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Stan Stearns; took iconic photo of JFK Jr.

Joshua McKerrow/The Capital via Associated Press/File

Former United Press International photographer Stan Stearns in 2007, with his photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father at the president’s funeral.

WASHINGTON - Stan Stearns, the photographer who took the iconic picture of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin during the slain president’s 1963 funeral, died Friday of cancer at age 76.

Mr. Stearns was assigned to cover the funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, as a photographer for United Press International. He later described standing outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington and being squeezed into a roped off area with 70 other photographers.

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Mr. Stearns stood by as the president’s flag-draped casket was loaded on to a horse-drawn caisson after the funeral. Through his telephoto lens, he watched as Jacqueline Kennedy leaned down to whisper to her son, who turned 3 years old that day. Then the boy stepped forward and saluted. Mr. Stearns’s camera clicked. The salute lasted less than five seconds. Though television cameras captured the moment, it was Mr. Stearns’s photo that became famous.

Mr. Stearns later said he learned that other photographers missed the picture because they had focused on Jacqueline Kennedy or the president’s coffin.

Mr. Stearns was supposed to walk with the funeral procession to Arlington but instead returned to UPI’s office with his film. His angry boss demanded to know why he had left. Stearns explained he had the picture of the day.

“I knew I got it,’’ Mr. Stearns later said of the famous shot. “You know when you get it.’’

In 2007, obituaries for another photographer, Joe O’Donnell, mistakenly credited him with taking the famous image. Newspapers later corrected the error.

Mr. Stearns did not get rich from his famous photograph. He told the Baltimore Sun in 1999 that it earned him $25 in a picture contest. But the image has become a part of history.

“The picture told the whole damn story,’’ he later said.

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