November 18, 2008 was a somber anniversary marking
the 30th Anniversary of the death of former WTVT reporter
Don Harris in Jonestown, Guyana.
Don was a superior staff announcer who was tapped for hosting duties on PULSE EXTRA in 1963. His reporting for that series brought him network attention and by the 1970's Don was a rising star at NBC network news.
In November of 1978, Don accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan on an investigative trip to Rev. Jim Jones infamous Jonestown. During an attempt to leave the area with some disillusioned cult members, Ryan, Harris, and several others were killed in an attack by Jone's followers. More than 900 cult members died later that day by forced suicide.
According to PULSE EXTRA producer Bob Gilbert,Harris was one of WTVT's best:
Don was one of the most gifted "on -camera" people I ever worked with. He had a fast, . I remember one trip, a story we were doing on the Suwannee river. We needed some color and a little history of the river. We sat on the river bank at twilight, with night noises in the background. Don, who had a great voice and a calm camera presence, started narration right off the top of his head about how this peaceful river had acted as a dividing barrier during the Civil War. Northern prisoners were kept south of the river to stop them from running away!
I can't do this justice, but Don made it almost poetic. He talked about how the prisoners must have felt as they looked across this wide river toward a freedom that was out of reach.
That was over forty years ago. The river was high and the woods were deep. Wild hogs roamed along the bank. We floated from the Georgia border to the Gulf over five days..and Don made it a very good story.
The only negative thing I can say about Don was that at times he was too aggressive ...but that trait was what made him a good reporter.
FROM PULSE EXTRA CAMERAMAN AND EDITOR, JACK COSGROVE:
In connection with Bob Gilbert’s comments on Don’s Andersonville narration on our Suwannee River trip…when we got to the mouth of the Suwannee we cruised around the islands in search of a legendary resident named Granny Odlun. We spotted a shanty and pointed our craft towards the shore of an island. As we approached a ragged man appeared. We asked for permission to land and the man granted our request. Don interviewed the man for a few minutes and we headed out again to look for Granny.
We finally pulled up to Odlun’s Island, home of Granny Odlun. On the dock was a giant of a man whittling a piece of wood with a very large knife. He inquired as to what we were doing there and when we told him we would like to interview Granny Odlun, we were allowed to land. Granny was working with her bees, with a net over her face. The interview was conducted amid the buzzing of the bees. When Don mentioned the interview with the hermit on the island Granny was astounded, saying he hadn’t talked to anyone in twenty years - such was the power of Don’s personality!
FROM FORMER WTVT ANCHOR AND NEWS DIRECTOR, JOE LOUGHLIN
I remember Don Harris with great clarity from my days as News Director of Big 13. I left TVT in 1963, when Don was a staff announcer, one of a great team of people including Roger Reddy, Paul Reynolds and Ed (3-D Danny) Rowley. If one talked to Don for five minutes, it was obvious he was meant for great things. He had great intellect, a warm personality and an insatiable curiosity. Don was one of those rare people who brought more to the station than just his considerable ability; he was one of the people who made you look forward to coming to work each day.
I was staggered when I
realized that the Don Harris who was murdered at Jonestown was the same
fine person I worked with in Tampa. The story was enough of a nightmare in
itself, but to think that he was caught up in that mania was beyond belief.
But as you point out, nothing would stop him from following the story. God
FROM FORMER PRODUCTION PERSON AND LIGHTING DIRECTOR, GIL MURO
At NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, the news department has a display case with pictures and memorabilia on the 3rd floor that highlights NBC employees who lost their lives while working for the network. The Jonestown tragedy is part of the display and it pays tribute to the life of Don Harris. I have worked with Steve Sung, the sound man that accompanied Harris. Steve was shot in the arm and played dead as the camera continued to record some of the attack. Steve, who operates out of NBC's Burbank bureau still carries the scar of the shooting on his arm.
FROM FORMER PRODUCTION MANAGER, KEN SMITH
I remember Don wanted out of the announce booth and into the big wide world of news as fast as he could get there. He died doing exactly what he wanted to do: smoke out the bad guys and salute the good guys. Don would have been on he last plane out of Vietnam and had he lived, on the first one into Iraq,
FROM FORMER PRODUCER-DIRECTOR, PAUL KOENIG
In 1968 the race riots hit Tampa. Right in the middle of all the violence, Don and Billy Bowles asked me if I wanted to help them with a piece they were filming on a big "come together" meeting of community activists, city officials and police; of course I said, "Let's go!"
In East Tampa we were caught up in an ugly street situation driving walking with all the camera gear to the meeting site. While hundreds of protestors/rioters were moving with us to the meeting, I do not remember seeing many police. During our walk in the middle of the street (I think Nebraska Avenue near the train station) I heard shots ring out but saw no one get hit.
Although Don was an
anchor/reporter for NBC when he died, he really didn't have to go into the
field because he was great as an on-camera anchor. I guess the Tampa riot
episode was a sign of things to come for Don because he wanted to be
wherever the action was.
FROM FORMER PHOTOGRAPHER-EDITOR-NEWS SUPERVISOR, JULE McGEE
Don Harris was still on the staff when I arrived at WTVT in February of 1967. The work of his Pulse Extra team back them cast a tall shadow for those of us who followed him.
And I remember how sad I was on that November day back in 1978 after learning of the deaths of Don Harris and his Los Angeles based photographer, Bob Brown.
I had followed Don's career at NBC after he moved on from Big 13, watching his adventures through the stories he covered.
When Don died he had already accomplished it all in our business as a relatively a young man. Top news anchor in Dallas, live morning show host, then on to NBC News covering events of the day from around the world. When Vietnam fell in 1975, there he was covering the fall of Saigon,
Yes, I will always remember him
as the thorough newsman and investigative reporter who followed the story
wherever it took him and no matter the danger.
FROM FORMER REPORTER AND CURRENT BIG 13 WEB SITE CONTRIBUTOR, TONY ZAPPONE
As a stringer for The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV News and later as a staffer for the now defunct Tampa Times, Don became a friend who I would run into from time to time on stories around town. I always looked up to him…he was one of my favorites…both professionally and literally (he was much taller than me). In my mind, I remember bending my neck to look up to him when we chatted.
I spent a lot of time with him in the summer of 1967 during the riots in Tampa’s Central Avenue business district. While many newsmen simply sat around waiting for something to happen, Don was proactive and ambitious and intent to either make things happen or be front and center when they did. One afternoon, then Gov. Claude Kirk came to visit the Central Avenue ruins following several days of fires and civil unrest. Kirk had hardly gotten out of his car when Don had him cornered and had an exclusive interview with him. I simply backed a few feet away and took notes for my newspaper. His stuff was good!
You always knew Don wouldn’t be around Tampa a long time. He was a great, thorough, and a stickler for accuracy. Frankly, I always thought he would make the circuits of the larger markets but I never dreamed ten years later I would see him practically every night on NBC’s evening news program.
When Don was killed, the world of journalism lost not only a star but a whole constellation.
I’ve often wondered through the years if he would have gone to Jonestown, Guyana had he known that would be his last story. My conclusion has always been a resounding “YES,” as long as he could file his stories and see his film and voiceovers off to New York before any of the gunfire. His stories always came first before any other consideration.
later, I can see him in front of me asking “Tony, why did you get out of the
If any of our WTVT alumni have any additional information
Don Harris, BIG 13 would be grateful.
RETURN TO MAIN MENU