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The Daily Tar Heel

'A very kind man with a big heart': Community remembers University photographer Dan Sears

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Photo Courtesy of Jamie Moncrief. Dan Sears prepares to takes photos at UNC's Bicentennial Ceremony at Kenan Stadium on October 12, 1993.

The walls of Karen Moon’s home are covered in photographs gifted to her by Dan Sears, a UNC alumnus, North Carolina native, former University photographer and photojournalist. 

Sears and Moon worked together at the University, but, beyond UNC, Sears was her friend.

One of his photographs, depicting fireworks glowing behind the Bell Tower, hangs above a bed in her spare room. She said that Sears gave it to her directly from the walls of his office.

Photo courtesy of Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill. Fireworks explode behind the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower on July 4, 1993.

Along her stairwell are photos he took on the backroads of North Carolina, distributed to friends to be used as postcards and, instead, carefully framed and hung above Moon's banister.

Sears died on May 25, but his memory is preserved by the pictures he took and the close community he formed.

“Dan never met a stranger,” Jamie Moncrief, a close friend of Sears, said.

When he first met Sears, Moncrief was a student photographer at John T. Hoggard High School on the sidelines of basketball games. Together, they captured shots of a young Michael Jordan as he played for Emsley A. Laney High School. 

Sears captured the most iconic photos of Jordan's high school basketball career, Moncrief said.

Sears was a photographer for the Wilmington StarNews at the time, though his career took him from The News Reporter in Whiteville, N.C., to the Associated Press, United Press International and UNC.

Sears gave Moncrief his first job after college as a photographer at the Wilmington StarsNews, where Sears was the photo editor.

"The biggest things he taught me as a photographer is be a person first and a photographer second," Moncrief said. "And be genuinely interested in people and get to know them before you whip out your camera and try to capture their essence."

Justin Smith is the publisher and editor of The News Reporter in Whiteville, a hometown he shares with Sears.

The two met in 2003, when Smith was Sears’ student assistant for his four years as a UNC student. Smith said that, along with his photography mentorship, Sears helped him feel more comfortable on such a large campus.

Sears engendered respect from those around him, according to Smith.

"You paid attention when Dan started talking," Jon Gardiner, the current University photographer, said.

Sears had a way of making the subjects of his pictures comfortable, according to Patty Courtright, one of his friends and colleagues at the University Gazette, now called The Well.

He had a unique sense of how to portray people in a way that told their story and showed the best of who they were and what they did, she said.

"He just had such an ability to put people at ease, sometimes it was through humor or sometimes just through conversation," she said.

One of the first characteristics peers used to describe Sears was his humor.

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He was "bigger than life," with a booming voice and laugh, and was the "king of the one-liners," according to Moncrief. Still, he noted that Sear's heart was as big as his personality and stature.

Sears was a volunteer and lifelong ham radio operator, according to Moncrief. 

Mike McFarland, one of Sears' supervisors at UNC and friend, recalled how Sears and his wife would invite his daughters to come to his house in their Halloween costumes and how his wife made a cross stitch for one of their daughters when she was a baby.

McFarland said that he was "salt of the earth" and a very kind man with a big heart.

"Seeing what everybody else has been saying has made accepting this a little bit easier and joyous to read that so many people have been trying to pay tribute to Dan's legacy, not just to Carolina, but just as a great human being," he said.

Editor's Note: Jon Gardiner, Justin Smith, Jamie Moncrief and Mike McFarland are former staffers of The Daily Tar Heel.

@eliza_benbow | @dailytarheel

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.