In the 1980s a race was held pitting a cabbie, a bus driver, a bike courier and other transportation professions against each other to see who could navigate the crowded streets of Honolulu the fastest.
The unofficial winner, of course, was Honolulu Advertiser photographer Ron Jett, who was assigned to cover the race and somehow managed to capture both the start and end of the contest.
Jett died March 25 at his home in Tampa, Fla., at the age of 71.
News of Jett’s death spread quickly among the close-knit network of longtime Hawaii photojournalists and newspeople, many of whom still carry fond memories of the Southern-born shooter whose stunning images of volcanic creation and destruction on the Big Island remain iconic and whose heroic work ethic, imperturbable demeanor and philosophical outlook were remembered long after he departed the islands.
Born and raised in Tampa, Jett worked his way up the newsroom ranks, starting as a circulation adviser and copy boy for the Tampa Times.
IN 1968 Jett flew across the continent and over the Central Pacific to take a job as a photographer with The Honolulu Advertiser. He stayed for two years before returning to Florida for stints as a photographer with the Tampa Tribune and Sarasota Journal, earning “photographer of the year” honors from the Florida West Coast Press Photographers Association in 1973.
Jett returned to the Advertiser in 1976 and quickly re-established himself as one of the most versatile and hardworking photojournalists in Honolulu.
For many of his co-workers, working side by side with Jett was both a professional and cultural interchange.
“I remember in the weekends Ron had the country western music cranking loud,” said former Advertiser photographer Greg Yamamoto. “I got to listen as the likes of Merle Haggard, Earl Scruggs, Willie Nelson songs came out of the darkroom while he was printing his images from his assignments, And, yes, he was singing along with the songs. Thanks to those times I got familiar with music I had no prior knowledge. I can still see his smile while singing and walking out of the darkroom.”
While equally adept at covering sports, spot news and features assignments, Jett distinguished himself with his photography of the ongoing eruption at Kilauea Volcano’s east rift zone, which became active in 1983.
In addition to documenting the spectacular eruption and the destructive progress of its lava flows for daily readers of the Advertiser, Jett also contributed images of Kilauea for national and international newspapers, magazines and books. One series of images capturing the Puu Kiai eruption was reproduced as a popular fine-art poster.
Over the course of his career, Jett completed assignments for Time, Newsweek, Discover Magazine, Fortune, Business Week, Life, U.S. News and World Report, and People.
Once, during an assignment for Time, Jett accompanied writer Robert Hollis for an exclusive interview with deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos at his temporary residence in Niu Valley.
Hollis recalled that as he and Jett were being escorted out following the hourlong interview, they passed the kitchen, where Imelda Marcos was talking to some of the domestic workers.
“Until she saw us, she’d been laughing and carrying on in Ilocano,” Hollis said. “Suddenly her face grew dark and she started crying, switching to English and complaining about how hard her life was now, far from her beloved homeland. It seemed to me the display was entirely for our benefit.”
As they were leaving, Jett leaned toward the former first lady of the Philippines, who famously accumulated more than 2,700 pairs of shoes during her husband’s dictatorial rule, and whispered something that caused her to abruptly stop crying. On the ride back, Hollis asked Jett what he had said.
“‘Nice shoes,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye,” Hollis said.
Jett returned to Florida in 1991 and worked for the Aircraft Service International Group before settling into retirement.
He is survived by sister Janice Jett Davis and two nephews, Michael and Clifford Davis.