"NEWS 8 ETC..."
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GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN:
TRIBUTES TO DON HARRIS
AND GENE THOMAS
FOR DON HARRIS
CLICK HERE FOR GENE THOMAS
"We all idolized Don, every one of us...he was a hero to us. I (still)
think of Don and Gene so often, even now after all of these years."
Robert Morrill, a retired policeman in Monterey, CA, wrote recently and said, "I became good friends with Don when he was working at NBC out of the Burbank Studios. I gave Don my bulletproof vest to take to Jonestown when he went with Congressman Ryan. Unfortunately, they shot him (elsewhere.)"
While Don exceled as co-host and producer of "News 8 etc...", his forte was hard news. He was an investigative reporter and lead news anchor for WFAA before, during and after his stint on "etc..." He won numerous awards for his hard-hitting news stories, and was respected by his colleagues--one of whom identified Harris as "a tough, compulsive reporter who lived his work 24 hours a day." Another unidentified source said, "(Harris) knows that the 'buddy-buddy' approach can win friends, but a point comes when you have to be a watchdog, too."
Don once said of himself, "Let's face it...I'm not easy to like. I am impatient. I don't like mistakes... Sometimes I seem to create severe antagonisms on the part of some in the viewing audience who hold certain public figures in awe. I don't pretend that I can be totally objective; I seriously doubt that it's humanly possible. I can try to be fair--and listen to all sides. (But) I also feel a duty to probe behind what is said and relate statements to what the public figure does." Don acknowledged the inherent danger with doing investigative reporting: "If the day ever comes where we stop covering the news because it's dangerous to cover it, that's the day I'm getting out of the business."
"We (as the citizenry) have a tendency to lose sight of the fact that most
elected officials have no particular specialized training for the job they
sought and got. They're working for us! Why shouldn't the people
have a right to know what they're up to once we've elected them?"
John Sparks, former news producer for WFAA-TV, commented in 1978 that "(Harris) managed to shake this town up like very few reporters have been able to do before or since. Don put his life on the line for a story many times. He didn't talk much about it. But I know there were a number of stories he went into, knowing that he could have been killed. He was aware of the risks, but he was in a special category of news reporters." Sparks continued: "I would put him in a class with Edward R. Murrow, had he lived."
of NBC News stated, "Don Harris was a man of principle. He was not
given to making rash judgments. Once he made his mind up, he stuck
to it. He once dumped thousands of feet of riot film into the Potomac
River in Washington, rather than surrender it to federal authorities.
He said later that he had promised people in the film that it would never
be used against them in court."
The late Travis Linn, who later co-hosted "News 8 etc..." and was the Dallas news bureau chief for CBS at the time of Harris' death, called Don "a superb newsman, probably a bigger newsman than this town could handle," in a 1978 interview. "There was no story he was afraid to look into. He always did his homework, always touched all the bases, and he was a good, thoughtful writer. His style was careful and thorough, yet he did become controversial because he loved to play the devil's advocate and bring a lot of life into his stories." But that attitude apparently did not hurt viewers' regard for Harris: "He came down hard on a number of investigative stories," Linn continued, "and I think the public respected him for it." One example of Harris' style was an investigative report he took on, where he smuggled marijuana across the Mexican border to prove how easily it could be done, and another where he had two passengers sneak weapons through a new elaborate security system at Dallas' Love Field Airport in 1972. The airport security piece earned Don a citation from the Associated Press, and another for a story he did on "scandalous" emergency hospital admissions practices.
Harris was also known for his thoughtful, no-nonsense, on-air editorials at WFAA-TV.
His closing line each time was, "My name's Harris...and that's my opinion."
The late Chip Moody remembered Don fondly in his 1995 book, Moments: The Life and Career of a Texas Newsman: "Don was never shy or retiring. He turned in some excellent investigative reports and was also an affable host of a morning news program, 'News 8 etc...'"
Former floor director and studio camera operator Ron Ragan recalled Harris's mischievous side: "I worked the floor crew during 1970-73. I was a cameraman for 'News 8 etc...' some of the time while Suzie and Don were hosts...During those years, Don and I became good friends. Goodness knows why; I was a 20-something, fresh out of college, and Don was...well, bigger than life. What can I say, he liked me and the feeling was mutual. Don and I were forever pulling practical jokes on each other; small stuff usually, but fun. (Then Harris) moved from 'etc...' to the evening news anchor spot. For months before I left Channel 8 for greener pastures, Don had warned me that he would 'get me' in a way that I would never forget.
"I was the 'News 8 at 6' floor director that evening. Everything was normal. We rolled into a commercial break, and all the talent left the set to go outside Studio C for a smoke break (a common practice at the time.) Don, Murphy Martin, Vern Lundquist and Jack Van Roy all left the studio. About one minute before we were supposed to cut back to the studio, it was the floor director's job to step outside the studio, round up the talent and get them back on the set. I stepped outside the studio doors and called my talent, to no avail. Nobody was there. Right on cue, director 'Captain' Bob Ellis hollered at me from the upstairs control room. 'Ragan! Where's my talent? Get 'em on the set NOW!' Now I was starting to panic. Where was Harris? He was up for the next story. Where was Murphy? He was never late. Vern was understandable. He was always skating in at the last moment. But this was very unusual.
