By Emily Vetne, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2019, History, Bloomington
If you went through middle and high school in America from roughly the 1970s until now, chances are that you’ve seen a photo by Will Counts in your history textbook. The photo is of a Black high school student, Elizabeth Eckford, walking into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Her eyes covered by sunglasses, she is followed by an angry mob of white students. The primary harbinger of insults, a young white woman named Hazel Bryan, followed Eckford, the entire way hurling profanities. This photo became appropriately known as “The Scream.”
In the same month, Counts took another pivotal photo, this time of a Black journalist named Alex Wilson being kicked in the stomach while holding onto his hat, his last remaining shred of dignity. This photo is widely believed to be the reason President Eisenhower sent military troops to Little Rock to assist with desegregation.
Will Count’s life, much like that of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, is more than a moment. After talking to his former students, dean, and family members, I believe that although Counts was a talented and influential photographer, his legacy best lives on in the lives of the students whom he trained and mentored.
Sandra Eisert (BA ‘73) studied with Counts at IU in the early 1970s. She never meant to become a photojournalist; in fact, she’d entered college wanting to become a writer. But after enrolling in Counts’s introductory course (which “changed my life”), Eisert knew what her career path would be. She took an advanced course in photojournalism, at Counts’s urging, and was the only female student in the course.
But Counts’s “encouraging me constantly” paid off, and eventually Eisert became a trailblazing journalist at MSNBC, helping to kick off their online presence. Eisert says she feels “blessed” to have been Counts’s student, and that he was “just a beautiful human being.”
Similarly, Barbara Restle took one of Count’s classes in the early 1970s and didn’t have much to say about him except simply, “He was perfect as a teacher.” For me, Restle’s comment summed up everything I heard about Counts during the course of this semester-long research project.
I conducted an oral history interview with Counts’s wife Vivian and she told me about how many of Counts’s students have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes. Part of the reason Counts’s students went on to be so successful, I believe, is that he tried his hardest to “jazz up” his students every day in class.
One of the ways in which he showed how much he cared was by taking photos of all of them holding up name cards, even in large lectures with 200 students. He would then go back and memorize names and faces, so that in the halls he would be able to greet each and every student individually.
These students repaid the care and affection to Counts—after his death from cancer in 2001, over 100 students attended his funeral. Counts’s son Wyatt even took J210, the introductory photojournalism class, with Counts, “mainly to giggle when he loaded the slides wrong.” But even Counts’s son could tell that his father was a special kind of professor, one who made each and every student feel welcome.
Professor Cleve Wilhoit also taught at the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism while Counts was a professor at IU, and he had nothing but glowing praise for Counts’s teaching and personality: “Will, like Herman B Wells, wanted to make the ordinary extraordinary.”
He claims that although Counts’s photographs are famous throughout the United States, Counts himself chose not to pursue personal glory because of his “basic modesty.” Counts, according to Wilhoit, was more interested in helping his students make names for themselves than to chase after one of his own. Described by Wilhoit as “the Pied Piper” of photojournalism students, Counts always focused on their education and careers before anything else.
This idea was echoed by Dr. Trevor Brown, who was the dean of the School of Journalism while Counts was a professor. He said that while he couldn’t show any faculty member favoritism, he was always very fond of Counts and appreciated all he did for his students.
One of the best legacies Counts left was one of innovation—as technology progressed, Counts advocated for both better darkrooms and computer labs for photojournalism students, and proposed modifying Ernie Pyle Hall to fit the growing needs of his students.
Will Counts’s photos shaped how the United States reacted to desegregation and interracial schooling, but those were, at the end of the day, just two photographs.
The students whose lives he touched, whose careers he influenced and shaped, are the real story behind why Will Counts matters. Although he passed away 17 years ago, everyone I spoke to about him gushed about him, sharing stories which were as vivid as if they’d happened last week.
Counts’s influence lives on in the lives of those whom he inspired and loved, and that makes all the difference.
 Sandra Eisert, interview with Emily Vetne, September 19, 2018.
 Sandra Eisert interview.
 Barbara Restle, interview with Emily Vetne, September 25, 2018.
 Wyatt Counts interview.
 Wyatt Counts interview.
 Cleve Wilhoit, interview with Emily Vetne, September 12, 2018.