By Howard Lestrud
Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for over 50 years, interviews Pulitzer prize-winner Robert Jackson and discusses, first, his hobby-turned-career and his subsequent photography assignment on Nov. 22, 1963, and, second, the day he took the historic picture of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
What started as a hobby as a youngster resulted in a full-time vocation and eventually a Pulitzer Prize for world-renowned photographer Robert H. “Bob” Jackson, now of Manitou Springs, Colo.
Jackson, 79, is the former Dallas Times Herald news photographer who fired a shot with his Nikon S3 Rangefinder camera with a 35 mm lens just milliseconds after Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby fired a shot with his .38 caliber Colt Cobra pistol. Ruby’s shot killed Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Jackson’s shot captured history forever. The Pulitzer prize-winning photo has become one of the most recognizable photos of world history.
The assassination of Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and the killing of Oswald came two days apart almost 50 years ago. Many who were at least 5 or 6 when these two shootings took place still recall that image of Oswald grimacing in pain after being shot by Ruby.
A fun career
On a recent fall day, Jackson discussed exclusively with ECM Publishers his connection to the events of the days surrounding the assassination.
Jackson and many other journalists covered the arrival of President Kennedy and first lady Jackie at Dallas Love Field. Jackson then joined the Kennedy motorcade and was in the eighth vehicle behind the presidential limousine when he saw a rifle being withdrawn from a sixth-story window of the Texas School Book Depository building as the motorcade headed down Elm Street. Two days later, Jackson witnessed history being made again as he photographed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas police station.
Jackson was asked what he would write as an epitaph on his tombstone. Hesitating, but taking the question seriously, he said, “I had a fun career.”
Jackson said, with the many advances in photography, many people “are now discovering they are pretty good photographers” and can do it much easier with cameras on their phones and with point-and-shoot cameras.
“I’m glad my career was at the time it was,” he said.
Jackson still has his cameras at easy access but said he now does a lot of chauffeuring of grandchildren, does yard work and kindles his interest in motor sports car racing.
Hobby turns into career
Jackson said his interest in photography began when he was 12 or 13. He grew up in Dallas. An aunt gave him a Baby Brownie Special camera to give him his start, and a family cat became one of his first subjects.
When Jackson turned 14 his interest became more serious. Another aunt gave him an Argus C-3 35 mm camera.
Jackson’s first news photo was of a double fatality crash in northern Dallas. Jackson persuaded his father to drive him to the scene of the crash. His second news photo was of an airplane crash at Love Field.
His photography interest grew when he became hooked on photographing sports car racing. Prior to joining the 36th Infantry National Guard, Jackson attended Southern Methodist University but did not graduate. His interest in car racing and hill climbs, including Pikes Peak in Colorado, helped him build up a clientele and photo portfolio. While in the Army, Jackson became a photographer for an Army general and further developed his portfolio.
A powerful photo portfolio helped Jackson land the job offered him by Felix McKnight of the Dallas Times Herald. The newspaper was hiring four photographers.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” Jackson said.
He became a general beat photographer and acquired on the job training by working next to two seasoned photographers, a husband and wife team, John and Peggy Mazziotta.
On the sunny, 63-degree Nov. 22nd day in 1963, Jackson received an assignment with John Mazziotta to photograph the Kennedys’ arrival at Love Field and then to follow them and their fellow motorcade dignitaries, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, to the Trade Mart, site of a planned luncheon and speech. Jackson had an engraved invitation. The plan was for Mazziotta to take Jackson’s film to the Times-Herald newspaper office and then join the motorcade.
Jackson recalls having two 35mm cameras with him and riding on the back of a convertible press car. He said he was thinking to himself that the paper wouldn’t use much of his motorcade coverage.
He did take crowd shots at Main and Ervay and on a few more blocks leading to Houston Street where he unloaded one of his cameras (Telephoto) and tossed the film to a courier, Jim Featherstone. Jackson’s photo of a happy crowd greeting the president is featured in the Newseum at Washington, D.C.
