Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

Published Oct. 19, 2013

By Bill Vogrin

Bob Jackson poses Oct. 15, 2013, with his Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Photo by Mark Reis/The Gazette

Bob Jackson poses Oct. 15, 2013, with his Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. (Photo by Mark Reis/The Gazette)

Bob Jackson vividly remembers hearing gunfire erupt from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building in Dallas.

It was Nov. 22, 1963, and Jackson was a 29-year-old photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, riding in the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy.

“We heard the first shot and then two more closer together,” Jackson told me last week. “I looked up at the direction the sounds came from.”

Positioned in the backseat of a convertible, seven cars behind Kennedy, Jackson instinctively scanned the building and his eyes stopped at the sight of a rifle protruding from a window.

“I saw part of a stock and barrel,” Jackson said in his matter-of-fact tone.

It’s a story Jackson, 79, has told many times. And he’ll be reciting it frequently in the upcoming weeks as the nation observes the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

In fact, Jackson, who retired from The Gazette in 1999, and his wife, Debbie, will make several trips from their Manitou Springs home, starting this week, to participate in events leading up to the anniversary.

In this Nov. 22, 1963, file photo, President John F. Kennedy waves to well-wishers from his motorcade as it passed through Dealy Plaza in downtown Dallas. Seated next to him was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Moments after this photo, a sniper perched in a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository shot Kennedy in the head. Texas Gov. John Connally, who was seated with his wife, Nellie Connally, in front of the president, was seriously wounded. (AP Photo/Jim Altgens)

However, most of the attention on Jackson does not relate to his memories of riding in the motorcade. It was perhaps his biggest disappointment as a photojournalist. That’s because at the moment ex-Marine sniper Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from his perch in the depository building, Jackson had no film in his camera.

“I had been told to shoot pictures along the motorcade route, unload my cameras, put the film in an envelope and toss it to a reporter along the route,” Jackson said.

And that’s what he did, just before the motorcade turned the corner into Dealey Plaza and Oswald’s Carcano rifle exploded three times, killing Kennedy and seriously wounding Texas Gov. John Connally, who was seated in front of the president.

“My camera was empty,” Jackson said, adding that he was too far behind to see Kennedy and Oswald’s rifle quickly disappeared.

“I’m not sure I’d have been able to swing the camera up, focus and get a picture because he pulled it in so fast,” Jackson said.

Still he was devastated by the missed opportunity.

“I was depressed for a couple of days,” Jackson said.

His emotions and his life changed dramatically two days later, on Nov. 24, 1963, when he was assigned to get a photo of Oswald being transferred from the Dallas city jail to a vehicle that would take him to the county jail.

Lee Harvey Oswald, surrounded by Dallas police, talks to news media as he is escorted through the Dallas Police Department after his arrest for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (AP Photo)

In the basement garage of the jail, Jackson was one of four photographers on the scene with Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News along with photographers from The Associated Press and United Press International. In addition, local television stations had camera crews broadcasting live. All were waiting to get images of the accused assassin leaving the building and getting in a armored truck at the top of the ramp.

When the transfer was delayed, Jackson remembers arguing with an editor who wanted to send him to cover a news conference at the hospital.

“He told us to blow this off and we’ll get a picture of Oswald at the county jail,” Jackson said. “I said: ‘No way am I going to leave here.’ There had been death threats against Oswald. I thought what if he doesn’t get to the other end of town?”

So Jackson and a reporter stayed in the garage. He took up a spot along a curb and he pre-focused his 35 mm Nikon S3 Rangefinder. He was shooting high-speed Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film and using a flash.

“I planned to get a picture as they stepped out of the crowd,” Jackson said.

Video on YouTube shows a busy, congested underground garage with dozens of police and news media milling about and a police car backing down the ramp as Oswald, handcuffed to Dallas homicide detective Jim Leavelle, emerged.

“They stepped into the clearing,” Jackson said. “I was aware somebody was stepping out to my right.”

He’d learn later it was Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby and he was armed with a gun, determined to kill Oswald.

“Ruby fired and I fired,” Jackson said.

Chaos erupted in the garage. Video shows a scrum of police wrestling Ruby as Oswald crumpled to the ground.

Jackson was confident he had a good photo, but it would be a few hours before he got back to the newspaper and processed his film.

When he finally got back to the office, Beers’ photo was already moving across the AP wire. Beers had positioned himself above the scene and his photo showed Ruby lunging at Oswald as the group walked out.

“It’s a nice photo,” Jackson said. “Because of his vantage point, he must have seen what was happening and maybe anticipated it. He shot just before Oswald was hit.”

Jackson didn’t trust anyone else to handle his film and he went into the darkroom to see what image would emerge.

“I held the wet film up to the light and saw the image was sharp,” Jackson said. “I remember letting out a yell. I made a wet print and carried it out to the newsroom. We were pretty excited.”

Jackson had captured the famous image of Oswald recoiling and grimacing in pain as he was struck in the chest by a .38 caliber bullet from Ruby’s revolver, still pointed straight at him by the lunging killer as Leavelle looked on in shock. Experts later analyzed photos and film of the event and declared just 6/10s of a second separated Beers’ shot from Jackson’s iconic image.

The photo won Jackson the 1964 Pulitzer Prize and made him famous among journalists, historians and a growing legion of conspiracy buffs convinced Oswald did not act alone. (Jackson isn’t one of them. He said he hasn’t seen proof other gunmen fired on Kennedy from the grassy knoll or elsewhere in Dealey Plaza.)

The photo also made him a nice income because the Times Herald gave Jackson his negative. Today it resides in his safe-deposit box, except when he takes it out to make custom prints. Over the years, he has sold hundreds, as well as licensing rights to allow publications to reprint the photo or use it in films and in broadcasts.

“It hasn’t made me rich,” he said. “But it’s been a nice income.”

The photo, judged one of history’s 10 most important news photos by Time magazine in 1989, has toured the world as part of a traveling Newseum exhibit “Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs.”

And it is prominently displayed at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas along with Jackson’s camera and other artifacts of the JFK assassination.

It’s a stroke of luck that the camera is even still around for display. After joining The Gazette in 1980, Jackson said he was still using the camera on daily assignments. It was in his car about 30 years ago when the vehicle’s window was smashed and other photo equipment stolen.

“They must not have noticed it because they left it,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “It would have been horrible if it had been stolen. But I never thought of it as a museum piece.”

Now, after 50 years of reflection, Jackson has greater respect for the enormity of the events he witnessed through the viewfinder of his Nikon.

“It seems kind of surreal now,” he said. “It was so long ago but it seems like just the other day. It’s kind of freaky.”

Retired Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle sits with retired Gazette photographer Bob Jackson. The men are holding a copy of Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo showing Jack Ruby shoot and kill alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who was handcuffed to Leavelle, in the light suit and hat to the left of Oswald. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)