Stearns, who won $25 from the wire service for "Photo of the Month," was one of 70 photographers jammed into a designated area outside the church where President John F. Kennedy's funeral was held following his 1963 assassination but had just the right angle and hit the shutter at just the right moment to capture one of the most memorable photos of the whole Kennedy saga. The funeral fell on the John Jr.'s third birthday.
Stearns later said he had been zeroed in on the Kennedy family as they left the Cathedral of St. Matthews in Washington and was somewhat surprised no one else captured the image, The Washington Post said Saturday.
"As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery, I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it," Stearns later recalled. "Everyone I talked to had been concentrating on Jackie and the caisson."
Stearns said he was so convinced he had a classic captured on film he skipped the trip to Arlington and hustled back to the darkroom at UPI's Washington bureau, much to the consternation of his bosses.
"The bureau chief almost had a hemorrhage," Stearns told the Annapolis Capital in 2009. "I never saw a man turn as white as he did because I was not with the entourage going to Arlington."
Stearns, who succumbed to cancer at a facility in Harwood, began his photography career with the Capital as a teenager. He served in the U.S. Air Force and ran a photography studio in his native Annapolis for 40 years after he left UPI in 1970.
John Kennedy Jr. was 38 when he died with his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette in a 1999 plane crash.