Photographs & Memories from the Camera & Mind of Herchel Ornduff

On June 10, 1984, Elaine Cloud Goller, Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, composed an article titled, “Photographs and Memories.” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934.

Herchel Ornduff, a 31 year veteran of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, related to Elaine that it took perseverance to be a good photographer.

Ornduff Looks Over Kennedy Assassination Edition. An Array of Photographic Equipment. 

Ornduff, who retired in January 1983, began working for the paper in 1952, following a stint as a photographer in the Army and some freelance work. For years, there were only two day photographers  and one at night. A quiet man, Ornduff shared some of the more memorable events of his newspaper days.

In 1955, he stood vigil as prisoners dug in search of the remains of a woman, Josie Fair, who had been murdered and buried under the floor of the Interstate Foundry by Orville “Rooster” Warren many years prior.

Another extensive assignment was covering the Southeast Airlines wreck of January 1957. Tom Hodge, then covering the political beat for the paper, had been booked to return from Nashville on the ill-fated flight, but fortunately canceled at the last minute because it was the first week the state Legislature was in session.

“(The accident) happened on a late Thursday night,” said Ornduff. “We drove out to the airport because there was a  report that a plane was down. The temperature was zero degrees as we drove up the Sullivan County side of Holston Mountain, where the crash occurred. We drove  Jeeps as far as we could, but had to hike the rest of the way on foot.”

The veteran photographer recalled the coldest day he could remember was when the mercury dropped to 17 degrees below zero, freezing the Doe River in Elizabethton solid. Even with snapped trees and power lines down, it was as pretty as a picture, something foremost on any good photographer's mind.

Ornduff recalled being chased away from the scene while covering the 1960 Tennessee Eastman Co. explosion that killed 12 people. Undaunted by this hindrance, he found other angles from which to shoot and be of service.

During another dark night's raid, Ornduff remembered being led by the local sheriff by flashlight and walking across a foot log. “When I saw it the next day in the light,” he said, “I wouldn't dare cross it. I looked down and it must have been a 100-foot drop.”

Herchel captured on film the area appearances of such notables as Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, John Kennedy, Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver.

Some of the stars to have graced Ornduff's lenses included Robert Mitchum, Patricia Neal, Carroll Baker, George C. Scott and John Saxon. He also recalled the current Miss America coming through Johnson City about every year.”

“I loved to work with Dorothy Hamill, the veteran feature writer for the Press. We went on hundreds of assignments together. I fondly recall the time when Dot was in a sled being pulled by a mule but couldn't get the animal  stopped. I've got a picture of her in 'jail,' a gag arranged with the cooperation of a local jailer. She was the best sport, doing anything you'd ask her to do.”

The photographer won second place in a national contest for a series of photographs about a child locked in a car. Several people tried to get the petite girl to pull the door lock knob up, but she would just laugh at them and wave. A man with a set of master keys from the local Chevrolet dealer tried every one to no avail. Finally, a guy came along and said, “Let me try my key.” It fit like he owned it.

During the interview, Ornduff was careful to make honorable mention of his old co-worker and good friend at the Press, Jimmy Ellis. They were like brothers. Herchel had lasting memories of his friend's inclination to pull practical jokes on his co-workers.