Photographer Vanda Bidwell has spent most of her 32 years with the News-Gazette greeting the dawn as her work day began.
Hired in September 1980 when The News-Gazette, like most newspapers, was just beginning to use color photos regularly, Bidwell had experience with the color-imaging process from 12 years at Heller's Studio in Champaign's Campustown. The News-Gazette's then-chief photographer Curt Beamer used her experience to improve the newspaper's color display.
In the 1980s, Bidwell was making prints from film, then in the 1990s scanning film into digital files and, in 2001, abandoning film entirely for digital cameras.
While The News-Gazette was then an afternoon paper, Bidwell was the first photographer in each day at 6:30 a.m., catching up with overnight fires and other breaking news. Even with The News-Gazette's change to all-morning publication in June 2009, she was still the first photographer in at 7:30 a.m. each weekday, getting things organized for the day's news coverage. The planning often continued into the informal photo coffee gatherings/staff meetings in downtown Champaign.
Her regular duties included the Pet of the Week, combining her love of animals with her photography in regular visits to the Champaign County Humane Society. The 64-year-old Bidwell was also the paper's aerial photography specialist, having no problem with heights and the unsteadiness of shooting from small planes.
"I like to see things the general public doesn't see and show them what is there," Bidwell said, talking about significant moments on the job.
Her favorite assignment was "The Amish of Illinois' Heartland," a book about the area's Amish community, written by her late friend Becky Mabry, herself a longtime News-Gazette writer, columnist and editor. Together they spent 16 months gathering material for a successful and satisfying project, published in 2008, describing the Amish community's daily life and traditions.
Bidwell and Mabry also shared a love of horses, and Bidwell is modest about her stack of ribbons from dressage competitions, saying she likes the discipline of dressage, "You are never done learning," she noted.
Her last day on the job was Friday, and her immediate plans are to travel with her husband, Bill Bidwell.
And maybe join her co-workers for coffee once in a while.