A trailblazer for women photojournalists, Caroline Valenta drove a Model A Ford and carried a boxy Speed Graphic camera in 1947 when, at age 23, she was sent to cover a major industrial disaster in Texas City, Texas, for the then-Houston Post.
"She just charged out there," said J.R. Gonzales, who writes the Bayou City History blog for the Houston Chronicle. "She really had this fearless drive," he said of the woman he's profiled and befriended.
Even shortly before her death Feb. 20 in Westhampton, Valenta, 88, was shooting photos with an iPad, said her son Grover V. Gatewood, a fine artist and photographer in Bridgehampton. Valenta, who had been a longtime resident of Lindenhurst and Sag Harbor, had battled pancreatic cancer for three years.
She "was humorous and utterly fearless her whole life," he said of his mother, who also photographed the birth of one of her seven children.
Shooting pictures since she was 12, Valenta met her career destiny, her son said, when she was a student at the University of Houston. While passing the college's newspaper office, she heard someone say they needed a photographer.
Valenta went on to freelance for the Houston Post and, in 1945, joined the staff full time, he said.
"She was impervious" to any slights or comments directed at her because she was a working woman, her son said.
Indeed, in a 1948 Editor & Publisher article on the Texas City disaster, she credited Houston police with recognizing her distinctive car and "pointing out the fastest route to the scene," where a cargo ship fire had led to major explosions.
Born May 27, 1924, in Shiner, Texas, Valenta met her husband, newspaperman Worth Gatewood, when they both were working for the Houston Post, her son said. In 1952, they moved to Manhattan, where they started their family, and she took on assignments from various news outlets. The family moved to Lindenhurst in 1961. Valenta's husband, former Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, died in 1998.
Though his mother occasionally shot professionally, she also turned her camera on her offspring, her son said, and the family still has "boxes and boxes" of her undeveloped film.
Valenta is also survived by daughters Dr. Caroline V. Gatewood of Hampton Bays, Gloria V. Gatewood Russo of Sayville, Lillie V. Gatewood of Greenvale, and Rosabelle V. Gatewood Naleski of Southold; sons John V. Gatewood of Oakland, Calif., and William W. Gatewood of Grayslake, Ill.; stepchildren Boyd Gatewood of San Jose, Calif., and Louise Gatewood Horton of Houston; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Services were Tuesday at the Robertaccio Funeral Home in Patchogue.