Tom Wicker, 1926–2011

The newsman who witnessed JFK’s death

Tom Wicker became a famous journalist the day President Kennedy was assassinated. As a reporter for The New York Times, he was in the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when the shots rang out at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza. Amid the chaos after the shooting, Wicker frantically scribbled notes, ran half a mile carrying his typewriter and briefcase, and dictated a 106-paragraph story in a series of phone calls. The shooting, he later wrote, “marked the beginning of the end of innocence.”

Born and raised in North Carolina as the son of a railroad conductor, Wicker served in the Navy before studying journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He started a career as a novelist, said the Associated Press, but when his “early books didn’t catch fire,” he began writing for local newspapers. His drive and talent landed him a job with the Times in 1960 as a political correspondent in the Washington bureau.

Wicker quickly gained a reputation as the bureau’s “workhorse,” said the Times, and was soon named White House correspondent—the role that took him to Dallas on that fateful November day. His dispatch capturing the “searing images” of Kennedy’s assassination vaulted Wicker “to journalistic prominence overnight,” and he quickly became Washington bureau chief and one of the paper’s star columnists.

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As a columnist, Wicker was a “liberal voice of the Times,” said The Washington Post. He denounced Lyndon B. Johnson for intervening in Vietnam, and his condemnation of Richard Nixon’s tactics in the Watergate scandal put him on the president’s “enemies list.” In 1971, Wicker became so involved in a hostage situation at Attica prison in New York that the prisoners invited him to “help mediate talks” with prison officials. After the rebellion turned into a bloodbath, he was widely criticized for “becoming a participant in a story he was covering.”

Wicker’s 1975 book about his experience at Attica, A Time to Die, “was hailed as his best,” said the Wilmington, N.C., Star-News. He wrote 20 nonfiction and fiction books, including Unto This Hour, a “Russian-sized” novel about a key Civil War battle.

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