“I spotted Featherstone, tossed the film to him about 10-12 feet away and saw a gust of wind catch the envelope and cause him to chase it.
“I was seated next to Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Dillard. He and I heard the first shot and then two together. I pointed toward the book depository and saw two guys hanging out of a fifth floor window. My eyes then went to the next floor and there was a rifle on the window ledge. It was immediately drawn in.
“I yelled, ‘There’s a gun.’ Tom took a photo but only caught an image of an empty window. We knew we had heard gun shots. As our car turned onto Elm, I saw the presidential car disappear at an underpass. I then had to make a decision whether to stay in the car or not. Looking back, I would have done things differently. Our driver stopped to let passengers out. I didn’t know the president was hit at that time. My assignment was to cover the Kennedy speech; thus, I stayed in the car.
“As our car picked up speed past the grassy knoll, I could see frightened looks on faces, horror on some. As we reached the underpass, I got out and immediately witnessed a motorcycle policeman jump off his motorcycle, let his motorcycle fall over as he ran toward the depository building.
“I still don’t know whether I had reloaded my camera at that time. I should have been taking photos of faces of people on the motorcade route.
“Police then let traffic proceed past the grassy knoll. A couple other photographers and I flagged down a lady and asked her to take us to Parkland Hospital.
“We were stopped on the Stemmons Freeway by a motorcycle cop but allowed to proceed when we told him we were press. He said he did not know where the shots came from. ‘I know where they came from,’ I told him, and he let us go after taking my name and phone number.”
After arriving at Parkland Hospital and being kept back in the crowd, Jackson said he heard details on a police radio of a police officer being shot in Oak Cliff, a suburb of Dallas. The shooting was later alleged to have been Oswald killing officer J.D. Tippit on a Dallas street corner. Oswald had fled the depository building, where he worked and allegedly had fired shots at the presidential motorcade.
Events of the day blur after that, Jackson said.
“I have no idea how I got back to the paper,” he said.
That night, Jackson became part of the media mob scene at the Dallas police station. He stayed into the night photographing Oswald as he was brought through the police halls.
“I wish I would have had a tape recorder,” he said.
Knowing one’s photography equipment and what you can do with it has much to do with whether a photograph will be an award winner, said Jackson.
Luck is also involved in taking spot, or breaking, news photos, explained Jackson, who was 29 in 1963 when he took one of the most highly regarded photos of history, that of the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy being shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live television.
Jackson will be in Dallas the weekend of Nov. 22, when the city of Dallas is sponsoring a public event, “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy.”
Kennedy was assassinated by a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, said The Warren Commission, an investigating body appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to assemble findings on the assassination and related events.
Photographer and witness
Jackson, then a general beat photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, covered the arrival of Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy at Love Field in Dallas and followed them on the motorcade traveling Dallas streets. Jackson took photos of the Kennedys as they worked a crowd at the airport, and he then photographed well-wishers on the motorcade route minutes later. Jackson, while between rolls of film, witnessed a rifle being pulled back from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building, allegedly the sniper’s perch of the named assassin.
Following a hectic day on Friday, Nov. 22, Jackson was given the day off on Nov. 23.
He was on duty again Sunday – “very fortunate to be the Sunday person,” Jackson said – when he had an assignment to cover the transfer of Oswald from the Dallas Police Department to the Dallas County Jail.
Jackson actually had two assignments that day. The second one was to cover Nellie Connally’s press conference after the transfer of Oswald. Connally and her husband, Texas Gov. John Connally, were passengers with the Kennedys in the presidential limousine the day of the assassination. Gov. Connally was seriously wounded. Nellie Connally and Jackie Kennedy were not injured.
Connally’s press conference was set for 10:30 a.m. and the transfer of Oswald was to be at 9:30 a.m.
As the time ticked past 9:30, Jackson and others of the media became impatient as they waited in the police department basement. A call was placed to the city desk to learn the reason of the delay.
“It became apparent they were not in any hurry,” Jackson recalled.
