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Tom Wicker dies at 85; longtime New York Times journalist

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Tom Wicker, a former New York Times political reporter, columnist and Washington bureau chief who covered President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas and became part of the news as a mediator during the 1971 Attica prison riot in upstate New York, has died. He was 85.

Wicker, who was also the author of fiction and nonfiction works, died Friday of an apparent heart attack at his home in Rochester, Vt., according to his wife, Pamela.

A native of North Carolina, Wicker decided while in high school to become a journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina before joining the New York Times in 1960.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Wicker was in Dallas covering Kennedy's visit. He was in a press bus following the president's motorcade when the first shots were fired.

"At first no one knew what happened, or how, or where, much less why," he later wrote in a memoir. "Gradually, bits and pieces began to fall together."

Wicker took notes on printed itineraries of the presidential visit and periodically dictated parts of his story over the telephone to his editors.

Despite the chaotic events of the day, he captured the detail and color of the scene.

Describing the president's widow as she left the hospital in Dallas, Wicker wrote: "Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. She still wore the raspberry-colored suit in which she greeted welcoming crowds in Fort Worth and Dallas. But she had taken off the matching pillbox hat she had worn earlier in the day, and her dark hair was windblown and tangled. Her hand rested lightly on her husband's coffin as it was taken to a waiting hearse."

Gay Talese, author of the New York Times history "The Kingdom and the Power" (1969), wrote of Wicker's coverage: "It was a remarkable achievement in reporting and writing, in collecting facts out of confusion, in reconstructing the most deranged day in his life, the despair and bitterness and disbelief, and then getting on a telephone to New York and dictating the story in a voice that only rarely cracked with emotion."

Wicker was named Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the New York Times in 1964, replacing James Reston. Wicker began writing his "In the Nation" column in 1966 and was named associate editor of the newspaper in 1968. He continued writing his column until retiring in 1991.

As a columnist, Wicker had written in favor of prison reform and other liberal themes. When more than 1,000 inmates rebelled against the prison administration at Attica Correctional Facility and took 50 hostages, he was asked by the uprising's leaders to mediate along with activist attorney William M. Kunstler and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Talks eventually failed and 43 people died after authorities fired on the prison yard.

Wicker recounted his experiences as an observer and mediator at the prison in "A Time to Die" (1975), which was later made into a TV movie. Among his other nonfiction books were "Kennedy Without Tears: The Man Beneath the Myth" (1964), "JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics" (1968), "On Press" (1978), "One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream" (1991), "Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America" (1996), "George Herbert Walker Bush" (2004) and "Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy" (2006).

Beginning in the early '50s, Wicker also wrote novels, sometimes under the pen name Paul Connolly. His 1973 political novel "Facing the Lions" and 1984 Civil War tale "Unto This Hour" were bestsellers.

Wicker was born June 18, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., where his father worked on the railroad. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in 1948. He worked at a series of local newspapers, becoming a Washington correspondent for the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal. He was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University and an editor at the Nashville Tennessean newspaper before joining the New York Times as a Washington political reporter.

Besides his wife, Pamela, who produces television documentaries, Wicker is survived by two children from a first marriage that ended in divorce; and three stepchildren, the New York Times reported.

news.obits@latimes.com

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