North Texas

Jimmy Darnell, Longtime NBC 5 Photojournalist, Dies at 82

Darnell helped cover many of the biggest news stories from the 1960s to 1990s

A man who witnessed four decades of history through the lens of a camera was remembered as "a pioneer" in television, a stickler for "honesty and integrity" and "a wonderful best friend."

Retired NBC 5 photojournalist Jimmy Glen Darnell, 82, was laid to rest Wednesday after he died last Friday, Sept. 29.

Keller Church of Christ Pastor Cory Collins told mourners they were there to remember the "special, precious, rare life of Jimmy Darnell," a man who was "so humble, so unassuming, so unpretentious" despite numerous accomplishments.

Darnell was born Oct. 12, 1934, in a tent during the oil boom in East Texas and grew up in Oil City, Louisiana. His parents were just teenagers and life was hard.

He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952 at the age of 18. He spent most of his four-year service at Carswell Air Force Base, now Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.

Darnell then went to college on the G.I. Bill and graduated from North Texas State College in 1961 with a degree in journalism. He heard about an opening for a cameraman at WBAP-TV/Channel 5 and got the job.

The next 39 years took Darnell on some the biggest stories in the country: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, political conventions in the 1970s and 1980s and the Branch Davidian siege in 1993. Along the way, Jimmy won awards, accolades and the respect of the newsroom.

"Jimmy was a pioneer at a pioneering station," said Lee Elsesser, a former colleague who shared a 50-year friendship with Darnell. "Jimmy was a cameraman and reporter and brought in the entire story."

"Those were the days of film when photographers carried a coat and tie because they not only shot the stories, many times they also reported them," said NBC 5 photojournalist Linda Angelle.

Darnell was a one-man news gathering machine. He had a camera on his shoulder to record the film or video, did the interviews, then reported the story for TV and Channel 5's radio partner, WBAP.

"He had the perfect face for radio," joked Elsesser, who added, "he was a stickler for all kinds of things, including honesty and integrity."

Former colleague Russ Bloxom remembered Jimmy as "a real deal in life, a blue-collar type family man and always first to make fun of himself. He was a great story teller and one line jokester."

"Jimmy always had a funny story or a good joke that would brighten your day," Angelle said.

And the humor was often self-deprecating. Collins said on Sundays after church, Darnell would often ask him, "Do I have to pay income tax on the money I get out of the collection plate?"

In the middle of some of the biggest stories, Darnell found a moment to make people smile.

Collins, the pastor, shared a story about Jimmy and his wife, Ruth. They met not long after Jimmy started working at Channel 5. He was covering the Dallas Police Department, and she was a civilian in the burglary and theft division. Ruth was the "the love of his life." They married in July 1963, a few months before the assassination of JFK.

Darnell was in the motorcade in Dealey Plaza as a cameraman on Nov. 22, 1963. He was riding in a vehicle several cars behind Kennedy. He heard a popping sound, thought it was a car backfiring, then like everyone else that tragic day, realized it was the sound of gunfire. The president had been shot.

In recounting the story, Collins said "Jimmy followed and filmed, wheels always turning, on the go, energetic, chasing the story."

Darnell eventually made his way to the police department, where his new bride Ruth was on duty. The hall was crowded with news crews when Ruth came walking in with several detectives, Collins said. Several jumped to the conclusion that the dark-haired woman with police was Marina Oswald, wife of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Collins said, "The press asked, 'Who's that?' And, Jimmy said, 'That's my wife!'"

Darnell was a newsman through and through, ready to pick up the camera and get to the story in a moment's notice.

"Jimmy lived just across the street from the old Fort Worth station. His commute to work was less than five minutes. But any time there was spot news, the assignment editor would look out, see his car in the drive and call him in," recalled Angelle.

Pastor Collins said the Darnell family told him when there was snow in the forecast, Jimmy "laid out his clothes the night before," so he'd be ready when the call came.

During several of those calls, one of the Darnell children — Randall, Tim, Jeremy or Nellie — came along.

Randall Darnell remembers "hours sitting in the news unit listening to the police scanner waiting for the next story."

"I wouldn't trade a minute of my childhood," he said.

Chasing stories meant Darnell was often away from his family for days at a time. Yet, he treasured his children and made sure they knew it.

Nellie Darnell Jackson remembers dancing in the dining room with her dad, her little feet on his big ones, locked in step. He was there at school performances with camera rolling and afterward interviewing her about how it went.

"He made time to celebrate whatever I was involved in," she said.

Tim Darnell will remember "the magnanimity, the generous spirit my dad had." He choked back tears as he spoke at his dad's funeral.

"The man who should've been my mentor in a moment like this isn't here," he said, adding that he was "my wonderful best friend the last 18 years."

That special father/son relationship blossomed after Darnell retired from Channel 5 in May 2000.

Jimmy decided he'd answered enough calls, and there were now grandchildren in his life to enjoy.

The Darnells moved from their home across the street from the station to Keller. The grandchildren, time with Ruth and volunteer work at Keller Church of Christ kept him busy.

His death last week happened suddenly. Bloxom said Darnell fell at home on Wednesday, Sept. 27. He went to the hospital, and the only injury was some damaged ribs. The family expected he would be released on Friday, Sept. 29, but that morning, "Jimmy suffered cardiac arrest. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful," said Bloxom in an email.

Darnell leaves behind a wife of 54 years, Ruth, four children, six grandchildren and numerous friends who will miss his jokes, his gap-toothed grin, his stories and special lunches.

"Jimmy Darnell was a man to ride the rivers with, and I'm glad I was along for the ride," Elsesser said.

Contact Us