When Rick Carr found a ripped, fading portrait of a World War II soldier in a box of old sketches and photos last month, he was filled with guilt.
He'd had the photo for 28 years. It belonged to an old friend named Tim St. John. They'd worked together in the St. Petersburg Times' classified advertising department in the early 1980s when Carr was in college studying photography.
It was the only photo St. John had of his father, Joseph St. John, in his Army Air Corps uniform. The time and place were stamped on the back: Philadelphia, 1945.
St. John had given it to Carr to repair in 1982 when they worked together.
"My heart just dropped," said Carr, 52. "I immediately thought of Tim. I felt so bad I had it for all these years."
Carr, a professional photo and video editor for Gulfstream Creative Media, got to work repairing the portrait using a high-end scanner and PhotoShop. He wrote a letter to the Times, hoping to find St. John so the photo could be returned.
St. John, 62, was still working in classified advertising, having returned to the Times after working for a newspaper in Denver. Carr recently delivered the photo to St. John. Upon their reunion, they also discovered that Carr also had an old photo of St. John's mother, Pauline.
"I never thought I'd see them again," St. John said of his parents' photos.
Thirty years ago, Carr was an ambitious young photojournalist at the University of South Florida. He took every photography class available to him, spending countless hours in the darkroom making new prints and editing old ones by hand with precision tools and a paintbrush.
Sometimes he brought photos to work to share with St. John.
"I knew he was studying photography, so I told him, 'If you want a challenge, here's something to hone your skills on,' " St. John said. "I gave him an easy one and a hard one. The one of my mother wasn't too bad, but my father's photo was pretty ruined."
It looked like it had been through a washing machine. Worst of all, someone had painted over the original badges and ribbons.
Overwhelmed by the amount of work it would take to repair, Carr put both photos in a box and forgot about them.
He graduated from college and left the Times. St. John moved to Denver. Years passed, the men lost contact, and the photos lay untouched.
Last month, Carr revisited the portrait of Joseph St. John, this time with three decades' worth of photo editing experience under his belt. Modern digital photo editing software saved him countless hours of work he would have had to do by hand 20 years ago.
He spent about 30 hours touching up the edges and repairing scratches. He found photos online of the exact patches and ribbons on the lieutenant's jacket by searching Google for Army Air Corps portraits.
He used elements of the left eye to re-create the right eye.
"It's like being a surgeon," Carr said. "You're reconstructing every element, making sure the cheekbone is in place, making sure the eye is in the socket."
In the process, he said, he often wondered about Joseph St. John's story.
"I get lost in the photo and the research," Carr said. "My mind was thinking, 'What is this guy seeing and feeling when he's flying over Germany?' "
As a result of his research, Carr suspected that St. John had served in Australia because his Air Corps wings were a rare set issued only to pilots trained there during World War II.
He was right. Upon returning the photo last week, Carr learned from Tim St. John that his father was a radio operator reporting the locations of enemy ships to Air Corps headquarters in Australia.
After 3 1/2 years in the Philippines, Joseph St. John met his wife while he was a patient at the Don CeSar — then a converted military hospital. They were married in October 1945.
The senior St. John earned a Legion of Merit and Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds suffered during the war.
He later wrote a book, Leyte Calling, named after the province where he was located in the Philippines.
Carr said refining the photo was a way of showing his gratitude for U.S. soldiers.
"The work that I do on this is honoring his service to our country," Carr said. "In some way I feel like I'm repaying a debt not only to Tim, but to his father."