Filmmaker known for Ohio, Civil War works

5/22/2007

BERLIN HEIGHTS, Ohio - Thomas R. Koba, a local filmmaker who with a partner ran an advertising agency and who once taught art in the Norwalk, Ohio, school system, died Saturday in Fisher-Titus Medical Center, Norwalk He was 61.

He died of complications from diabetes-induced heart disease, said Jennifer Wertz, his long-time personal companion and business partner.

His filmmaking focused on Ohio and Civil War history, including several documentaries concerning Ohio's role in the Civil War. He produced at least 12 feature documentaries in all, Ms. Wertz said.

In 2004, he premiered One Saturday Afternoon, a film about a tornado that devastated parts of Sandusky and Lorain in 1924 that included several eyewitness interviews.

Ms. Wertz said that at the time of his death, Mr. Koba was working on a film about an 1865 disaster involving the Mississippi River steamboat Sultana, whose boiler exploded during a northward voyage carrying 2,400 passengers, mostly freed Union war prisoners.

Mr. Koba swore several times that he would stop making films about the Civil War, she said, "but then he'd see some memorial plaque and say, 'That would be a great subject for a film.' He was intrigued by stories that had never been told before."

Mr. Koba's interest in film-making began during his late-1950s childhood in Lorain, Ohio, where his parents encouraged his use of the family home as a movie set. He and high-school friends produced a feature-length movie about a World War II beachhead battle that premiered at a Lorain cinema and made enough money to finance his next project, Ms. Wertz said.

He became Ohio University's first film student, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1968, she said.

Mr. Koba then taught art at Norwalk Middle School for a time before returning to OU for a master's degree. After that, he managed the audiovisual department and taught photography at Firelands College, near Sandusky, until 1981, when he left to form his ad agency, Koba & Co. Productions.

The agency produced some television and radio commercials, especially during its early years. But recent work has been concentrated in print advertising and video production.

Ms. Wertz said its largest customer has been the International Association of Machinists, for which Koba & Co. has produced training films for union organizers.

Mr. Koba kept his movie-making small and local because he wanted to maintain creative control, something he couldn't have had in Hollywood had he gone there, Ms. Wertz said.

"The minute you get other people's money involved, you have to listen to what they want," she said.

Along with his documentaries, Mr. Koba produced a low-budget "slasher" film, Survival 101, for which he twice signed unsuccessful distribution contracts. The second would-be distributor went out of business and, after that, the film started appearing on the Internet under a new name, I Spit on Your Grave Too.

Ms. Wertz said Mr. Koba made that movie as a low-budget lark and was amused by the possibility that it might become his best-known work.

"He did very serious film. He did historical documentaries," she said.

Surviving are his sons, Thomas M. and Michael Koba; daughters, Sarah Lewis and Liz Koba; sister, Kathy Dodson, and four grandchildren.

The body will be in the Toft Funeral Home & Crematory, Sandusky, after 11 a.m. tomorrow, with funeral services starting at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

The family suggests tributes to Back to the Wild, a wild-animal rescue organization based in Castalia, Ohio.