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Photographer behind historic Buddy Holly plane crash photos remembered in Surf Ballroom display

From the Remembering 'The Day the Music Died': Buddy Holly, Surf Ballroom coverage over the years series
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Globe Gazette photographer Elwin Musser was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the 1959 plane crash which killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson. A display honoring Musser was recently unveiled by the Surf Ballroom and museum.

The late Globe Gazette photographer who captured the iconic images of “The Day the Music Died” is being honored at the Surf Ballroom & Museum in Clear Lake.

That’s thanks to a portable display featuring the 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, flash and film holders Elwin Musser used to photograph the plane crash that killed rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on Feb. 3, 1959, near Clear Lake.

“It’s another story to tell,” said Laurie Lietz, Surf Ballroom & Museum executive director. “I always say there are a lot of stories to tell within these walls.”

Musser, who died on March 28, 2015, at 95, worked for the Globe Gazette from 1946 to 1981. He was the newspaper’s first full-time photographer.

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Globe Gazette photographer Elwin Musser was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the 1959 plane crash which killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson. A display honoring Musser was recently unveiled by the Surf Ballroom and museum.

The equipment, which the Globe Gazette gifted him when he retired, is on permanent loan to the Surf Ballroom for display.

“It was just the perfect location because of all the history,” said Marilyn Regnier, one of Musser’s four children. “I don’t think it should be anywhere else.”

Regnier gave her father’s equipment to the Surf Ballroom in August after seeing its museum.

The display, positioned in the southeast corner of the Surf Lounge, was revealed Wednesday ahead of the ballroom’s annual Winter Dance Party.

The Winter Dance Party was started in 1979 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Holly, Valens and Richardson’s last performance at the Surf Ballroom.

This year marks the 61st anniversary of the infamous Winter Dance Party concert tour and the plane crash that killed the three rock ‘n’ roll legends and pilot Roger Peterson.

Musser was the only photographer to cover the now-infamous event.

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Globe Gazette photographer Elwin Musser was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the 1959 plane crash which killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson. A display honoring Musser was recently unveiled by the Surf Ballroom and museum.

He captured everything from the wreckage to the bodies of the music legends in the snow.

His photo was selected in 1999 as a "Photo of the Century" by The Associated Press.

“All his pictures were important, but they just felt the camera needed a home,” Lietz said.

Although the Holly crash photo was his most famous, Musser compiled a diverse body of work in the 35 years he worked at the Globe Gazette.

President Harry Truman's stop in Manly in 1952; the visit of Pope John Paul II in Des Moines in 1979; a steam engine and diesel train collision in 1949; and the deadly Braniff Airlines crash in Swaledale in 1954 were just a few of the many historic moments he caught on film.

“He saw a lot of tragedy, and thankfully, a tremendous amount of good in the everyday goings-on and events of the people of North Iowa,” Regnier said.

Photography was her father's life, passion and hobby, she said. There was hardly a moment he didn’t have a camera — or two — around his neck.

Musser began his career with a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, switching to 35mm before his retirement, but later, he started using digital cameras.

“The camera was a natural extension of himself,” Regnier said

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Elwin Musser displays the Speed Graphic camera he used as a Globe Gazette photographer in this 2008 file photo.

Regnier hopes to visit the display with her mother, Elsie Musser, this summer.

She said the “beautiful display” memorializes the life’s work of her father.

“He was just a wonderful, wonderful person,” Regnier said. “I miss him every day.”

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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