Tasnadi , storied AP photographer, dies

( AP )- Charles Tasnadi , who braved minefields and barbed wire to escape communist Hungary and went on to spend three decades as a top Associated Press photographer, died Thursday following a stroke.

Famed for his skills as a photographer and revered as a great gentleman, Tasnadi was born Karoly Tasnadi on March 1, 1925, in Ajka , Hungary.

During his career, Tasnadi covered seven presidents, including a return to his native land aboard Air Force One, accompanying President George H.W. Bush.

Bush called Tasnadi into a forward cabin on the jet just before landing and told him it was fitting and proper that this was how he should return home for the first time

On the ground, Tasnadi hid his emotions behind the camera, determined to get good pictures, colleagues recalled.

He also traveled to Cuba more than 40 times, gaining access to Fidel Castro and other leaders of that country. A former editor credited Tasnadi with helping pave the way for AP journalists to return to Cuba.

His dangerous escape from Hungary in 1951, Tasnadi later remarked, "really helped me put a better perspective on deadline pressure."

In winter snow, Tasnadi , his then girlfriend and others escaped to Austria, slipping past guard towers and one border guard who simply looked away, said his daughter, Diana.

Tasnadi later recalled crawling across a minefield, making sure to place his knees and elbows in the same spots as the man ahead of him.

Settled in a refugee camp in Salzburg, Tasnadi married his girlfriend, but they were unable to get into the United States, so they headed to Venezuela, where a cousin lived.

His mother gave him his first camera and he worked for a Hungarian news agency before leaving the country.

In Caracas, he told a taxi driver to take him to the newspaper, launching a long and successful career that included a stint with Time-Life before finally coming to America and joining the AP.

Tasnadi retired in 1996 and while photographing his last White House press conference, President Clinton started a round of applause, thanking him for years of service.

"Charlie was a graceful photographer, a generous colleague and a complete gentleman. The arc of his life tracked the sweep of world history in the 20th century, yet he will be remembered most for a thousand daily kindnesses," said Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor.

Among the famous photographs Tasnadi made was one of President Johnson displaying his scar to the media following surgery. Others included Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Nixon, Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and candid shots of Presidents Clinton and Reagan.

Retired AP photo editor Frank Russell recalled that Tasnadi would never go on assignment unless he had a coat and tie, but would always lose umbrellas.

"He must have owned 50 umbrellas," Russell commented, remembering that Tasnadi would leave them wherever he had been working.

He went above and beyond the call of duty, Russell said, remembering Tasnadi leaving for Cuba loaded down with boxes of film and equipment to share with officials there. "He always got in when others couldn't."

"He had thousands of friends all over the world," Russell said. "Anywhere there were AP photographers, Charlie knew them."

Tasnadi loved winter, which set him apart from most Washington residents. One time when snow shut the city down, he arrived at work on cross-country skis, colleague Wayne Partlow remembered.

The flight from Hungary wasn't Tasnadi's first escape.

At the end of World War II he was among hundreds of Hungarian civilians rounded up by Russian soldiers, he recalled in an AP oral history interview in 2006.

They were being marched out of Budapest and Tasnadi had to step up onto a sidewalk to avoid a burned-out tank.

"There was an open door and that door sucked me in," he said. He ran into a courtyard and then a nearby kitchen where he was able to avoid the pursuing Russians. There, a Hungarian nurse found him, put an unnecessary bandage on his arm with red ink on it to help him escape.

In that interview, Tasnadi recalled his first assignment in the United States - covering the arrival of the Beatles in New York.

"I saw this incredible screaming of the girls. I thought what in the world is happening? Why? Why are you screaming about four guys?"

Scores of photographers were taking pictures of the Fab Four and Tasnadi decided the best picture would be the Beatles with the crowd of newsmen.

So he walked up on the podium behind the Beatles with a wide-angle lens: "I said I have to show these guys with these funny haircuts and made this picture. And that was a really good one. That was my first picture."

In the same interview, he also recalled a trip to Brazil for a meeting of Latin American presidents.

Before the meeting he went to the beach to take pictures and was invited onto a boat. During the ride, the boat turned over, spilling Tasnadi - dressed for a diplomatic reception - into the water. One of his cameras is still there.

By the time he got back to shore he had to run, dripping wet, to the reception and use a spare camera.

While he was setting up his equipment, one of the presidents at the meeting - he didn't remember which one - came by and Tasnadi apologized for his mess.

"Oh son, I am not worrying as long as you don't blow up my office," the president said, laughing.

Tasnadi was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy before suffering a recent stroke.

He is survived by his widow, Maria, and his daughter, both of Washington. A funeral Mass is scheduled for Tuesday.

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