"Now we were at 30 seconds away from live studio. Ellis was screaming profanities at the top of his lungs. The floor crew was all in a tizzy. Here I was, near the end of my career with Channel 8, and we were rolling to a blackout...and on my watch! I ripped off my headset, swung open the studio doors and headed for the newsroom when I glanced up the spiral staircase leading down from the control room. There, coming down the staircase, lined up and grinning ear to ear were all four anchors led by Don Harris. As he walked by me, he all but whispered the words, 'Gotcha, Ragan!'
"Everyone had been in on the prank but me. Harris had planned it all. The studio monitor had been rewired. The commercial had rolled into a network feed, all unbeknownst to me. I had the only 'fake' script in the station, prepared only for me. It was an elaborate ruse and Harris had planned it just for me, together with Ellis, the other anchors, News Director Travis Linn and the whole station.
loved that guy. Nobody could have or would have (planned such a ruse)
but Don. He was the GREATEST and, even now, I still miss him and
treasure my time with him during those years."
Don, whose real name was Roy Darwin Humphrey, was born near Vidalia, Georgia, on September 8, 1936. He worked first for radio station WVOP in his hometown in 1957, then in television for a North Carolina station, where Harris did weather reports. Later, he was with WTVT-TV in Tampa, FL as a staff announcer from 1964-1968, and at WTOP-TV in Washington, DC from 1968-1969. He took a position briefly with the NBC-TV affiliate in San Francisco, then joined WFAA-TV in December, 1969. Harris served as a reporter and lead news anchor until 1973, when he quit over a dispute with station management. Don then left Texas for the news department at NBC-owned KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.
Harris covering the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975
By 1975, he was promoted to the network news staff at NBC, where he covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and reported from the trenches in Vietnam. He was nicknamed "Mr. Lucky" by American soldiers who were amazed at his ability to dodge bullets and land mines, while still able to always bring back the story. Harris won four Emmys for news coverage during his career, and earned a DuPont/Columbia Award for his feature, "The Prison Gangs," broadcast on KNBC-TV in 1975.
Before Jonestown, Don's last investigative piece was a two-part series on
international terrorism, broadcast on "NBC Nightly News" in the spring of 1978
Don was survived
by a wife, Shirley; two daughters, Claire and Lauren; a son, Jeff; and
an uncle, Dr. A. J. Morris. The family lived in Woodland Hills, CA,
a suburb of Los Angeles. Jeff Humphrey followed in his father's footsteps
and spent 26 years as a TV news reporter and anchor in Spokane, WA.
In November, 2008, he and his mother Shirley spoke publicly about his father's
passing for the very first time on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown
Massacre. To read Jeff's blog, and to see the YouTube video of the
interviews, click here.
.The last photo ever taken of Don Harris; he is the tall man, second from left. The plane in the background
was to take the NBC crew and Congressman Leo Ryan back to safe territory. Moments later, Harris, Ryan,
photographer Bob Brown and a defecting family were shot dead by Temple security. This film was
found on the grounds, along with Harris's interview with leader Jim Jones. NBC used the compelling
footage with their news reports.
"It was a
terrible, tragic accident," Suzie said, "It left a great hole in all of
us who loved him." In a strange twist of fate, Suzie was the reporter
first chosen to ride along with Arfons, but decided at the last moment
to take a vacation that week instead.
Suzie said of Gene: "He was amazing! A great news man...a great talent...a great friend. He was as witty as he was serious, he could do light news as well as hard, he could shift demeanor and jump from one story to the next easily and with marvelous style."
Thomas first worked on "News 8 etc..." as the news anchor that was regularly cut away to during the show to provide news updates. He was promoted to co-host in August, 1971, a mere two months before his fatal accident.
to the industry were not overlooked. North Texas State University
(now the University of North Texas) set up a scholarship in Gene's name
through the Association of Broadcasting Executives of Texas for outstanding
students in the school's journalism department. Immediately after
his death, the Dallas Chaparrals basketball team (now the San Antonio Spurs)
honored Gene with a "Gene Thomas Memorial Night" game on October 31, 1971.
Some of the proceeds were intended to establish an education fund for his
children, but that apparently never came to fruition, according to Gene's
Gene was born in Pawhuska, OK, and grew up in Tulsa. He attended Central High School there. Gene had a charismatic personality and an inquiring mind which made him a natural for a career in broadcasting. After a four-year stint in the Navy (where he had his first radio show while stationed in Iceland,) he worked for a small radio station in Coffeyville, Kansas, then to KAKC Radio in Tulsa as a top 40 DJ before going into news at that station. In 1966, he broke into television as a sportscaster at KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City before becoming a news anchor there. Following that, he was news director of KWTV-TV in Beaumont, TX. In 1969, he came to work for WFAA as the Fort Worth news bureau chief. After about 3 months, he moved into the news department in Dallas, then was promoted to evening news anchor. One of Gene's major news assignments was traveling to Vietnam with Ross Perot.
Thomas is survived by his second wife, Linda Brooks Alred (who still resides in the Dallas area;) a son, Darin (who now lives in Tulsa;) and daughters Monica (from Gene's first marriage; she currently lives in Kansas City) and Jill (currently living in Miami.) Linda wrote recently to say that Gene now has three granddaughters and three grandsons who wish very much that they could have known him.
L: Gene's fascination with cars would later cause his untimely death. R: Gene at the "etc..." table.
L: Gene also served as a WFAA news anchor. R: Gene's former home in South Dallas, today
Gene Thomas' obituary, as published in the Dallas Morning News on October 17, 1971.
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