SALISBURY — Back in the early 1960s, John Daniels played three years of varsity tennis at Livingstone College.
He practiced hard every summer, and by the end of his career, Daniels improved from the sixth-best man on the squad to the third.
But if you go through the sports archives at Livingstone, yearbooks or even Daniels’ personal files, you won’t find any photographs of him playing tennis at the college.
No one had ever taken his picture on the courts, though he put in hundreds of hours.
Daniels never forgot this oversight, and it fueled his passion for making sure it didn’t happen again to athletes at Livingstone.
That’s why, over the past decade or so, you may have seen Daniels, now 70, at most every Livingstone College sporting event.
He was there on the football sidelines, underneath the basket, in the bleachers, along the fence, off the fairways and in the middle of the track with his trusty Canon camera documenting Livingstone’s sports.
“I just learned to absolutely love it,” Daniels says.
And he did it mostly at his own expense.
Daniels took team pictures and other photographs for school publications, but more important he captured individuals competing. It became his personal tradition on senior award nights to present Livingstone athletes with their own portfolios — framed photos and many other images he caught of them in action over their careers.
“I made a lot of prints,” Daniels says, looking back, “because I want the kids to have hard evidence of what they did in college.”
Bianca Warren, sports information director at Livingstone, said the student athletes appreciate Daniels’ selfless efforts on their behalf.
“He would take pictures of every student athlete, not just the headliners,” Warren says. “... I think they will forever have a piece of Mr. Daniels to take with them, not just Livingstone.”
Looking at his retirement finances, Daniels decided last year to scale back his role as the unofficial sports photographer for his alma mater. There also were physical considerations, though he’s in good shape and a weekly golfer.
“I’m getting old, and I don’t get out of the way of the players as I used to,” Daniels says.
Still, Daniels emerged from “retirement” to document Livingstone’s basketball team’s appearances this year in the CIAA and NCAA Division II tournaments.
And, of course, he has photographs he has been saving for this year’s senior athletes.
• • •
Daniels grew up in New Bern as one of 10 children. His father was the first black postal carrier in Havelock.
When he was 12, Daniels spent a summer in New York City with an older brother, but otherwise his life centered on eastern North Carolina.
He caddied sometimes at the New Bern Country Club. He also worked at the U.S. Marine Corps commissary at Cherry Point.
Daniels performed well in school — salutatorian at J.T. Barber High School in New Bern. Shaw University offered him a four-year academic scholarship, but he decided to work a year instead.
Meanwhile, a friend of his, Bill Shepherd, had gone to Livingstone College in Salisbury and encouraged Daniels to enroll there in 1961. Daniels remembers writing a letter to the Livingstone registrar, Julia B. Duncan, sister of Livingstone President Sam Duncan, to gain admission.
Daniels majored in chemistry and lived with other freshmen in Dodge Hall. He eventually received an academic scholarship, made the dean’s list all four years and was in the top five of his class.
“Basically,” Daniels says of his college days, “I had a great time.”
In those days, Livingstone and Catawba colleges had an “exchange program” allowing Daniels to take some chemistry classes on the Catawba College campus with Dr. Wendell Detty.
• • •
As a freshman, Daniels ran the mile for the track team, but it also was the year he was introduced to tennis. He bought a racket and balls and practiced day after day, hitting against a wall.
As a sophomore, he made the tennis team as the No. 6 singles player. He said the squad, coached by Grady Nelson, was the best dressed, best equipped tennis team in the CIAA.
“It was a great time. I totally enjoyed it,” Daniels said.
Tennis would become a longtime passion. Daniels played regularly into his late 40s. In the 1970s and 1980s, he joined David Butler Jr., Vicki Rice and Jimmy McCullough in running summer tennis camps at Livingstone.
And in 2010, he filled in for Livingstone as the women’s tennis coach. He describes that season as fun, yet taxing, because he wanted to run a good tennis program while still squeezing in all of his sports photography assignments.
• • •
Daniels married a college sweetheart, the former Betty Cross, and wanting to be an industrial chemist, he took off for a job with International Harvester in Indianapolis, Ind.
He says he landed “the most boring job in the history of chemistry.”
Every half-hour he would run an analysis of the silica level in iron. After a year, he entered the company’s management training program and was retrained in metallurgy, going through various forms of continuing education and certifications.
Daniels eventually started graduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, earning a master’s degree in production management and becoming a Hoosiers basketball fan along the way.
Daniels blames the hay fever he continually suffered in central Indiana for leading him back to North Carolina and a job with Fiber Industries in 1972. It began an almost 32-year career at the plant in Salisbury, where he served in various engineering roles, as a production and warehouse superintendent and senior quality assurance engineer.
He and Betty had two children, son Marcus and daughter Melissa.
Betty died of cancer in 1991, and John married Arnethia Alexander about a year later. The couple are coming up on their 21st anniversary.
In July 2003, John, dealing with a heart condition, underwent bypass surgery, but his passion for photography kept him active.
• • •
Daniels bought his first camera in the early 1980s. Teaching himself by trial and error, he began shooting weddings on the side and also found himself taking the camera to football and basketball games at Livingstone.
“I started shooting,” he says.
While most of his initial sports photography was shot from the stands, by the mid 1990s, Daniels began shooting regularly at Livingstone sporting events from the sidelines. He attended his first CIAA basketball tournament as a photographer in 1995 or 1996, he says.
On his own dime and time, Daniels became the school’s “sports photographer” after his retirement from Fiber and his bypass surgery.
“He does it because he really loves his alma mater,” says Laurie D. Willis, assistant director of public relations, for Livingstone, “and he has a real fondness for the kids. He’s always encouraging when he interacts with students on campus.”
Warren, the sports information director, actually met Daniels when she worked at other schools, including St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., and Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Warren noticed Daniels taking pictures for Livingstone and asked if he might be willing to share anything he happened to have of her visiting team.
“I expected just a couple of shots,” Warren says, “but I would get a package and a ton of pictures to choose from.”
Warren has now been at Livingstone for nine months.
“I think he’s at more events than I am,” Warren laughs. “He still has been very helpful. I know I can still call him, and he will be right there.”
Daniels says former SID Adrian Ferguson insisted in 2009 that he finally start accepting a honorarium for all of his work. It turned out to be $900 a year.
“In his 60s,” amateur photographer and friend David Willingham says, “he was keeping a schedule like a 20-year-old Marine. He just amazed me.”
At his house, Daniels has so many images on film and disc that he could be considered a sports library for Livingstone. When former athletes are being inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, Daniels is the guy who usually can find photographs from their playing days.
“I think he played a very instrumental role in athletics through his photography,” Warren says.
• • •
Daniels isn’t one to brag, but he caught some impressive images through the years.
“I think I got better as a sports photographer,” he says.
He considers a javelin throw by Bryan Aycoth as one of his best.
“You could see the explosion of rosin off his hand,” Daniels says.
Several of his stronger photographs adorn the walls at Trent Gymnasium. “Pretty much everything you see hanging on the walls out there is him,” Willingham adds.
Daniels thinks he will return to shooting a few weddings and the occasional sporting event for Livingstone, when he’s needed.
Otherwise, he would like to start transferring his camera bodies and lenses to a grandson, now a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Daniels looks back at his days at Livingstone — as a student, coach, fan and sports photographer — as some of his best.
“I guess I came along at the right time for a lot of things,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or email@example.com.