Of all the photographers present, only Stearns 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: John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket outside St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The day of the funeral was John Jr.'s third birthday.
Stearns later said he had been zeroed in on the Kennedy family as they left the Cathedral and was somewhat surprised no one else captured the image.
"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."
Stan Stearns remembers the day in a letter to The Downhold Project, a website maintained by former UPI staff members:
I was chosen to walk with Jacqueline Kennedy and world leaders from the White House to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for President John F. Kennedy's funeral service on November 25, 1963.
When we got there I had to go behind the ropes with the other 70-odd photographers. All squeezed in an area for 30. Wow!
UPI photographer Frank Cancellare squeezed me in next to him. When the service started inside, Cancy and I discussed what to do as a team.
I had the longest lens, a 200-mm. He shot like I was not next to him, and I just watched Jackie. She bent down and whispered in her son's ear. John-John's hand came up to a salute. Click!
One exposure on a roll of 36 exposures.
As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. Everyone I talked to had been concentrating on Jackie and the caisson.
At this point I made a decision to walk the film into the bureau feeling I had the picture of the funeral. I was supposed to walk with the caisson to Arlington. I knew we had photographers along the way and at least four at the cemetery. They could do without me.
When I walked in the office George Gaylin (Washington Newspictures Manager) almost had a heart attack. I have never seen a man that mad. He turned red then white. Yelling and screaming that I did not go to Arlington. I kept telling him I had THE PICTURE of the funeral. He was yelling that he had rolls and rolls of film from ump-teen photographers covering the funeral.
While Harold Blumenfeld (Executive Editor for News Pictures) and Ted Majeski (Managing Editor for News Pictures) were trying to calm him down, Frank Tremaine (Vice President, General Manager for News Pictures) grabbed me by the collar and said: "You better have the picture of the funeral or you're fired."
Knowing it was going to be a big enlargement, and knowing my job was on the line, I went into the darkroom with fine grain developer to develop the film. Unheard of at UPI. It took 17 min. I could hear Gaylin pacing outside the door muttering.
When the negative was washed and dried I went to Gaylin's desk. He looked at it and yelled! "He does have the picture of the funeral." He quickly showed it to Ted Majeski and Harry Blumenfield on his way to have it enlarged and printed. The rest is history. A WORLD BEATER for UPI.
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.