By Susan D. Brandenburg
From the day she was born at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Duncan Sawyer was immersed in the history of both her family and her nation. March is Women’s History Month and as president of Jacksonville Branch of the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW), Sawyer is leading the celebration of the organization’s 120th anniversary.
Sawyer, a professional photographer, is the granddaughter of the late Mary Freels Rosborough of Jacksonville, author of two historic novels set in Florida: “Don’t You Cry for Me” and “A Clear Place in the Sky.” A legacy member of the NLAPW, Sawyer has followed in her grandmother’s footsteps as a preserver of place, time and culture.
“My grandmother was an honored member of our Jacksonville Branch,” Sawyer says. “In addition to writing novels and screenplays, she wrote 35 short stories that appeared in national and foreign publications. I’m proud of that heritage — it has always been a part of my life.”
The National League of American Pen Women, founded in 1897 by three female journalists who were not invited to join the press corps, is a professional organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with branches throughout the United States. With the ongoing historic goal of supporting successfully creative professional women in the arts, the Jacksonville Branch celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2016.
On March 10, in recognition of Women’s History Month, Sawyer and other members of the National League of American Pen Women will hold a panel discussion at the University of North Florida to present the historic role of women in the arts (writing, painting, photography, music, dance and theater).
Growing up in Jacksonville, Sawyer had many opportunities to interact with her grandparents. Her grandfather, George Logan Rosborough, was mayor of Atlantic Beach twice during the time they resided there between 1935 and 1953, and in addition to her writing career, her grandmother was an active member of the National League of American Pen Women. One day, when Duncan was 15 years old, she was helping her grandmother dismantle a NLAPW exhibit at the Civic Auditorium when she happened to spy a display of distinctive black and white photographs taken by world-famous photographer Jerry Uelsmann.
“I was mesmerized,” recalls Duncan. “My dad had given me a nice little camera and I had been taking photos for fun and even won a scholastic photo contest at school, but those Uelsmann photographs inspired me to pursue a career in that field.”
Sawyer was in the first graduating class of the University of North Florida in 1973, earning a bachelor’s degree in art, with a major in photography. After a short stint as a photographer for the Florida Times-Union, Sawyer launched her career as a medical photographer in the hospital where she was born.
“I had volunteered at St. Vincent’s for the Junior League,” she said, “so, when it came to hiring me, they already knew who I was. I’m a strong advocate for volunteering.”
During her 28-year career at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Sawyer captured hospital-service activities, company events and employee-recognition ceremonies for public relations, marketing, advertising and foundation purposes. She photographed in the operating room, emergency room, post-op, morgue and wherever photographs were needed. She developed CD and PowerPoint presentations and produced photographic documentation to support risk management activities as well as providing input and documentation for the production of operating-equipment training manuals. She became a Certified Prenatal Bereavement Counselor in order to be supportive to parents and to teach staff members at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. She acted as an instructor in the use of multimedia equipment, consulted with physicians on various photographic and composition problems, and compiled articles for hospital archives.
Having made some dramatic inroads in medical photography during her long and productive career, Sawyer’s photographs appeared in several published articles and text-books over the years, as well as in national photography competitions. Today, Sawyer continues to compile articles for St. Vincent’s Medical Center archives, as well as articles for the Jacksonville Historical Society, the Colonial Dames of Florida and, of course, the National League of American Pen Women.
Looking back, she notes that her proudest accomplishment was realizing her goal to become a respected professional photographer at a time when few women were in that field.
“When I first graduated from college, I knew I wanted to go into the field of photography, so I held fast to my dreams and I waited for the right opportunity to present itself,” she said.
On March 10, as a National League of American Pen Women panelist at the University of North Florida’s Student Union Building from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m., Sawyer will do her best to convey to the audience the importance of preserving the past during Women’s History Month, and planning for the future.
“I’ll tell them what I’ve learned,” she said. “Wait for your dreams. In life, as in photography, timing is everything.”
For information on the March 10 event, contact Jeffrey T. Bowen, Director of Technical Services at UNF’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library at firstname.lastname@example.org or (904) 620-1502.
Photo by Susan D. Brandenburg
Duncan Sawyer holding her grandmother’s novels.