The secret life of a Maine dentist
PORTLAND, Maine — Dr. Henry Pollard was a dentist. He was also a photographer who built himself a darkroom in the bowels of his Danforth Street home. His children called it his bunker. It’s where he would disappear for hours at a time, developing pictures and playing his violin.
Pollard’s darkroom was also where he kept secrets nobody would know about until after his death in 2003.
While cleaning out Pollard’s inner sanctum, his children found four cigar boxes. Inside, they discovered a version of their father they’d never known — a young WWII soldier, a risk-taker with a jaunty smile and a streak of wanderlust. They also learned of the woman he’d married before their mother.
“I had a much older dad who lived a whole life before I came along. I knew him as an older person,” said Jessica Lantos, Pollard’s youngest child. He was 50 years old when she was born.
“I knew him as a rule-maker, very traditional. He didn’t seem to like to take a lot of risk,” she said.
He cleaned teeth and filled cavities as a dentist in Portland for close to 60 years. People knew him as a serious man with a civic mind. He was the first chairman of the local United Way, President of the Maine Dental Association and head of the city school committee.
“He was always at a meeting,” said Lantos.
The first cigar box contained Pollard’s meticulous wartime diaries, written in tiny pencil script. He kept one for every year he was in the Army. In 1942, when he was 28 years old, he’d closed his dental practice in Portland and joined up as an officer and dentist. He served until after the war ended in 1945. He eventually retired a Lieutenant Colonel.
The second box was full of film negatives. He was a keen photographer, even back then. Each monochrome image was in a paper sleeve labeled with precise dates, subjects and locations. They were taken in England, North Africa, Italy and at sea in between.
A pile of yellowed war-related newspaper clippings — including hometown accounts of his own combat wounds — filled the third stogie box. The fourth held his unit insignias, dog tags, Bronze Star medal and Purple Heart.
The negatives and diaries were a revelation to his children. There were hand-drawn maps of his unit’s movement across North Africa. They also found a photo of a shipboard emergency operation, complete with an accompanying diary entry.
“We are 800 miles west of Spain,” he wrote while enroute to the invasion of North Africa. “Captain Hamilton removed appendix in sick bay tonite — was ruptured — on Ranger. Halloween Eve. Life at sea the most monotonous ever. Sleep, eat, ward room, cards, eat, tea and sleep.”
In July 1943 he was wounded during the invasion of Guyotville, Algeria.
“Our planes bombed the area heavily just before we hit the beach at 6:45 a.m.,” Pollard wrote. “Heavy enemy counter attack pushing line back. Many casualties. Enemy tanks penetrate our lines, much confusion. I was wounded by shell fragment, hit in upper left leg. Pvt. Leo Priester near me hit too and died on board USS Samuel Chase before we were taken. Other officers hit today: Col. Denholm, Lt. Scott Congdon. Capt. Berry killed. Hear that our lines were established when our tanks finally arrived.”
Lantos is still surprised when she reads his accounts of war.
“I look back at these old journals and see a different man. This was the man who would happily go up in a glider if you offered, who would happily take risks and steal watermelons off a truck to go feed people who were in his unit. A totally different guy,” said Lantos. “I can’t quite put those two men together.”
The diaries and photos reveal details of her father’s first wife, Anabelle Shur. One photo shows an ambulance Pollard drove while in the service. He’d written her name across the hood. He frequently mentions writing to her and getting letters — sometimes several a day — in return.
But Shur kept a secret of her own while he was away. She had breast cancer. After a double mastectomy she wrote to her husband and said she’d been in the hospital with pneumonia. By the time he got home, after the war was over, the cancer had metastasized. She died soon after.
“He came home to a dying wife,” said Lantos.
Four years later, Pollard married Lantos’ mother and started a new life. He never seemed to look back at the old one. He never talked about his cigar boxes or what was in them. But Lantos thinks they must have remained important to him, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept them.
“These mattered to him,” she said. “My father was meticulous with details. He was his own archivist. This matters. It’s really a piece of my father that nobody knew.”
Lantos said she’s constantly amazed at the balance she sees in her father’s pictures and diaries. He was able to photograph wartime destruction, dental patients, baseball games, Roman ruins and parties with the same detached, dispassionate skill and detail. His diary records movies he saw, the deaths of friends and family, new cameras and victory in Europe in the same matter-of-fact tone.
“I think that’s how he stayed sane, by balancing these things — art, or photography, flying, or family time — he was very good at finding that balance. And it shows in those journals,” Lantos said.
It’s the same even temper Lantos saw years later, at home.
“I’m so shocked that these men, like my father, came back and lived normal lives. Who raised families and were involved in their communities — and were as loving as my father,” she said. “They all lost so much. I’m stunned that he came back to be the person that he was, that I admire so much. I never really voiced it that way to him when he was here.”
In late 2016, using her father’s careful notes, she started matching diary entries with photos made on the same dates. She then posted a series of them on Facebook and Instagram. She was heartened by the response she got and decided to have some of the images printed so she could show them in a gallery.
For two months, starting in July, they’ll be on display the Maine Jewish Museum on Congress Street in Portland. Lantos is calling the show: Through My Father’s Lens.
“I want to share them. I know how rare it is to have this kind of treasure box. And I struggle with what to do with this collection,” said Lantos.
She’s not ready to donate it to a historical society or museum. But she also doesn’t like to just have it sitting in her house. Sharing them online and at the museum seems like a good compromise, for now, she said.
Still, she wonders what her father would think. After all, he never showed the cigar boxes to anyone and did not speak of his service.
“I’ve thought a lot about what he might feel about this photo show,” said Lantos. “It’s an invasion of his privacy. But I like to imagine I can hear his voice being OK with it.”
This story was originally published in 2018 in the Bangor Daily News.