Beloved Hampton University photographer dies at 95

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — After more than six decades behind the lens, a Hampton legend has passed away.

Reuben Burrell captured countless memorable moments during his life as a photographer. He was a well-known face around Hampton University (HU) and throughout the city itself. And he never lost his touch for documenting history in one shot. In fact, he’s a man whose story may be told better through pictures than words.

WAVY.com found the negatives from decades of shots still strewn along Burrell’s desk. The finished products hang on many walls, showing icons that stood before his lens, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, Stevie Wonder. One shot after another turned his story, into a loving part of Hampton history.

“Mr. Reuben Burrell was a true Hampton University legend. He captured the Hampton University spirit through his lens for more than 65 years,” said Hampton University President Dr. William R. Harvey. “His photographs and his stories were an inspiration. He touched the lives of many Hampton University administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends and visitors.

Reuben Burrell with Congressman Bobby Scott (Photo courtesy Bobby Scott).
Reuben Burrell with Congressman Bobby Scott (Photo courtesy Bobby Scott).

“I can personally attest to his artistic mastery of the camera lens, because for 37 years, he took pictures of the Harvey family, including my wife, children, grandchildren, mother, sister and other family members. Although Mr. Burrell didn’t have any children of his own, he was a mentor, father and grandfather figure to many generations of Hamptonians. He will be missed.”

Everyone who knew Burrell knew how much he loved his alma mater, which became his employer long ago. The memories of HU were still clear in his mind even at 95.

On Monday, Burrell’s friends said he wasn’t feeling quite right. On Tuesday, he passed away just three weeks before his 96th birthday. Reaction to his death has been pouring in ever since:

“Reuben Burrell is a part of the fabric of Hampton University,” said Dr. JoAnn Haysbert, Hampton University Executive Vice President and Provost. “He’s been here since the early ’40s. When I joined the university in 1980, he was, by that time, a legacy. Everyone knew him: faculty, staff and administrators.

“He was a historian documenting life, documenting people,” said Dr. Nashid Madyun, Hampton University Museum and Archives Director. “Any homecoming or commencement, you would see individuals coming from the class of ‘55, ‘62 or what have you, and say, ‘Mr. Burrell, I know you don’t remember me,’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I do. This is your name and this is a picture.'”

“He was able to pull, no card catalogue, just from memory. He was extremely sharp, up until Monday,” Madyun said. “I think I’ve been here three and a half or close to four years, and there’s only two occasions when I’ve known him to miss work. In the world of photographs and all the duplicates, there will never be a duplicate.”

“When I leave this place, one of the ways I’m going to remember my time at Hampton is through pictures, and Mr. Burrell would have contributed to my time here at Hampton and bring back memories through pictures I would have seen,” said Lawrence Rigby, HU SGA President.

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of the iconic photographer, Rueben Burrell, the likes of whom have not been seen since the legendary photographer Gordon Parks,” Hampton Mayor George Wallace said. “Mr. Burrell chronicled the city of Hampton and Hampton University history for over sixty (60) years, from flash bulbs to digital cameras. Nobody has done it better, and he leaves a void that cannot be filled.”

“I am deeply, deeply saddened by this news,” Senator Mamie Locke said. “Mr. Burrell was an institution and a mainstay at Hampton University (Institute) for over half a century. He captured so many moments of Hampton’s history through the lens of his camera, the likes of which we may not see again. He will truly be missed.”

Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott issued the following statement on the passing of longtime Hampton University Photographer Reuben Burrell:

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Reuben Burrell. For more than six decades, he served as Hampton University’s photographer where he affectionately became known as ‘One Shot Burrell.’ He skillfully documented the history of the university and the City of Hampton as it unfolded behind his camera lens.

I have been honored to know Mr. Burrell all of my life. My family has countless photographs he took of us over the years, even a few of me in nursery school. He was a remarkable man and a talented photographer who will be greatly missed.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Burrell family and the entire Hampton University community.

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