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Old 11-18-2008, 03:53 PM   #1
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Default Slain reporter's legacy kept alive by son

Slain reporter's legacy kept alive by son

Posted: Nov 18, 2008 12:00 PM

Melissa Luck / KXLY4 Executive Producer

SPOKANE -- Thirty years ago Tuesday the world was beginning to hear about what is still the largest mass suicide in history. Among the dead in a remote Guyana jungle encampment called Jonestown was NBC correspondent Don Harris, whose son later joined the family business to honor his father.

That son is KXLY4 Reporter Jeff Humphrey.

More than 900 Americans living in Jonestown drank a toxic mix of Kool-Aid and cyanide on the orders of their leader Jim Jones. At a nearby airfield California Congressman Leo Ryan and three journalists were ambushed and killed as they attempted to leave Jonestown. NBC correspondent Don Harris was one of those killed.

Jeff Humphrey has never spoken about his father's death publicly, but has stepped forward now, on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, to talk about his father's last story.

In 1978 few people knew what was happening with Jim Jones' People's Temple, which had relocated from San Francisco to the South American jungle. Congressman Leo Ryan, concerned about the welfare of the people who had traveled with Jones to Guyana, decided to travel to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission.

Three journalists - San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, NBC correspondent Don Harris and NBC photographer Bob Brown - went with Ryan.

Jeff Humphrey was 17 at the time, a student at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California. His family - mom Shirley and sisters Claire and Lauren - were used to their father traveling around the world, sometimes to troubled areas - to gather the news for NBC.

"Because he had covered the fall of Saigon, he was in Saigon when it fell, the Six Day War in Israel, had traveled extensively in South America and Central America, we really weren't that worried because he had been in dangerous places before and always came back," Jeff Humphrey said.

The trip to Jonestown, however, was different.

"I remember watching him clean his gun and get it ready to take down there and I looked at him at the kitchen table and said, 'Why are you taking your gun?' And he said matter of factly that they heard they were stockpiling weapons down there and he was bringing the gun, just in case," Humphrey said.

Congressman Ryan's contingent arrived in Jonestown greeted by Jim Jones and his followers. At first, they portrayed a peaceful utopia, singing and dancing for the camera crew. Harris called his wife Shirley to tell her things would be just fine.

"I trusted him implicitly we all thought he could walk on water anyway, and thought he could talk himself out of any situation," Jeff's mom Shirley Oliver said.

Three days after their arrival everything changed. Harris received a note from a cult member saying he wanted out. Harris showed Jones the note the next morning on camera during an interview.

"I just beg you please leave us. We won't bother anyone. If they want to get out of here, they can get out of here," Jones said during the interview, clearly agitated by Harris' questions.

After the interview, Congressman Ryan with Harris, Brown, Robinson and several others - including a small group of defectors - traveled to a nearby airstrip ready to head home. As they were preparing to take off a group of security personnel from Jonestown drove up to the airfield in a tractor pulling a trailer and opened fire on the group.

Congressman Ryan, Don Harris, Bob Brown, Greg Robinson and Temple defector Patricia Parks were all killed. Nine others were wounded. Back home in suburban Los Angeles, news about the ambush at the airfield and the massacre at Jonestown was hard to come by.

"Back then, the most immediate reports - we didn't have CNN back then - the most immediate reports was talk radio. so, we turned on the stereo in the living room and were trying to glean the information from that," Jeff said. "What I remember the next day is that my mom came into the room and I was sleeping and she said, it's time to get up son. And it was really early in the morning and she said, it's time to get up ... your father is dead."

Some believe Harris' interview with Jim Jones signaled the beginning of the end, that the final interview was enough for Jones to order the suicides of his followers and the execution of Ryan, Harris and his colleagues. But Jeff knows his dad would not have backed away from pursuing his story.

"I'm still not sure i would have done it. But that's my dad and he was up for asking the tough questions," Jeff said.

"He was very, very smart and it was hard to believe that this could happen to him ... and I suppose he could have run but he wouldn't do that to the people he was with," Shirley said.

And because he didn't run others in the party at the airfield could.

Some ran into the jungle while others were able to escape on one of the two planes at the airfield and flew away.

Within hours Jones gave the order to his followers to take their lives. 909 people died, including Jim Jones, who was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head among the bodies of his followers.

For Jeff and his mom Shirley, the remembrance of the events in Jonestown is about the father and husband who had no choice but to give his life that day. And it's his picture, not the newsreels of his final interview or the last moments of footage Bob Brown captured on the airfield that they'll remember.

"At some point you decide, I don't want to see the video from the airstrip anymore and when they come on TV, you just stop watching," Jeff said.

Don Harris has been honored with every award you can imagine for fallen journalists. His name is etched on plaques and walls throughout this country but his greatest honor would probably come from watching his son become the same type of journalist he was.

For more than half his life, Jeff Humphrey has been on television talking essentially about other people's lives. Until today he's never talked about his dad's legacy publicly, instead choosing to serve the same profession to honor his memory.

While most of the country was grieving the loss of the 909 dead in Jonestown, for Jeff Humphrey and his family the loss was much more personal.

"Personally and selfishly, I've never really grieved for those 900 people. We had our own thing to grieve and I've never really thought of all the people who died that day," Jeff said.

After Harris died, Jeff's mom Shirley did her best to hold the family together just as she had when her husband's career turned from local reporter to network correspondent.

"I felt I was doing my part to enable him to do what he needed to do, so I did it. I wasn't a working mom, I was at home," Shirley said.

So Shirley understood when her oldest child was ready to follow in his father's footsteps.

"When you follow in your folks' footsteps, there's a lot of ownership in whatever that trade is and you want to protect it and you want to keep it as pure and dignified as you can," Jeff said.

Don Harris had tremendous sources that he always protected. He knew which information to hold onto and which to share with the world. His investigations were considered groundbreaking.

"He won an award for a story on airline security, pointing out its ineffectiveness, sending two people armed with guns through the metal detector system at the Dallas airport in 1972," Jeff said.

Jeff was so impressed with that story he tried it himself while a college intern working at a Florida television station in 1982. Instead of guns he attempted to smuggle simulated explosives through security at the Fort Myers airport.

"It was on the weekend, I didn't consult any management. I got my poor photographer fired and the FBI said don't come back to Florida again," Jeff said.

"I was sad for him, because he was so young and he didn't know the difference really. Here's this boy who thinks he's a man and he's trying to do something really good because he thought security wasn't as good as it should have been at the airport," Shirley said.

That setback didn't keep Jeff from following his dad's example.

"I think Jeff grew up at a very early age and was a responsible kid and tried to do the things that his father did early so I was not surprised that he continued," Shirley said.

So how does he honor his father on this day, the anniversary of his death at Jonestown? The way he does every day, by ensuring Don Harris's principles live on in his only son.

"You try to go out that day and do a good news story, and if you do that," Jeff gestured with a thumbs up.

NOTE: See Jeff Humphrey's blog entry, Following in my father's footsteps for his thoughts on the anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre and his dad's legacy.'s Rob Kauder contributed to this report.
Old 11-18-2008, 11:48 PM   #2
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That's a sad story. He grew up without a father in his adult life. That entire Jonestown story, from start to finish, is just heartbreaking.
Old 11-19-2008, 12:07 AM   #3
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Slain reporter's legacy kept alive by son
Reporter recalls father heading to final story

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