Obituary: John Merhaut / Former Westinghouse photographer known as a perfectionist

May 24, 1922 - Jan. 20, 2013


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John "Jack" Merhaut possessed creativity, grace and an unflappable nature, talents that helped him make memorable portraits of corporate executives or photograph aerial views of Westinghouse facilities while dangling from a helicopter.

"Nothing ever rattled him," said Mark Portland, a Squirrel Hill freelance photographer who worked with his friend and mentor from 1976 to 1987.

During a 45-year career with Westinghouse Electric Co., Mr. Merhaut photographed the 1953 launch of the "Nautilus" nuclear submarine and the Westinghouse camera that Neil Armstrong used after landing on the moon on July 20, 1969. For years, the moon camera picture hung in Buhl Planetarium. He also captured images of Walt Disney, Jimmy Stewart, Prince Charles, Arnold Palmer and Mike Douglas. Work assignments took him throughout the United States and to Europe, Africa, Japan and the Mideast.

Mr. Merhaut died Sunday of natural causes at Harbour Senior Living of Monroeville. He was 90.

He got his start taking yearbook pictures for The Penn, the yearbook for Penn Hills High School. While in high school, he worked at W.O. Breckon Portrait Studio in Pittsburgh. After emptying trash cans and sweeping floors, he studied the fine points of lighting a subject and developing film in a darkroom.

As a young man, he was 5 feet, 6 inches tall, weighed 115 pounds and had reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. On overseas trips during the 1970s, foreigners sometimes mistook him for President Jimmy Carter.

Due to his quickness and stealth, "You never really knew he was there. If he was staging a shot, he was an absolute perfectionist," said G. Reynolds "Renny" Clark, vice chancellor for community initiatives at the University of Pittsburgh.

In the late 1970s, an assignment in Tehran turned tense as civil unrest intensified and protesters flooded the city's streets, demanding that the Shah leave Iran.

Mr. Portland said Mr. Merhaut and other Westinghouse employees "were put in a car for the airport and they were told once they got in the car to lie down and to keep their heads down all the way to the airport."

Mr. Merhaut influenced the next generation of photographers he hired, including Jim Judkis and Jim Cunningham, both of whom are still working. Mr. Judkis teamed with television host Fred Rogers while Mr. Cunningham spent five years photographing the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.

"The man was brilliant. He would draw crude sketches on Post-it notes or scraps of paper of what his vision of a shot might be and how he might light it," Mr. Portland said. Years later, he realized that his boss "had been making me a better photographer by coaching me with these little sketches."

The eldest of three boys, Mr. Merhaut spent his early years in the city's East End before his family moved to Penn Hills in the late 1920s. He attended Corpus Christi Catholic school and graduated from Penn Hills High School in 1942. That same year, he joined Westinghouse as a photo printer at its East Pittsburgh site. When he retired in 1987, he was manager of the company's photography department at its Downtown headquarters.

A confirmed do-it-yourselfer, he made wine, furniture and took on big projects. During the mid-1950s, Mr. Merhaut and his father-in-law built a second-story addition to his Penn Hills home to accommodate a family that grew to include five girls.

"If you needed it, you did it. You didn't call somebody to come and do it for you," said his daughter, Meghan Young of Mt. Lebanon. Mr. Merhaut later purchased a kit and built a Mirror Dinghy sailboat in his small garage.

"You have to bend the wood and varnish it and stain it and paint it. He raced it at Lake Erie in a regatta and sailed it on weekends up at Lake Arthur," Mrs. Young recalled.

Vaughn Gilbert, a spokesman for Westinghouse, worked with Mr. Merhaut starting in 1980.

"Jack never lost his poise. We had a mutual interest in running. Even at the end of his career, he ran at lunchtime. He was older than me, but sometimes I had a hard time keeping up," Mr. Gilbert said.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Merhaut is survived by his wife, Peggy of Monroeville, and four more daughters: Karen Ciesielczyk of Harvard, Ill.; Susan Merhaut and Wendy Kastelic, both of Penn Hills; and Jacqueline Dustevich of Mt. Lebanon; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service was held Wednesday.

obituaries

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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