DECATUR – Phil Jacobs Sr.'s license plate read “AP News.”
That puzzled Kelly Huff at first.
“The first time I saw him, and it, here comes this guy walking up the steps, and I thought, 'What's AP news doing here?'” said Huff, former chief photographer for the Herald & Review, referring to The Associated Press news service. “He was a wealth of knowledge of photography and life. He never met a stranger, and he'd go out of his way for his friends.”
Jacobs died in the early hours of Tuesday as the result of injuries in a car crash on Labor Day, Sept. 4, at the intersection of West Andrews and U.S. 51 in Macon. He was 80. His wife, Norma Jean, was also injured in the accident and is recovering.
Jacobs' son, Phil Jr., said the family is grateful for the outpouring of love and support they're receiving.
“I even had a call from New York this morning,” he said. “A childhood friend remembers how Dad and I had come there (when her mother died 24 years ago) and how important it was to her. It was a special moment in her life that helped her cope. Something that was so touching to me that it's still a key thing she thinks about when she thinks of her mother, that stands out, that Dad was there and comforting her.”
As a writer and a newsman, the elder Jacobs had a dream fulfilled last month when a letter he wrote was published in The New Yorker magazine, his son said, and that was a proud moment for him.
“People are reaching out from all over the country right now with stories about how Dad was just a friend to everybody,” he said. “He never knew an enemy. He wrote a love note to his wife every morning.”
Though Jacobs Sr. had a keen nose for news and worked as a writer and photographer for the H&R, he did not work for The Associated Press, as Huff later learned. Jacobs simply admired the news service and the news business. He often wrote Prairie Talk columns for the H&R prior to his employments as a part-time writer and photographer, and continued to provide the occasional travel or human-interest piece even after his retirement in 2005.
Huff remembers him mostly as the kind of staunch friend you could count on in a crisis.
“A perfect example is when my son Jacob had a brain tumor, he and Norma Jean were there for us," Huff said. “I will cherish their friendship forever because of that and other things.”
Huff's son recovered and is doing well now and living in Georgia, where the family relocated several years ago.
Jacobs not only had an abiding interest in writing and photography, he was alert to any possibility of getting the story or the photo. In 1995, when 3-year-old Sara Kramer was missing and the subject of a far-ranging search, Jacobs was driving past Wyckles Road bridge and saw activity. He wasn't working that day, but he had his camera with him, and he stopped and captured the first news photo of the discovery of the child's body. A fisherman found her and alerted authorities.
Jan Touney, a former Herald & Review associate editor who left the paper in 2003 to become the managing editor of the Quad-City Times, said Jacobs was kind and very smart about good questions to ask sources, a skill he gained through his private investigator background.
"There were so many dimensions to Phil – his love of capturing people and places through words and photos, his love for his beautiful spot on the lake in Pana, but most of all his love for his sweetheart, Norma Jean," she said. "The two of them exemplified love like few couples I’ve known."
Touney said Jacobs had kept in touch and just a few weeks ago had written to tell her about the letter in The New Yorker and a subsequent reply he had received. In June, he wrote her a note recalling their work together at the Herald & Review and, as he put it, “the time that the computer liked my story so well that it ate it and I had to rewrite it.”
"In true Phil Jacobs form, he didn’t pout and start cursing at the computer. He sat down and re-created the story," she said. "A true gentleman and someone I feel privileged to have called my friend."
Mike Frazier of Shelbyville worked at the H&R as a reporter before leaving for law school.
“He was always kind and encouraging to me as a cub reporter,” Frazier said. “ I learned to give better interviews listening to his (private investigator) stories. He also took time to share his love of photography. I rode shotgun with him to several breaking stories. He could get there very quickly, sometimes before the police arrived.”
Jacobs had worked as a private investigator for years before retirement, but his love of the news and photography led him to his post-retirement job at the H&R. When he eventually retired from that, too, he and his “bride,” as he often called his wife, spent time at their home in rural Pana, eating out, and doting on their family.
“It's just a horrible loss. Phil was such a great guy,” said Theresa Churchill, a retired Herald & Review staff writer and friend of Jacobs. “I have always had an interest in photography, and he's the one who recommended the first SLR camera I bought. He gave me so much good advice. He was the kind of friend you could go to for help and confide something in him and know it wouldn't go anywhere else.”
She remembers filling out paperwork to request photos of her assignments and turning it in to the photo department while Jacobs was on duty. He was always pleased to see it, and he wasn't pretending. He really did love his work.
“I'm not sure he actually rubbed his hands together,” she recalled with a chuckle, “but he'd always say, 'Oh, good, more job security.'”