STORM LAKE, Iowa | Bruce Ellingson leans back to run eyes and memory through images that shape a career. Ellingson retires this week, the sun setting on 31 years of teaching journalism at Buena Vista University.
An accomplished photographer, he and wife, Margie Ellingson, plan to see their children and grandchildren in life's golden years. That, and travel the country to expand horizons while shooting pictures in U.S. national parks.
The Ellingsons just now begin signing and selling their first book, "National Parks West: A Meditation on Light, Sand and Sky," the result of Bruce's professional sabbatical from BVU through the summer and fall of 2010, an effort that comes about through travels that cover 25,000 miles, 17 states, 15 national parks and monuments, and 49 nights of sleeping in the back of their mini-van.
"National Parks" shows the grandeur of parks west of the Mississippi River. The book demonstrates Bruce Ellingson's eye and appreciation for the land, a notion he references in passing, remembering details that lead to his first full-time newspaper job.
The son of a farmer and a registered nurse, Ellingson grows up in Benson, Minn., toiling as a printer's devil as a teen, working with his hands, hot lead and sheets of news and advertising for the Swift County Monitor News in the mid-1960s.
Following his high school graduation in 1967, he treks to Moorhead State College (it is now a university) and stays five years, serving as a co-editor for the Moorhead State Advocate student newspaper and interning at the Fargo Forum for the late Cal Olson, who would later serve as editor of the Sioux City Journal.
"I graduated in 1972," Ellingson says, spanning mind and memory over a timeline. "I'm married and have a child. I move home, in with my folks. I have a mass communication degree and I'm scared to death."
Naturally, he heads to work operating a backhoe. And then lands more permanent duty reconditioning LP gas tanks at a plant in De Graff, Minn.
"My mother was a registered nurse and I remember how she got four weeks off in the winter and she and my dad traveled to Texas," Ellingson says. "It occurred to me at that point that maybe I should put my degree to work."
The job in De Graff doesn't come with four weeks of paid vacation.
So, Ellingson trots to a regional employment office in Willmar, Minn. He sees the site director and asks about job leads.
"I tell the man I want to be a conservation officer," Ellingson says.
The employment office director likely stifles his laughter. He glances up and down Ellingson's resume and recommends the communication grad with newspaper experience apply for a job as area editor at the West Central Daily Tribune in Willmar.
Ellingson visits the paper. He lands his first full-time journalism gig, overseeing 40 community correspondents when not driving across the newspaper's eight-county region in search of a story.
There are homecomings and fires, drownings and tornadoes. The Commercial Hotel in downtown Willmar, a flop-house for those down on their luck, is set to fall to the wrecking ball. Ellingson shows up, notebook in hand, and writes about the people who reside in a decaying downtown icon.
"It was great fun, that story," he says.
Ellingson leaves after landing a six-month freelancing gig at another publication. Then, he and Margie and their family head to Minneapolis, where a photography job awaits.
"I like photography as you shot your pictures and didn't have to come back and write a story," he says.
The Monticello Times, a northern Twin Cities suburb, calls. Ellingson serves there, one of Minnesota's best community enterprises, for five years, until 1981, when an opportunity to earn a master's degree from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism beckons.
"It takes me three years to get my master's, during which time I worked for the Associated Press covering the capital in Jefferson City as a photographer," he says.
A photo assignment in a prison turns Ellingson toward a teaching career.
"I was uncomfortable photographing these men at the prison and I knew then I didn't want to photograph war or something like that," he says.
He lands a teaching position at Buena Vista as the small college (it is now a university) begins to ramp up journalism offerings. He stays for more than three decades, teaching basic reporting, advanced news writing, photography, publication design, legal and ethical issues, and more.
He serves as adviser for the student newspaper, The Tack, for years. He earns a doctorate and for 10 years is associate dean of faculty.
He transitions into broadcasting late in his teaching career and helps shape a digital media major. The paces he puts his students through go beyond two dimensions; there are video and audio components in stories set for public consumption.
Along the way, he sends hundreds of young reporters, teachers, managers and photographers on their way.
In 2010, he and Margie take a sabbatical and head west to photograph national parks west of the Mississippi River. He transitions into digital photography and begins to output photos and a plan. A book and second career dawn in the sands of Great Sand Dunes National Park and the morning shadows of Devil's Tower National Monument.
"This is the beginning," he says, tapping a short stack of photo books. "This is what the future holds. Hopefully, this leads to a 'National Parks East' as we try to develop a product line with large-scale prints and cards."
The photos sing, to use a term often called on by those in the trade.
"They're nice photos," Ellingson allows. "But the key it it's a great time. There is nothing better than getting up at 4:30 a.m. and watching the sun rise in a place like Great Teton National Park.
"There's such joy you feel being in a space like this and getting to be able to take pictures of this beauty we have here," he concludes.
The images will endure as he searches for more, reaching for meaning amid great rocks and scrub trees.
"I guess there are five requirements to my landscapes: light, sky, foreground, backgrounds..." he writes, "and a moment when I feel there is something more transcendent here than just the air, the dirt and the vegetation."
Perhaps, he's a conservation officer after all.