SPOKANE, Wash. — Don Oliver, a Billings native who rose to prominence covering many of the seminal events of the 1970s and ’80s as a correspondent for NBC News, died Tuesday in Spokane, Wash. He was 76.
Don was born July 14, 1936, in Billings to Foster “Chat” and Lucille Oliver. His father’s job as a civil engineer required the family to move frequently, thus in his first six years of school he attended eight schools in four states. The family settled in Billings and Don graduated in 1954 from Billings Senior High School. He attended the University of Montana, drawn by its nascent radio-television department in the School of Journalism. After graduation in 1958, he worked at a variety of small-market radio and television stations in Montana, Idaho and Washington until NBC News offered him a scholarship to attend graduate school at Columbia University. Don earned a master’s degree, cum laude, in June 1962.
He worked initially at the NBC station in Cleveland, then was political editor of KCRA in Sacramento, Calif., until 1965, when he took the post of news editor of KREM-TV in Spokane. NBC News soon elevated him to Midwest correspondent and his national and international reporting career took off. He was West Coast correspondent from 1969-’73, covering such stories as the Angela Davis and Charles Manson trials and student unrest at Berkeley; Far East correspondent, based in Tokyo, from 1974-’75, and West Coast correspondent, based in Los Angeles, from 1976-’91. He covered the assassination and funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., riots in Detroit and Cleveland, and wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Don was the first American correspondent allowed back into Vietnam after the fall, and he returned there a few years later to spend six weeks doing a series of reports for Nightly News. In 1976 he was assigned to the presidential campaign trail, covering both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Don covered a number of other critical stories, including the Middle East peace talks in 1977, and, over the next few years, Pope John Paul II’s trip home to Poland, the Economic Summit in Tokyo and the search for Southeast Asian refugees in the South China Sea. He reported on the war in El Salvador, the riots in the Philippines following the assassination of Benigno Aquino and fallout and murders from the drug war in Mexico, as well as the Mexico City earthquake. In the 1980s he devoted most of his time to environmental stories, though he was a political correspondent covering the 1984 presidential campaign from New Hampshire through the conventions, where he was one of four NBC floor reporters. He retired from full-time work with NBC in 1992 and devoted his time to media consulting, first for Hill and Knowlton in Los Angeles, and from 1997 until 2002 for his own firm, Oliver Communications.
Don was known as a hard-nosed, aggressive reporter, but was also legendary among his colleagues as a wise-cracking, practical joker. He loved the medium of television, but told an interviewer a few years ago that he worried that advancing technology and the rush to be first had robbed it of its ability to reflect. In retirement he enjoyed golf, some days more than others.
Don was married to Sharon Nelson in 1958. They had three daughters, Cathy, Christy and Cherie. They were later divorced. On Aug. 11, 1981, he married Shirley Humphrey. Shirley was his confidante, his intellectual partner and his tireless advocate, particularly in the last few years of his life when dementia robbed him of his celebrated wit and razor-sharp mind. His marriage to Shirley also brought Jeff, Claire and Lauren into his life, and he and Shirley shared the joys of grandchildren from both families.
Don received a number of honors in his life, but he was most proud when the University of Montana honored him with a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1985. He was twice the School of Journalism’s Dean Stone lecturer and, in 1998, after the sudden death of Interim Dean Joe Durso, spent a semester at the school teaching radio-television and print journalism courses. His love for Montana drew him and Shirley back to the state in 2007, where they made their home in Missoula. Don was the first president of the School of Journalism Advisory Council and helped raise funds for the construction of Don Anderson Hall, where a room bears his name. Don’s medical needs required a move to Spokane, but they considered Missoula their home.
He was preceded in death by daughters Cathy and Christy and his stepdaughter, Lauren. Besides his parents, his beloved stepmother, Mildred (Mac) Oliver, also died before him. In addition to Shirley and their children, he is survived by his sister, Kate Oliver of Edmonds, Wash., and grandchildren Brad, Cory, Jessica, Katie Jo, McKenzie, Keaton, Nicolas and Harrison.
A memorial service will be held in the Music Recital Hall at the University of Montana in June. Final arrangements for the memorial will be announced as soon as they are complete. Send condolences to email@example.com.