Wicker "started in journalism in 1949 at the weekly Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen, N.C., where he was paid $37.50 a week to report on such local news stories as the discovery of "the first beaver dam in anyone's memory on a local creek," he later recalled. He moved on to the Winston-Salem Journal, which sent hm to Washington, and to The Tennessean in Nashville, then the Washington bureau of The New York Times, where he became a White House correspondent -- the only one in President John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. His "precise, fact-heavy" account of the day, as the BBC called it, "vaulted him to prominence overnight." A year later, he became bureau chief, and in 1966 began a column, "In the Nation," that continued until his retirement in 1991.
Wicker's friends surely liked this description of him by Robert McFadden in the Times: "Mr. Wicker was a hefty man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a ruddy face, jowls, petulant lips and a lock of unruly hair that dangled boyishly on a high forehead. He toiled in tweeds in pinstriped Washington, but seemed more suited to a hammock and straw hat on a lazy summer day. The casual gait, the easygoing manner, the down-home drawl set a tone for audiences, but masked a fiery temperament, a ferocious work ethic, a tigerish competitiveness and a stubborn idealism, qualities that made him a perceptive observer of the American scene for more than a half century."
"He was attacked by conservatives and liberals, by politicians high and low, by business interests, labor leaders and others, and for a time his activism — crossing the line from observer to participant in news events — put him in disfavor with many mainstream journalists," McFadden notes, pointing out Wicker's role as observer-cum-mediator at the Attica, N.Y., prison riot in 1971.
Tom Wicker means something to us at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues because was "an engaged journalist" like institute co-founder Al Smith, as Wicker's former colleague at The Tennessean, Jim Squires, wrote. The institute's other co-founder was the late Rudy Abramson, who worked with Wicker and Squires in Nashville before joining the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau.