She was the first first responder.
You knew you were hurt when she stayed with you until the second responder showed up. You knew you were OK when she checked and fled, maybe a hand on your shoulder, the soothing southern two words, “You’re OK.” To a jump jockey, that was as good as a concussion test, a doctor’s note. 'Whew, Catherine says I’ll be all right.' She was off in a flash before you could answer her or thank her, cameras dangling from her shoulders, khaki photographer’s vest flapping, ribbons and passes blowing in the breeze. Always racing for the next frame, the next photo for a win composite that might serve as a baby picture, a scrapbook or proof of a family reunion to members of an inclusive sport.
She knew when we broke our legs, she knew when we separated another shoulder, she knew when we were concussed and through for the day.
Who was before her? Fred Freudy? Remember his win pictures? Three black and white across the top, two below, black lettering on a white board. Gems of another era. Hers were revolutionary, full color, calligraphy lettering in swirls and swoops, more photos, bigger photos for the big ones. I have a few on the wall and bunches in plastic crates in the attic. I need to write a note on the top of the crates, “Miles, don’t throw these away when I’m gone.”
Catherine French showed up one day and became the photojournalist of our sport each weekend. Sure, there have been others and will be others. Freudy, Marshall Hawkins and the Winants Brothers were artists. Douglas Lees is still going strong .Tod Marks has picked up the ball where others left off. But, Catherine made more meets and took more photos than, perhaps, anybody in history. Clicking away at the winners, rooting for her favorites. I can still hear her voice when touching down next to Blythe Miller (her all-time favorite) at the last. She had her favorite horses – Nordic Surprise and Jet Wave are two who stand out. When I won a two-horse race on Jet Wave at Fair Hill, she kept the jet-black gelding in focus while yelling like he was hers. In a way he was, she loved that horse. She loved our sport.
Sometimes you felt like you were working for Catherine, delivering photos to friends to save her some mailing costs, picking her up at one meet and delivering her to another, offering her a spare bed, a couch, buying photos that you didn’t need and sometimes didn’t want, sponsoring pages in her calendar. But steeplechasing is the ultimate NPR station: member-supported and Catherine was a member.
We lost that member Sept. 19. Catherine French,70, died after a short but courageous battle with cancer. A steeplechasing loyalist, she was part of the game, yeah, I’ll say it again, a patch of the quilt.
She missed a few shots along the way, but only when there was one of us down on an earlier circuit and she had a flag in her hand to wave the field around the fence or a jockey’s head in her hands. Sometimes, it wasn’t about the photo.:
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A charitable fund has been created at Synovus Bank, 501 E DeKalb Street, Camden SC 29020
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Catherine French was born in Charlotte, N.C., the daughter of Bundy Farice Belk and Nancy Catherine Starnes Belk. She graduated from Monroe High School in 1967 and graduated with a BFA from Coker College in 1971. She also earned an Associate of Science degree from Wingate College, Wingate, N.C.
In addition to her photography, the Camden, S.C. resident was a gourmet cook, an avid tennis player, artist, master gardener, sommelier, choir member and basketball player. Catherine is survived by her two brothers, Bundy Farice Belk Jr. and Michael Eugene Belk; nieces and nephews, and her friend and companion, the love of her life, Kit, her Cairn Terrier.
She was a member of Grace Episcopal Church, Springdale Hall Club, past president of the Camden Garden Club and from 2014-2018 she was the creative director and fund raiser at the National Steeplechase Museum in Camden.
A funeral service will be held Sunday, Oct. 6, at 2 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Camden, an inurnment will follow in the church memorial garden. The Rev. Pickett Wall will officiate.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to Grace Episcopal Church, 1315 Lyttleton Street, Camden, SC 29020, and to the Kershaw County Humane Society, 128 Black River Road, Camden, SC 29020.