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The Nixon Tapes : Museum Docent Records History From Behind Lens of WNIX Video Camera

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it happens at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, Jo Lyons has it on tape. Er, videotape that is.

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The Yorba Linda resident is the watchful eye behind WNIX, the library’s official video chronicler of events. A docent volunteer, Lyons has filmed everyone from heads of states to Arnold Schwarzenegger; sometimes while jostling for position with her hand-held videocam against big league camera people.

“The networks’ cameras look like they weigh 100 pounds, and the guys are big too,” said Lyons, 56, who is five feet tall. “It can be intimidating when you get into the fray. But they treat me like an equal.”

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Since the library opened in July, 1990, Lyons has amassed a collection of 80 two-hour videotapes recording the visits of such notables as Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Barbara Bush and even Mickey Mouse. The videos, which Lyons edits as well, help preserve the library’s history and are stored in its archives.

“She’s created an indispensable record of scores of events at the library that will certainly be of interest to historians,” said Library Director John H. Taylor. “Jo has emerged as the (library’s) historian and the enforcer of historical accuracy.”

Lyons’ coverage of Pat Nixon’s funeral in 1993 is her most significant contribution to the library’s video archive. Amid a swarm of TV reporters, Lyons maneuvered for her shots, while controlling her personal grief.

“It was very emotional,” said Lyons, the only docent attending the services because of limited seating. “I remember being there in person when the Marine honor guard brought in the casket to the platform and the six soldiers raised it slightly and just held it there--so steady. You could hear the gasp in the audience.”

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“It gives you goose bumps when you see the video,” she added.

This year, when the former President died, Lyons decided against covering the international event. Instead, she assembled a tape from other newscasts for the library archives.

“Heavy crowds prevent a lot of good shots,” said Lyons. “I felt the network coverage would probably be better than what I could do.”

Most of Lyons’ video work is far from such madding crowds.

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Tuesday’s speech by television commentator Bruce Herschensohn, which attracted about 100 library guests, is more typical.

Lyons required only a few minutes to set up her camera, with the “WNIX” insignia pasted to it. She perched the camera on a tripod, focused, and hit record for the address. To complete the segment, Lyons shot Herschensohn’s book-signing in the lobby.

The 1991 visit of Jihan Sadat, the wife of assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, is one of Lyons’ favorites. Lyons poignantly recalled filming Sadat as she stood beside the library’s statue of her fallen husband.

“I wondered what was going through her mind at the time,” said Lyons. “She really kept her cool.

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“Mrs. Sadat was so warm and genuine. She was so approachable, she would listen to you and talk. She didn’t brush people off.”

Diplomatically, Lyons declines to say if other library guests have given WNIX the brushoff.

The videotapes she compiles are primarily viewed by the library’s 124 docents, who use them to familiarize themselves with the place’s major events. Apparently, the most frequently requested videos, which volunteers can check out for up to two weeks, are the funeral tapes.

“The docents who were unable to attend can watch the tapes,” said Norma Jean Infante, 60, a volunteer from Anaheim Hills. “They’re a wonderful treasure.”

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Because of her limited camera training, Lyons acknowledges that the entire video collection isn’t exactly ready for theatrical release.

“There’s quite a few fuzzy tapes,” Lyons said. “You can trip on the tripod or shake the camera. On some tapes, it looks like an earthquake.”

The former President, who requested several videos be sent to him when he lived in New Jersey, never complained about the quality of her videos. Nixon was especially fond of Lyons’ tape featuring a room-by-room birthplace tour--all with Nixon’s own narration.

“I enjoyed hearing my own tour,” Nixon wrote to Lyons in a thank-you note.

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Though she filmed him numerous times, Lyons met Nixon only once.

In July, 1992, Lyons presented the Yorba Linda native with a dollhouse replica of his first home. The miniature, which represented 200 hours of careful labor by Lyons, is on display in the library’s lobby.

“At first he didn’t say anything because I think he was stunned,” Lyons said. “He just kept walking around and around. Then, he whispered, ‘This is wonderful.’ ”

Of course, WNIX was there for her dollhouse presentation. It’s just someone else was behind the lens for a change.

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“I’m not WNIX,” said Lyons. “The camera is.”


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