We have all lost a great photographer and an amazing human being with the passing of Reuters freelancer Mike Cassese on Thursday December 27, 2012. Fred Thornhill, one of Mike’s closest friends, gave this speech at his funeral:
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m “Whitebread” Fred. Mike called me that. You see, I’m a Greek boy and, well, Mike was okay with that. But from the time we met, some 25 years ago, we always had one thing in common – the love of bread. Drive anywhere in the city of Toronto with Mike and he could tell you, “there, that place has good bread.”
We were all colleagues at first but soon we all became good friends and, eventually, the best of friends. He was a brother to so many of us and as important as any family member. Like so many of us, my heart was broken on Thursday, December 27, 2012. We would have done anything for Mike.
As a photographer, I can tell you Mike was the consummate professional. He won two National Newspaper Awards – the highest honour a photojournalist can receive in Canada. But it was not just those awards that set the standard of Mike’s work. It was the pictures before, after, and in-between.
Mike worked tirelessly for the Toronto Sun and, for the past ten years, for Reuters News Service. His work ethic was exceptional and the integrity he brought to his job was unprecedented. Day in, day out, at over 50 years of age, Mike could bring it!
For you 30-something photographers who I know are in the church today, the benchmark of achievement is simply put: Mike.
To Mike’s family: whether you are an aunt, a nephew or a sister, or if his [late] grandfather Michael (whom he was named after) or his [late] parents, Antonia and Giuseppe, are listening, you should all be very proud of Mike’s accomplishments. He set the standard for excellence and not just with his photographs. There is not an individual in our business who did not respect, admire and care for Mike as a person. It was indeed the hallmark of his career.
Without expectation of fanfare or applause, Mike plodded through his career meeting Prime Ministers and movie stars, bankers and variety store owners, with only two expectations on his part: respect and sincerity. And really, all said and done, I think that was Mike, the most sincere and respectable human being you could ever ask to meet.
Mike was the consummate father. Understand that above all else in life, Mike was a father first. He lived for [his sons] Daniel and David.
Daniel: Your father’s passion for the game of golf was exceeded only by the joy of being on a golf course with you. Give him the choice of going to Augusta or golfing with you and he would choose you every time. Remember fondly the time in Florida last year, golfing with your dad. I can tell you it meant the world to him.
David: Along with golf there is one other thing your father loved more than anything else. Going fishing with you. Sitting up there on the bow of the tin boat with you, without a doubt he was king of the world.
And [Mike's sister] Mary, all these years, I kept his secret and never let him fall in the water.
Remember the huge muskie, David? It was like “Jaws” on your dad’s line before it dove under. We couldn’t believe it and then we laughed and laughed. Those were precious moments. I know your father valued them more than anything and so should you.
Mike Cassese fishing near the city of Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, on 28 September 2011. (Photo Fred Thornhill)
Mike was the consummate brother. He loved you very much, Mary. How do I know this? Because he told me.
As we all know, Mike didn’t talk much but when he did, he often spoke volumes. When your mother passed away, Mike and I spoke about her illness and her passing. And as much as he spoke about her, he spoke about you. I knew you long before we ever met, Mary. He spoke with so much respect for you, his sister.
We all knew and respected the effort and time Mike put into his work. But in his own words, what time he had was for Daniel and David.
For us, Mike was the consummate friend. Always, always there when you needed him and there when you didn’t. Always there to assist with any crisis, steady advice or steady hands.
When our washing machine broke, Mike figured it out and ordered the part – crisis averted. When I was trying to figure out how to water the lawn without running the well dry, Mike pulled an old pump from the shed, went to the hardware store for some fittings, ran a hose into the lake and presto! A lawn sprinkling system.
Even in the darkest hours, Mike was always there.
When my wife was ill with cancer, it was Mike who came to the lake and made her feel better. He made her feel well, when she was not well, in a way that I never could.
Last winter, I was thinking of taking up golf. My wife looked at me and said, “Sure. Good luck with that.” She paused and then asked, “Why now?”
I told her Mike loves to golf. He golfs with Hans [Deryk] and Nathan [Denette] and Stan [Behal] and Rick [Eglinton] and Frank [Gunn], and if I want to spend more time with Mike, I need to golf.
Maybe she whispered in his ear, I don’t know. But in the spring, Mike showed up at the lake, around my birthday, with an extra set of clubs.
“C’mon Whitebread,” he said. “These are yours. Let’s go golfing.” That was Mike.
I don’t suppose most of you know that he wasn’t just one of the best photographers in the country. He was one of the best golfers, too. Ask our pal Hans about Mike’s hole-in-one on an obscure little golf course in the Carolinas. Just the two of them jumping up and down, screaming like children at Mikey’s miraculous feat.
So I took up golf this past summer under Mike’s tutelage and he was very patient. And yes, I was very terrible. But he didn’t mind.
We all adored him. His family adored him. How could you not? Geez, even our dog liked Mike and our dog doesn’t like anyone.
When you broke the news to me Thursday, Mary, I called Peter Jones, our companion and Reuters Editor-in-Charge for Canada. We both agreed that he should advise [Reuters photographer] Mark Blinch and Canadian Press photographer Nathan Denette, both close friends of Mike, who are in Russia covering the World Junior Hockey Championships. We did not want them to hear such devastating news through social media.
During the first game they had to cover that night, those two boys just held each other and wept uncontrollably between periods, their grief overwhelming. Apparently, the Russian officials thought it was a rather odd display of emotion coming from these two Canadians in the first game of the tournament with Canada beating Germany soundly 9 to 1. A poignant story Mike would have laughed soundly at.
God, how we loved to laugh with him.
Nathan Denette (L) and Mike Cassese at a Toronto Raptors game on 14 December 2012. (Photo Ron Turenne)
Since his passing Thursday, there have been hundreds of emails. I’m sure everyone’s Blackberry has been lit up like a Christmas tree since Thursday afternoon. So many people, so wanting to express their grief. His loss truly resonated around the world. What a wonderful testament to a great man and great friend.
Peter and I talked yesterday about “why?”. Why Mike? Why now?
Over the past several days, I have been asked by many, “How was his health? Were there signs of anything?”
No! Mike had a full physical just recently and was good-to-go. Results all green.
“Was he under stress with his new house and all?”
No! He was thrilled about his new house. The financials were great and he was looking forward to his bigger place where he could entertain friends and family.
“Was it the time of year? Too much going on at Christmas and all?”
No! We talked Wednesday and he was excited about this New Year’s weekend and who would be around for New Year’s Eve.
This morning, Mike and I would have been sitting on the deck watching David and [my daughter] Emily play hockey. Neither of them would want to play in net and Mike would bark at them to work on their passing skills. And then he would have said, “Whitebread, let’s put on another pot of coffee.”
Instead, I am here talking to all of you who cared about him as much as I did.
Mary, thank you so much for allowing me to speak today on behalf of all Mike’s friends and colleagues. Your brother was a selfless and caring individual whom we were all fortunate to have the opportunity to know.
Personally, I feel blessed today to have spent so much time with him these past years.
Mike had two families really: Mary and all of your relatives, and he had us.
And I can tell you this. I believe I know why Mike’s heart gave out on Thursday. I believe it was because he shared so much of it with others.