Frank Rockwell, long-time Colorado photojournalist, loses battle with cancer

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DENVER -- Frank Rockwell, one of so many unsung photojournalists working behind the camera and a long-time fixture in the local market, passed away Tuesday night after a battle with liver cancer.

Rockwell spent the better part of two decades chasing stories across Colorado, where he relocated after working for C-SPAN in Washington, DC not far from his Maryland home.

He was an old school newsman, someone who loved the excitement of breaking news and believed deeply in the journalistic enterprise, however much his signature sarcasm and deadpan wit might have made you think otherwise.

He never would have been comfortable with this -- a public recognition of his passing, and of his life's work; but Frank's story is one that, I think even he would recognize, should be told.

After a number of years behind the camera, Rockwell lost his job at KWGN in late 2008, a casualty of the merger between Colorado's oldest television station and KDVR/Fox31.

When KWGN's parent company filed for bankruptcy, Frank lost his retirement package. Over the next few years, he struggled to hold onto his Centennial home, taking out a second mortgage and worrying most nights if he'd be able to keep the lights on, never mind avoid foreclosure.

He fought hard to find a job, attending career fairs and applying for various positions, although few things panned out.

He told me these stories a few years later, after he found part-time freelance work as a photographer back at KDVR/KWGN, working alongside some of his former colleagues, those who moved over from Channel 2, and many new ones.

Despite his struggles, Frank never wanted anyone's sympathy. He was happy for the opportunity, but nervous about shaking off a few years of rust; I recall him staying after his shift sometimes to tutor himself on the new digital editing system, which was far different than the old "linear" editing equipment he'd spent most of his career using.

Last September, he and I covered a press conference in Jefferson County together, the kick-off for the Yes on 66 campaign, an effort to convince Coloradans to raise their own taxes to help fund public schools.

In the news Jeep driving back from the shoot, Frank was his typical cynical, dour self. He knew politics from his years in DC -- one of the many reasons we got along -- and he offered his own quick take.

"No way in hell that passes," he told me as we ducked into a Panda Express for lunch.

He was right: Amendment 66 lost by a 2-1 margin.

Frank was working a weekend shift a few days later when a terrible pain in his stomach forced him to drop his assignment and head to the hospital.

The diagnosis was bleak: stage four liver cancer.

Frank hadn't been to the doctor since 2008, when he lost his job and his health insurance.

"I'll be gone in six months," Frank told me a few weeks later when he was out of the hospital and had come by the station to retrieve his car from the garage.

Those of us who saw him after the diagnosis offered encouragement, sympathy, friendship.

But Frank, never comfortable being the object of anyone's attention, didn't respond to too many of our phone calls and emails toward the end.

His sister called to tell Jim Yoshinaga, a long-time Channel 2 employee, of Frank's passing on Tuesday night.

Wednesday was a sad day around the station.

As the news reached other journalists around town and the country who'd worked with Frank, remembrances poured forth, mostly on Facebook.

Back in 2008, just before he was laid off from Channel 2, Frank would tease me, knowing that my first contract was coming to an end and that I'd been looking for jobs in other markets.

"You're going to be here for a while," Frank told me. "At least another three years."

As usual, he was right.

When he was hired back on, he convinced me that I'd lost that bet and owed him a sandwich.

I paid up (in the form of a French dip from Snarf's on Ogden and 11th Ave.).

He was satisfied, but I can't help feel now that I -- the world -- owed Frank more, although he would never look at it that way.

As Frank knew would be the case, I'm still here.

I know I speak for most who worked alongside him in hoping that Frank at least knew how heartbreaking his not being here would be and now is for us.