In the annals of Texas journalism, Robert Heard stands out for many things: a biting wit, a prolific career, a lawyer’s understanding of lawmaking, a determination to get the story even at considerable personal risk.
It was the last trait that catapulted him from news reporter to news figure on Aug. 1, 1966, when he was shot in the shoulder during Charles Whitman’s bloody rampage from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. Heard, a 36-year-old Associated Press reporter, had followed two highway patrol officers on a wild sprint across a parking lot, but he forgot his Marine’s training to zigzag.
Heard was among more than 30 people wounded by Whitman; 16 others died from their injuries, some years later. From his hospital bed that day, Heard dictated a story that ran in newspapers around the world.
He described his close call this way: “Six more inches and that would have been it.”
Heard, 84, died April 15 at an Austin hospital of complications following surgery on a broken hip, according to his wife, Betsy. In recent years, he had also suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that makes breathing difficult.
The son of a Baptist preacher, Robert Lee Heard was born on April 10, 1930, in Big Spring, Texas. He earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Baylor University, served in the Marines in Korea and briefly taught high school math.
His career included stints with the AP in Los Angeles, the San Antonio Express-News and the Waco Tribune-Herald. He published a newsletter, Inside Texas, that focused on University of Texas sports. Along the way, he wrote several books, including “Dance With Who Brung Us: Quips and Quotes from Darrell Royal,” the legendary Longhorns coach.
“He was able to bring to his reporting the experience of having studied law and being able to see both sides of an issue. He could also spin a colorful metaphor and enjoyed doing that,” said Ernie Stromberger, a retired reporter who worked with Heard and accompanied him to the University of Texas during Whitman’s shooting rampage.
In a 1983 column, Heard delivered scathing descriptions of the members of the Texas Senate, calling Carl Parker “Porky Pig without the stutter” and Chet Brooks “slicker than two promises that the check’s in the mail.” But Heard added: “All this from a baldheaded, bearded, know-it-all reporter who might have been able to win a political office himself if he didn’t look like Chief Thundercloud most of the time.”
“He liked learning,” his wife said. “He especially liked history and the Civil War.”
She said he donated his collection of more than 3,000 books a few years ago to a library in Uvalde, Texas, where his parents met in high school. Heard was their fourth son. Expecting a girl, they named him Robert Lee, after the Confederacy’s chief general, at the suggestion of two of his brothers who had just learned about Lee in elementary school.
Besides his wife, Heard is survived by a son, Tom, and a brother, Wyatt.
Haurwitz writes for the Austin American-Statesman and McClatchy Newspapers.