Couple finds the ‘light’ of their lives

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When Bob and Sandra Shanklin met, it was love at first sight. After all, they both were lighthouse people and artists. Bob was a photographer, Sandra a painter, and they would host art shows together.

When Bob and Sandra Shanklin met, it was love at first sight. After all, they both were lighthouse people and artists. Bob was a photographer, Sandra a painter, and they would host art shows together. On their wedding trip in 1987, they traveled to New England and photographed their first lighthouse together — Portland Head in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

 

“Later, I gave up painting and took up photography as well,” says Sandra of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “We loved taking photos of lighthouses, and then one day we thought, well, why not do them all?”

It was the beginning of a 14-year love affair. They started in their home state of Florida and worked their way up the East Coast, shooting away. Soon, they began to make a name for themselves as “The Lighthouse People.”

Read the other story in this package: Hidden by history, a lighthouse is found

“They were like potato chips; you can’t eat just one,” says Sandra, 69, of photographing their favorite subjects. “We always say, once you get the lighthouse bug, you can’t stop the virus. There is no known cure.”

Sandra says they would travel the country, and when they ran out of money they’d come home, do a few art shows along the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast, and head back out. “Sometimes we’d check our sleeping bags [on airlines] and camp out,” says Sandra. “Often we were eating cups of noodles and peanut butter sandwiches.”

They estimate there are more than 700 lighthouses in the United States. “We know there have been lights taken down and decommissioned since we started the project,” says Bob, who is 83. “There are probably about 10 I can think of that aren’t around now, so that’s where we get our rough estimate from.”

By 1998, the only two states the Shanklins had yet to photograph were Alaska and Hawaii, but they didn’t have the budget to travel to either state. “We knew if we didn’t take the trip soon, we wouldn’t be able to,” says Sandra. “We would also need a helicopter to access certain lighthouses in Alaska that are offshore, and we knew that would be expensive.”

In spring of that year, Harbor Lights, a company that produces lighthouse collectibles, called and said it would pay for the couple to spend two weeks in Alaska and two weeks in Hawaii. “Long story short, we went, and a search-and-rescue Coast Guard helicopter took us to the various lighthouses in Alaska [in summer 1998],” says Sandra. “Some of the views were breathtaking.”

They went to Hawaii in January 1999 and then Harbor Lights sent them on an all-expenses-paid luxury lighthouse “safari” in Puerto Rico in February 2000, which completed their mission. “It was incredible, one of the best trips we had ever taken and such a change for us,” says Sandra.

Nowadays, the Shanklins spend their time helping preserve lighthouse history by scanning historical photos and posting them on their Web site (www.thelighthousepeople.com). So far, they have some 8,000 images, many from the archives of the Coast Guard Historian’s office in Washington, D.C. Once they are scanned, Bob digitally restores each one, taking out folds, creases or stains in the images that show up in the scan. He says sometimes he’ll be on the computer up to 10 hours a day processing images.

“We’ve also digitized all of our photos, which has been a process, since we both worked with film for 17 years,” says Sandra. “How we can take something that is on paper, fading away, scan it and reprint its replica onto a clean white sheet of paper — it’s mind-boggling.”

When the Shanklins aren’t preserving lighthouse history, they continue to travel and revisit old favorites. Bob says his favorite lighthouse is Pigeon Point near Santa Cruz, Calif., because it “feels good in my heart when I look at it.” Sandra says her favorite is Eldred Rock in Alaska.

“It is so far offshore, really in the wilderness,” she says. “It’s eight-sided, on an island, and I remember when the Coast Guard dropped us off; we saw the wind blowing through the grass, so beautiful and wild. It was a very spiritual feeling.”