Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bill Winfrey: Dallas Morning News photographer captured history

by JOE SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News

Bill Winfrey was a self-taught photographer who twice captured historic images for The Dallas Morning News. On April 2, 1957, he captured a deadly funnel cloud as it ripped a path across Oak Cliff and, on Nov. 22, 1963, he took what many consider the definitive photo of a manacled Lee Harvey Oswald raising his fist, seemingly in defiance.

Bill Winfrey photo of a defiant Oswald being led out of Homicide & Robbery, Room 317, Dallas Police Headquarters on November 22, 1963, by Detective Elmer Boyd. (Source: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)

Mr. Winfrey, 75, died Thursday (01/15) at East Texas Medical Center in Athens of complications of heart disease and diabetes.

A memorial service was held Sunday at the Optimist Club in Seven Points, Texas.

"He was very outgoing and very compassionate," said his wife, Jean Winfrey of Seven Points. "He wanted to help everybody."

Mr. Winfrey was born on Jan. 25, 1933, in Dallas, where he attended Sunset High School and went to work for The News when he was 15 years old.

"He lied. He said he was 16," his wife said.

Mr. Winfrey joined in the newspaper in December 1948, beginning in the mailroom. He became a self-taught photographer, learning the art on his own time.

"He went to the library and checked out books," his wife said. "He did his homework. He studied."

Mr. Winfrey became a wedding photographer and owned his own professional camera, his wife said.

In March 1957, Mr. Winfrey was transferred to the newspaper's photo department, where he was assigned to work in the film-processing lab. Seven days later, on April 2, 1957, he captured photos of a tornado ripping across north Oak Cliff. The photographs he took from the newspaper's roof won him a spot as a staff photographer.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Winfrey was at the Dallas Trade Mart, where he was to take photos of President John F. Kennedy, who was to speak there. When Mr. Winfrey learned something had happened during the downtown motorcade, he rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital to see what photos he might get.

At Parkland, he set up his camera with a 400 mm lens, which he once described as looking "like a bazooka or an Uzi," hoping to get photos of dignitaries arriving or leaving.

He soon had a Secret Service agent's gun pointed at his head and was told to lie on the ground, Mr. Winfrey said at a 1993 conference of journalists who covered the assassination.

After clearing himself with the agents, Mr. Winfrey took photos at Parkland and returned to the newspaper.

He then followed the trail of action to Oak Cliff, where the focus of the manhunt for the assassin led him. One-half block from the Texas Theater, Mr. Winfrey saw officers putting Oswald into a police car.

"I turned and crossed over the median strip, turned around and beat the police to the police station," he told the 1993 conference.

At the police station, he rushed up the stairs and was able to photograph Oswald as he was led out of the elevator.

"It's one of the most valuable photos of the assassination," said Darwin Payne, SMU professor emeritus of communication and Dallas historian.

Mr. Winfrey's photo is one of the most iconic images of Oswald, said Gary Mack, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

"Bill's Oswald photo is one of the most often shown in newspapers, books and magazines, for it accurately depicts the defiant demeanor Oswald maintained through his 45 hours in custody," Mr. Mack said.

Mr. Winfrey continued to work through the next day and did not return to his home until late Saturday, the next afternoon.

In 1964, he took photos of the Jack Ruby trial.

Mr. Winfrey left the newspaper in the late 1960s and opened a commercial photography studio. Mr. Winfrey closed his studio during an economic downturn, his wife said. He later worked as a locksmith in East Texas, she said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Winfrey is survived by two daughters, Sandra Kotrofi of Rockwall and Donna Winfrey of San Antonio; a son, Bill Winfrey Jr. of Seven Points; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Source: The Dallas Morning News