Darwin Payne ’68 was a 26-year-old staff reporter assigned to the rewrite desk of the Dallas Times Herald when he was thrust into the heart of what remains one of this country’s most painful episodes.
Originally slated to cover a reception for First Lady Jackie Kennedy November 22, 1963, Payne was sent to Dealey Plaza about 10 minutes after gunshots were fired. In a stroke of luck, a group of young women he interviewed worked for Abraham Zapruder and told him that their boss had been filming the presidential motorcade. They led Payne to the offices of Jennifer Juniors, Inc., a clothing manufacturer co-founded by Zapruder, in the Dal-Tex Building at 501 Elm St. In plain view, on an office filing cabinet, rested the Bell & Howell Zoomatic 8-mm camera that had just recorded what are arguably the most famous 486 frames in the history of moving images.
“I offered to buy the film, but Zapruder declined,” Payne says. “The next day, Life magazine won a bidding war [for $150,000] for the publication rights.”
While interviewing Zapruder, Payne recalls hearing radio reports that the president was seriously wounded and had been rushed to nearby Parkland Hospital. Zapruder tearfully exclaimed that he was certain the president would not survive his wounds, saying, “No, no, he’s dead. I was looking through my viewfinder, and I saw his head …”
Later that afternoon, Payne examined Lee Harvey Oswald’s perch on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository before heading to the Oak Cliff rooming house where Oswald had been living under the name of O.H. Lee. He interviewed Oswald’s neighbors and occupants of the rooming house before heading back to the newsroom to write a lengthy story that appeared in the newspaper the following day, a Saturday, which happened to be his regular evening to cover police headquarters.
“I saw Oswald paraded back and forth a couple of times,” he recalls. “Reporters were wondering what time Oswald would be transferred Sunday from the police station to the county jail.”
After working until 2 a.m. Sunday morning, an exhausted Payne slept late the following morning, only to awake in time to see Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shockingly gun down Oswald on national television. The reporter was dispatched to Ruby’s apartment at Ewing and R.L. Thornton to interview neighbors and gather background information. His field notes were incorporated into a subsequent feature story on the Dallas nightclub owner and self-appointed vigilante.
In January 1964, Payne talked his way into the home of the press-shy Marina Oswald, the assassin’s widow, for a brief interview. “I managed to ask her a few questions, though she said she didn’t want to talk,” he says.
Thirty years later, Payne organized a reunion on the SMU campus of the professional news gatherers who covered the assassination. He compiled their memories in the book Reporting the Kennedy Assassination: Journalists Who Were There Recall Their Experiences.
These days Payne is involved in chronicling a happier history. He is the official SMU centennial historian writing the story of the University first century, to be published in 2015.
Ever understated, the 75-year-old SMU professor emeritus of journalism shrugs off his role during one of the 20th century’s most pivotal events. Asked if covering the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath was a life-changing event for him, he answers: “No, I wouldn’t say that. Anybody who was involved in it to any extent always carries that mark. People are always interested in it, so it’s hard to get away from it.”
– Whit Sheppard