Jackson’s superiors still wanted him to cover the Connally press conference, but Jackson said he was not leaving his spot in the basement. Jackson urged the Times Herald to use Willie Allen of United Press International to cover the Connally conference.
Ruby shoots Oswald
Word then came to the media that the police were to move Oswald in five minutes. He was to be transported in an unmarked car, brought into the basement via the ramp from outside.
“I had to watch so they didn’t run over me as I leaned on the car fender,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he prefocused his camera to a little more than 10 feet.
“‘Here he comes,’ somebody yelled and then somebody stepped out from my right and was going to block my view,” Jackson said.
The obstacle was Jack Ruby, Dallas night club owner.
“He took two steps and fired, and I fired,” Jackson related. This all happened at 11:21 a.m.
“It just came together better than I could have planned,” Jackson said. “If I would have known” what was going to happen, “I might have missed it,” he said.
Jackson wound his camera and shot again. He remembers a police officer pushing him back and putting his hand over Jackson’s camera.
“I told him to get his hand off my camera. I could see he was upset.”
Jackson had no place to go after police officers wrestled Ruby to the floor. The unmarked car was taken out and an ambulance was brought into the basement. Oswald was brought out on a stretcher, and Jackson snapped some photos of Oswald on the stretcher.
With no cellphones in 1963, Jackson found a phone and called fellow photographer John Mazziotta, who asked Jackson what he had for photos. “‘I think I have some good pictures,’ I told him,” Jackson said.
Mazziotta told Jackson that United Press International was “screaming” for his film and said the newspaper would send a runner to pick up the film.
“‘There’s no way I will give the film to a runner, what happens if he gets hit by a bus?’” Jackson told Mazziotta.
Jackson stayed at the Dallas police station until 2 p.m. when he was relieved by another photographer.
When Jackson arrived at the Times Herald, he was shown the wire machine and asked if he had anything as good as a photo taken by Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News. This photo showed Ruby about to fire his .38 pistol at Oswald.
“‘I will let you know when I run my film,’” Jackson told his colleagues. “My worry was whether I pushed the button before the bullet entered his body,” Jackson said.
Jackson entered the darkroom to develop his film while Massiotta waited outside.
“I let out a yell after putting the film to light, seeing what I had,” Jackson said.
He then made a wet print and carried the 11-by-14 print into the newsroom.
“It was a hard picture to print because of the dark suits and the dark gun,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he had to “burn” in, or darken, the back of Ruby’s hand. Jackson is the only person who has ever printed the photo from the negative. He currently keeps it in a safety deposit box.
“We knew we had beat the Dallas Morning News; that was an exciting Sunday,” Jackson said.
“I did go home with a headache, however,” he added.
Jim Chambers of the Times Herald negotiated with United Press International and the Associated Press for the rights to the Jackson photo. The Times Herald would not release the photo to the UPI or AP until the Times Herald had hit the streets of Texas at 11 a.m. the next day.
“Nobody in Texas saw the photo until Monday,” Jackson said.
After the news
Jackson did receive a bonus for his prized photo. Each wire service reportedly wrote $1,000 checks, unheard of in those days, Jackson said. The newspaper also gave Jackson the rights to the photo.
Jackson received the Pulitzer Prize in May 1964. A certificate and check for $1,000 was mailed to him. No presentation ceremony was held. Now, Pulitzer photo winners receive $10,000 at a special ceremony.
The Warren Commission called Jackson as a witness. He testified mainly about seeing a rifle pulled from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building on Nov. 22.
Jackson said he believes Oswald acted alone.
“I always have had an open mind to a conspiracy that someone put him up there,” Jackson said.
“He (Oswald) was a nut case – Ruby, too,” Jackson added. “Ruby was hotheaded, loved Kennedy and didn’t want Jackie to come to Dallas for a trial.”
Following his time at the Times Herald, Jackson worked for the Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. He retired from the Gazette in 1999. Jackson has three daughters and two sons from his wife Debbie’s previous marriage and a son with Debbie. He also has 10 grandchildren.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]