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  • Writer's pictureNeal Spelce

George Phenix: "Damn. That was not the way I remember it."

It was 58 years ago on November 24, 1963 that millions watched live on TV as nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald. It happened in the basement of the Dallas Municipal Building as police were transferring Oswald to the County Jail.

Bill Moyers and Neal Spelce
Photo: Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Photography.

Ruby fired a single 38-caliber round from his Colt Cobra revolver as police, news reporters, and a live nationwide TV audience watched in stunned horror. Robert H. Jackson, a photographer with the Dallas Times Herald, won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography for his dramatic photo.

A young Dallas TV cameraman George Phenix also filmed the event, but didn’t get the notoriety Jackson received for his tremendous photo. But Phenix continued in journalism, moving to Austin, publishing a weekly newspaper with his family. At one point, he dabbled in politics working for such Texas political legends as US Senator Lloyd Bentsen and US Congressman Jake Pickle.

But, back to Ruby for a minute. Born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, he was known in police circles for running a strip club and was said to have provided prostitutes out of the club, sometimes as the story goes, to police officers themselves. This may be why he was able to, while carrying a gun in his pocket, move in the midst of police and reporters to get within point-blank range of the handcuffed Oswald to fire a lethal shot into Oswald’s abdomen at 11:21 am.

Ruby was wrestled to the ground as Oswald was rushed to Parkland Hospital (the same hospital where President Kennedy was declared dead). Oswald died at 1:07 pm. Ruby was later convicted of Oswald’s murder and sentenced to death. Ruby died in prison of a pulmonary embolism from lung cancer in 1967, awaiting a new trial.

How does all this relate to George Phenix? Years later, I ran into my friend George at the Austin downtown post office. He was writing a book with three others who were working in Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, Wes Wise, Bob Huffaker and Bill Mercer, titled,When the News Went Live: Dallas, 1963.

“Hey, George, haven’t seen you in a while. How’s the book coming?” He stopped, looked at me and said, “You’re not gonna believe this. For the first time since I shot that film of Ruby killing Oswald decades ago, I went back and looked at it. Damn, that was not the way I remember it.”

Think about that. Here was a guy with a laser-like focus, looking through a camera lens, recording a stunning moment. And as he told, and re-told, that story over the years, the details changed in his re-telling. Memory has a way of morphing with the passage of time.

Believe me, I kept George’s words uppermost as I checked, and double-checked, what I wrote in my newly-released memoir, With the Bark Off, A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media.

P.S. George died September 24, 2021, at age 82. RIP, my friend.

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