QUINCY -- Ryan Stark got his first camcorder at 13, and the piece of equipment became an extension of himself.
He had asked for the camera as a Christmas gift to film BMX bike tricks and different church functions, but becoming a videographer was never on his radar. He wanted to be a country western star or a construction worker, like his father, but his passion for film slowly transformed itself into a career and helped him to carve out his own niche as an entrepreneur.
Filming and fighting
A Quincy High School wrestler, Stark, now 31, was drawn to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), and, in 2006, those connections helped launch Ryan Stark Film Productions -- the first incarnation of what would become Stark's Studios, a predominantly wedding videography service that has become his full-time career.
Stark found himself filming MMA fights for seven different promoters across Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri. He spent every weekend on the road with his friends.
"I got paid, and I didn't have to get hit," he said. "For a poor college kid, it was pretty awesome."
The not getting hit part wasn't entirely true. During a particularly memorable shoot in Burlington, Iowa, he signed up for an MMA match.
"It was sketchy," he said. "They had a boxing ring in a conference/ballroom area. I pushed the kid into the corner turnbuckle, and all the ropes came loose, and we almost fell off the side of the stage."
Stark won by submission. While he was a Hannibal-LaGrange University student, he lost a second bout -- his last fight ever -- by decision, bringing his MMA career standings to 1-1.
"Our crew was filming that night, too," he said. "I was first on the card, so I went out and fought and filmed the rest of the night."
As he was filming a match one night, a fan approached Stark and asked if he could film a wedding. Stark refused the offer.
"No way, that's too much pressure," he said. "A wedding happens one time. It's a really important day."
After some coercion from the fan, he agreed to give it a shot. He was 20 when he filmed his first wedding.
"At that point, all I knew was to point the camera in the right direction, hit record and hope for the best," he said. "I just tried to capture everything I thought was important."
The event went well, and more offers started coming in.
"The pressure never goes away, no matter how long you do this," he said. "You have to be on point. You're capturing moments they will look back on for years to come."
A request from a former client recently showed Stark the impact of his work. The woman's grandmother had just died, and in her wedding video film, Stark captured the grandmother saying, "I love you." He isolated the clip and gave it to the woman.
"You're preserving these memories," he said. "Now grandma's gone, but she can look back, and she can hear grandma's laugh and see grandma smiling."
Finding love in loss
Stark runs the business with his wife, Kimber, a Keokuk, Iowa, native. Their meeting came during one of the most painful times in his life.
"I was at John Wood, finishing up a meeting, and my mom said we needed to talk," Stark said. "She came out there, and she said, 'I have cancer.' "
His mother sought treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. A Best Buy employee at the time, Stark arranged for time off so he could travel south and stay with his mother.
"I came back for a weekend to pack everything, and while I was back, my buddy introduced me to Kimber," he said.
They hit it off right away, but neither thought the connection would amount to anything. Kimber sent him a gift basket to bring back to Texas for his mother, and the two stayed in touch online while he was gone.
Stark lived in Texas for almost four months. As Christmas approached, doctors sent his mother home, believing it would be her last. While back in the area, Stark attended Kimber's family Christmas.
After another brief stint in Texas, Stark and his mother returned to Quincy, where she continued to receive chemotherapy and radiation.
Stark and Kimber got engaged in April. Both cared for his mother, who died in July, one month before the couple got married.
"She was really instrumental in caring for my mom," Stark said of his wife of five years. "I was working on getting my master's degree, and I was still working at Best Buy and part-time at a hotel overnight."
A self-described Catholic/Baptist, Stark grew up attending churches of both denominations with his parents. As he grew older, he started solely attending Baptist services. His faith helped him accept his mother's death.
"I don't think I really cried until after the funeral," he said. "God has a way of getting you through."
In 2013, the couple began taking on more gigs and trying to grow the business, which by then was called Stark's Studios. By 2015, Kimber was working there full-time, and in January 2017, Stark began running the company full-time as well. Stark's Studios has recently begun taking on more jobs outside of wedding shoots, like corporate promotions and storytelling videos for nonprofits.
Stark and Kimber serve as youth group sponsors at their church. They try to offer the adolescents the same sort of mentorship Stark received in his youth.
"Mentoring youth is about doing life with them," he said, "showing them what real life looks like."
The couple recently returned from a month-long mission trip in Barbados -- Kimber's first and Stark's third. Prompted by a relationship Stark had developed online while getting a new logo designed for Stark's Studios, the trip was spur of the moment, and they had less than two weeks to prepare to leave the country for a month.
They stayed with a host family and spent the month videoing the work of missionaries in the area.
"We want to use the gifts and talents we've been given," he said. "God has a plan for everything."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.