07/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
"The good die early," wrote the novelist Daniel Defoe in 1715. Since Defoe's day that sentiment has been expressed so often it has come to seem like mere superstitious cliché. But when 31-year-old Mike Fuller, a PEOPLE photographer for the past four years, died suddenly last month, those who knew him felt the cliché had proved tragically accurate. "Mike had a golden aura around him—he made people feel good," says Neal Preston, his friend and fellow photographer. "He was a wonderful photographer," adds PEOPLE picture editor M.C. Marden, "and he was nice to everyone. He would come in and light up the hallway. Mike radiated absolute joy."
Marden first encountered that joy in 1984, when she hired Fuller, a relative novice, to photograph a moving van for a story on John DeLorean. The subject was uninspiring and, worse still, the photo would be used only as a model for the artist who was illustrating the piece. "It was a disgusting assignment—I was embarrassed to ask anyone to do it," Marden remembers. "But Mike was such a good sport. 'Piece of cake,' he said. I thought, 'Whatever we do, we've got to give this guy more work.' "
And so they did. Fuller went on to shoot Caroline Kennedy's wedding (PEOPLE, Aug. 4, 1986), the Christa McAuliffe cover story (Feb. 10, 1986), singer Taylor Dayne (May 23, 1988) and a host of others. He gained a reputation for versatility, persistence and unflagging good humor, even during grueling assignments like the Robert Chambers murder trial (April 11, 1988), when he stood outside a Manhattan courtroom for 15 hours at a stretch, waiting for Chambers to emerge after the verdict. Fuller's high spirits invariably brought out the best in his subjects. "There is a certain wooing that goes on in this profession," says New York correspondent David Hutchings, who worked with Mike. "You want to make people feel comfortable enough to reveal themselves to you, in words or pictures, and Mike did that very well. He just acted like himself, but it was such a pleasing self."
Born in New York City to William Fuller, a hotel and restaurant owner, and Carmel Quinn, a singer on The Arthur Godfrey Show, Mike was a charmer from the start. He was the big brother who specialized in mugging and goofy voices, to the delight of his sisters, Jane and Terry, and brother Sean. "When Steve Martin came on the scene," remembers Jane, "we were like, 'Who's this guy on TV ripping off our brother?' " When he wasn't clowning, Mike was drawing, and then in high school he traded his pencils for a camera. After a brief stint studying photography at New York's School of Visual Arts, he landed a job as a photographer's assistant at McCall's. Subsequent jobs assisting pros like Ken Regan, Jill Krementz and Annie Leibowitz helped polish his technical skills and led to assignments for CBS, ABC, Forbes and FORTUNE in addition to PEOPLE.
In the year before his death, Fuller was flourishing both personally and professionally. Divorced in 1987 from his wife of seven years, Valerie Fiederlein, he had found a girlfriend, dental assistant Laurie Adams, to whom he was devoted. His beloved daughter, Una, 7, visited often from her home in Hawaii. And his work was getting better by the day. "He was really blossoming as a photographer," says PEOPLE assistant picture editor Maddy Miller. "If an assignment was tough—the lighting was tricky, the people were difficult or there wasn't much time—I would always try to get Mike."
Miller remembers something else about Fuller: He was scrupulous about his farewells. "I'd be on the phone in my office," she says, "and he'd wait in the doorway until I was through. Then he'd say, 'I just couldn't leave without saying goodbye.' "
We couldn't either. He is terribly missed.