DALLAS – Jim Cummins hired me almost 20 years ago to work in the newly opened NBC News Dallas Bureau.
The day I moved to Dallas, Jim invited my wife and me to have dinner with him and his wife, Connie. His pager went off. A suspension foot bridge used by hikers had collapsed in rural Arkansas, killing several and injuring dozens, according to the news desk in New York.
|VIDEO: NBC Veteran Jim Cummins dies|
He and I spent the next hour monopolizing the restaurant's two payphones (remember, this was before cell phones were everywhere) crowded into a small alcove, writing notes on napkins and scraps of paper with a pen I snatched from our waiter. "Welcome to the network," was all he said at the end of the evening.
From floods to fires
I was Jim's producer for a long time in Dallas. He and I did several thousand stories together before his retirement.
He dragged me, or I dragged him, all over the country chasing stories for NBC. He and I were both products of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which could explain why we approached news coverage in the same way. Jim's straightforward, direct way of telling stories through interesting characters made coverage of even unpleasant things a little more tolerable.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of unpleasant things. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, fires, mass murders.
Jim called me on a Sunday morning in 1993, "Head to Waco," he said. "A guy down there has barricaded himself, and shot some federal agents. One more thing, he says he's Jesus Christ."
Two months later I stood by Jim and watched the Branch Davidian compound burn down. He was wiping tears from his eyes as he anchored an NBC News special report throughout that horrible morning.
Two years later he and I were on the last flight allowed to land in Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. As we stood in front of the still-smoking shell of the building, Jim realized it was the anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire in Waco and immediately called the news desk which started our multi-year journey through victims' living rooms, federal and state courtrooms, and ultimately the execution of Timothy McVeigh.
One of the finest pieces of writing I have ever seen, and will probably ever see, was a long piece we did for the Today Show on the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, finding and interviewing survivors we had seen when the bombing happened. Jim let them talk, used very little narration, and to this day that spot makes me choke up.
|VIDEO: On the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, NBC' Jim Cummins speaks to survivors.|
Always looking for the regular guy
After 9/11, we went on what Jim called "The Cummins military tour," we reported from 12 military bases all over the country, including the USS Enterprise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, interviewing soldiers, sailors and Marines during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Jim had a knack for interviewing ordinary people, one Marine told me, after Jim talked to him as he boarded a ship for the Middle East, "That big tall guy really cares about us grunts, doesn't he?"
Jim was forever looking for the common guy to put in stories. Standing in a flattened neighborhood in Oklahoma after a tornado, he told me to go find people who once lived there, because they were the only ones worthy of talking with. "No one else matters after stuff like this," he said.
Jim interviewed David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs once. Our cameraman had to use a ladder. It was one of the only times he had to look up for an interview.
I'm still looking up to Jim Cummins.
Veteran NBC News correspondent and Dallas bureau chief, Jim Cummins, died of cancer on Friday evening. He was 62 and is survived by his wife Connie and six children.
Click to read some of the many stories Jim Cummins filed for MSNBC.com including his recollections of covering the Oklahoma City bombing 10 years later; the Terry Nichols trial; the story of an Oklahoma City survivor getting back in the saddle; the Columbia shuttle disaster; the homecoming for the troops who caught Saddam and many more stories for Nightly News and MSNBC.com.