photographers at the Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal. One of his charges, Mark Damon, now interim director of photography at the San Jose Mercury News, said Metzger's brilliance and love of community photojournalism turned the Journal into one of the strongest picture newspapers in the nation.

"He loved having the opportunity to get out into the world and let people tell their own stories through him. He saw that as the highest calling of a journalist," Damon said. "John taught me how to be a journalist with a camera," he said. He said Metzger infected many younger photojournalists with the passion for using a camera and a learned eye for "documenting lives in our place and our time, and sharing bits of those lives with anyone who got a chance to see the pictures."

In addition to his wife, sons, daughter-in-law and grandson, Metzger is survived by his parents, John and Evelyn Metzger of Fairport, N.Y.

Services are to be held in Hawaii. Becca Metzger said she expects to have her husband's remains inurned in Hawaii. She said the family will fulfill a wish by Metzger to have ashes scattered in the Adirondacks, not far from where he grew up in upstate New York.

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From Press Democrat reports.

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