OAKLAND — As a little girl, Margo Ann Leavitt Pullen used to look through her parents’ photo albums kept in a bottom drawer of a bedroom dresser.

“The only ones that really appealed to me were like this one here,” said Pullen, motioning to a photo of a young Japanese girl in traditional dress now hanging on the wall of the Oakland Public Library. “I couldn’t really relate to a lot of the other ones. It was a culture I wasn’t familiar with, and planes didn’t really interest me. But we knew these photos were important to my dad, so we always looked at them very carefully.”

She didn’t think much of the photos until 2012, when her father, Galen Leavitt, died and Pullen and her three sisters found 150 color slides they had never seen in a safety deposit box along with about 350 photographs, including many from Leavitt’s time as a photographer in the Korean War.

It was a surprise to Pullen, who said her only memories of her father taking photographs during her childhood involved grocery displays he arranged in his job as a food salesman for a wholesale food company.

“I wish at some point he had said, ‘OK, next Monday night you’re going to come over and we’re going to talk about these photos,'” said Pullen, 51, an English teacher at Lawrence High School in Fairfield. “But for a man raising a family, it wasn’t a priority. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and then of course when he retired, I was raising my own family, and it never became a priority.”

Today, more than 60 years have passed since Leavitt, a 1951 graduate of Waterville Senior High School, was deployed to Japan and South Korea. His youngest daughter has curated an exhibit of his photos for a display that she hopes will travel around the state. “My Dad’s Perspective: Preserving Beauty Amid War” was on display earlier this month at the Lajos Matolcsy Arts Center in Norway and on Tuesday arrived at the Oakland Public Library. An opening reception is scheduled to take place from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the library.


Leavitt joined the Air Force after high school and spent six weeks training as a lithographic photographer whose primary job was to take photos for use in printing maps. He was 18 when he first arrived in Tachikawa, Japan, according to his daughter, and spent 26 months from 1952 to 1954 traveling in Japan and South Korea during the Korean War.

His job also included documenting plane crashes for the military and for use in news films, but his collection of photos also documents the life and work of the people in the area, something his daughter says highlights his search for normalcy and humanity amid the war.

The exhibit — which Pullen and her friend Ben Tucker spent Tuesday arranging on the upstairs floor of the library — begins with a series of pictures of Leavitt in uniform with other Air Force airmen in his office in Tachikawa, surrounded by photos and setting up a camera on a tripod, and one of Leavitt lying in a trench with a buddy.

It also includes a photo of him with Marilyn Monroe, who in 1954 traveled to Korea to entertain American troops. Pullen said her father was Monroe’s personal photographer as she traveled on planes across Korea, and a photo shows the pair engaged in a spirited conversation. The title is “Galen Enchanted With Marilyn Monroe.”

There are several photos of paratroopers landing in Korea, airmen packed tightly into Air Force planes, and planes photographed from the air or as they are being worked on. But there are also photos of the people of Korea and Japan working on fishing boats and farms and carrying their belongings and livelihoods around amid the rubble and ruin of war.

The stories behind the pictures are mostly a mystery to Pullen, who said that her father never talked about them. After retirement, Leavitt started to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and Pullen said her family was not inclined to ask him about the war as a result.


“He never really got well, even with medication, and so no, I never got the story,” she said. “He would get very agitated, and we respected that he didn’t want to talk about the war.”

Looking at her father’s work hasn’t inspired Pullen to pick up a camera, but she said she has taken more of an interest in art since rediscovering her father’s work. “I feel like I notice beauty more in art. It’s something that I’m suddenly more curious about, and I hope this exhibit can be an invitation for others to do the same,” she said.

It is also the first show of its kind at the Oakland Public Library, said head librarian Sarah Roy, who said Pullen approached her several months ago about housing the exhibit, which will run until Nov. 7 during library hours and is free to the public.

The library was concerned about damaging the walls of the building in the process of hanging and taking down the exhibit, but Roy said when she saw the photographs, she agreed to host the exhibit.

“We’ve already had people come in and ask about it, and we’re expecting quite a few people to come in tomorrow,” Roy said Tuesday. “When she showed me the portfolio, I remember thinking that it really was amazing. It just sparked our interest.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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