Don Shrubshell’s career as a journalist began when he was 10 years old. He didn’t know it yet.
His brother Gary used to deliver the Maryville Daily Forum to the doorsteps of their neighborhood. In 1965, Gary offered Don a dollar to take his route for the day, throwing papers from his bike eight blocks up a steep hill.
That day turned into seven years of peddling papers. And those seven years turned into a career defined by a devotion to documenting life through a camera.
Shrubshell covered Columbia for decades and Missouri even longer. After nearly 24 years at the Columbia Daily Tribune, his work speaks for itself, said longtime colleague Gerik Parmele.
“If people saw all this in front of them, they would be impressed,” Parmele said.
Along with four others, Shrubshell will be inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Center for Missouri Studies.
He received the news just a week before a series of layoffs in August cut his time at the Tribune.
However, photography was not his main interest from the start. His foray into newspapers beyond delivery began at Maryville High School, where students could leave for the afternoon if they had a part-time job in the community.
“It felt pretty sweet to get out of school,” Shrubshell said.
So, in his senior year, he took a caretaker job at the Daily Forum. His paper days were over and he wandered through several departments until the editor finally let him and a friend use the darkroom on Saturdays.
There he learned to develop films with photos he took around town, already documenting everyday life as he would for the rest of his career.
“When I saw the image appear in the development tray, I was hooked on photography,” he said.
Eventually he grew tired of working in the processing camera room, but his interest in photography only grew and he took a 50 cent an hour pay cut to become a photographer at the Daily Forum. .
At that time, he didn’t know that journalism and photography could co-exist, he said. He credits Judy Stein, then a graduate student working on a photography enhancement project at a small-town newspaper, for teaching him the basics of combining the two.
His career took him to Arkansas City, Kansas, where he enrolled in community college while working full-time for the local newspaper, earning an associate’s degree in journalism. On top of that, he read everything he could about photojournalism, absorbing knowledge from all angles to perfect his craft.
He spent nine years in Arkansas City, and after stints in Hutchinson, Kansas and Cape Girardeau, he came to Colombia in 1998 with an abundance of stories to his name, a list that only multiplied once. that he was here.
Maybe not everyone knew who he was, but everyone in town, “from the mayor to the drug dealers,” knew Shrubshell’s 1979 Chevrolet El Camino, he said.
Former co-worker LG Patterson calls it “a piece of shit,” and Shrubshell doesn’t necessarily disagree. Yet after 500,000 miles and “countless girlfriends” sitting in the passenger seat, he managed to make it work.
When most people meet a celebrity, they ask to take a photo or sign an autograph. Shrubshell asks them to pose with his El Camino. The resulting series of portraits depicts governors, athletes, Ted Nugent holding a gun – sort of an eclectic collectible.
That car, he says, potentially got him out of trouble: Because he spent so much time at crime scenes, people thought he was a cop, so when they saw the car, they thought not to play with him.
Still, the police have been called about him on several occasions, which Patterson attributes to Shrubshell’s appearance tending to “put people off…they thought it was some kind of ‘weird’ guy thing with a camera. “.”
He knows the Columbia Police Department well, and they certainly know him. He was “notorious”, said Dan Claxton, journalist and former KFRU/1400 AM news director, for taking photos at crime scenes before police even arrived. His persistence got him into some trouble.
He covered the 2005 shooting that killed Officer Molly Bowden and injured Officer Curtis Brown. The suspect died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound shortly thereafter.
After taking photos of the scene, Shrubshell was arrested when officers believed he crossed police lines, even though he was actively leaving the scene and returning to his car.
“They thought I snuck inside the crime scene, which wasn’t true,” he said.
Although his early relationship with Columbia police was strained, over the years he worked to build trust with members of the department, Police Chief Geoff Jones said.
“He was the most committed person I had seen in journalism in the city,” Jones said. “I had a lot of respect for that.”
Parmele recalls a time when a SWAT team was trying to drag someone out of a motel to arrest them. Parmele, himself a photojournalist, jumped out of his car and began to photograph the scene, but was quickly taken away by police.
Happy with what he had gathered, Parmele had returned to the newsroom to work on his photos when Shrubshell came in with a better image of the same scene than Parmele said he “could ever have gotten”, even though he had never seen Shrubshell there. It turned out that Shrubshell was hiding in nearby bushes to avoid detection.
be on stage
Newsreel photography, or being on location while an event is unfolding, was his favorite part of the job, Shrubshell said. And he was good at it, his colleagues say.
“Every time I walked onto a stage, I knew he was going to be there first because he always was,” Claxton said. “And I knew that if I found him, I would be in a good position to have my story.”
In 1981, quite early in his career, Shrubshell was tasked with taking pictures of a woman who pulled off a perfect round of golf, but when he heard on a police scanner that an ambulance was needed elsewhere, he improvised. The results of the decision to continue the story were seen across the country.
He was the only person to reach Skidmore, Missouri, in time to take pictures after the assassination of Ken Rex McElroy, the notorious “town bully”. Shrubshell’s photos quickly became part of national history.
“Everyone has 15 minutes of fame,” he said, “and I think it must have been mine.”
This willingness to make quick decisions and follow her instincts to uncover stories is indicative of her entire career.
A personal favorite in his catalog is a photo of country musician Willie Nelson tuning his guitar in front of a crowd in downtown Columbia.
Shrubshell approached Nelson’s road manager and asked, “Can you help me get a picture?” knowing full well that asking directly for what he wanted – putting a stepladder on stage – would be refused.
But phrasing it as a favor got him what he wanted, he said – a shot from the stage, staring into the crowd, with Nelson below, his face slightly turned towards the camera.
Even with standout photos like these, it’s Shrubshell’s work that “supersedes all of his best photos,” Parmele said.
“The length of time Don photographed Columbia is such a monumental thing,” Parmele said. “His love of the community and love of documenting the community is what I think propelled him to the Photojournalism Hall of Fame.”
For Shrubshell, being in the same class as Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson, both photographers for National Geographic, is humbling.
“Here I am, just a small, small-town photographer, receiving the same honor, or I feel like, that they are receiving,” he said.