On a summer break, a high school teacher and drama coach from Georgia named Ed Rich signed up for a temporary job as a clerk typist at Smithsonian. Temporary? Now, a quarter of a century later, Rich is retiring as the magazine’s art director.
As it happened, that first summer Rich’s desk was near the layout table, where founding editor Ed Thompson and picture editor Caroline Despard would hash out layouts, sessions inevitably accompanied by shouting matches, occasional tantrums and the editor’s sotto voce mutterings. Rich was bemused by all the goings-on, and when a staff opening came up in the picture department, he jumped at it. Says Despard: "He was that miraculous combination: someone both reliable and amusing."
Though he was paid to select photographs for the magazine, his real job was smoothing ruffled feathers, coaxing photographers to meet impossible deadlines—and keeping staffers laughing. He kept a supersize bottle of Rolaids in his metal desk, and whenever anyone came to him with a particularly vexing problem, he would clutch his stomach and moan, "You’re killing me. You’re killing me." Then he would bang around in his desk drawer for the Rolaids bottle and pop one in his mouth. "Now, what’s the problem?" he’d ask.
Or, for no discernible reason, he might suddenly belt out, "I like to be in A-mer-i-ca! OK by me in A-mer-i-ca ..." from West Side Story or, à la Barbra Streisand, "People, people who need people ..."
Rich would sit for hours at his light table winnowing a take of 1,500 or so images to come up with the perfect 7 or 8 to illustrate a story. To Rich, pictures are musical notes. Choose the right ones and you create a symphony. The only thing he loves more than photographs are the talented people who make them. Recently he wrote a letter to the magazine’s photographers, informing them of his decision to retire to his Virginia farm, which he has been fixing up for years. "Every day was a bit like Christmas, opening your FedEx packages and marveling at what you had created," he said in the letter. "I felt so privileged to know you and to get to use your beautiful images."
"His discerning eye, unfaltering judgment and taste have had an enormous impact on the magazine," says former editor Don Moser, who appointed Rich art director two years ago. "He brings in pictures that are not only visually strong but tell a story." Good luck, Ed, and thanks for the symphonies.