Longtime NBC correspondent John Palmer moved easily between war zones and five White House administrations, but his closest colleagues said the veteran journalist was known just as much for his graciousness and modesty as for his professional achievements.
“John was a gentleman with a capital G. He was just gracious in every respect. Just a professional, warm man,” Bryant Gumbel recalled Monday, while sitting next to his former TODAY co-anchor, Jane Pauley.
Palmer, 77, who passed away Saturday after a brief illness, spent seven years with Gumbel and Pauley as a TODAY news anchor.
Pauley described the group during those years as a family, and Bryant agreed, saying John played the role of the only grown-up on the set.
“Jane was the kid sister, I was the troublesome brother, and we had two eccentric uncles, and then there was John. John was the adult of the group,” he said.
Palmer worked for NBC from 1962 to 1990. He returned to the network in 1994 and worked there until his retirement in 2002.
"John was a brilliant, brave, and tireless journalist who guided viewers through many of the most significant events of the past half-century – from the early days of the civil rights movement through the tragedy of 9/11," NBC News said in a statement. "He covered five presidents and traveled to every corner of the world, always showing the empathy and compassion that helped set him apart.”
Pauley said Palmer was someone who, despite his professional accomplishments and numerous interviews with world leaders, still got starstruck.
“He took me aside one day after the show and he said, ‘Jane, don’t take it the wrong way, but does it ever amaze you that Kirk Douglas knows who you are?’” she said. “I think a guy from Kingsport, Tenn., he always pinched himself, ‘What am I doing here?’ But thank God he was.”
Pauley also described Palmer as a dogged reporter who never stopped working, even after he clocked out for the day. She recalled how her husband woke her up in the middle of the night to tell her Palmer was covering the story about the unsuccessful 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.
“John broke the news because he went back to the White House and saw the lights on,” she said.
A testament to Palmer’s character was the way he was described by former NBC correspondent Tom Brokaw, who told Pauley about their friend's passing in a text message that ended with, “such a sweet man.”
Brokaw had “such respect for his professionalism, and yet, without hesitation, Tom would describe him as a sweet man, and he certainly was,” Pauley said.
Palmer died of pulmonary fibrosis at Washington's George Washington Hospital. Bryant said he spoke to Palmer’s wife, Nancy, through email and she assured him “he died the way you’d want to.”
“He had his family around him. He had his girls around him and they told stories and he died peacefully,” Bryant said.
In addition to his wife, Nancy, whom he met in NBC’s Washington bureau in 1979, Palmer also is survived by the couple’s three daughters, two of whom work for NBC and one who works in the entertainment industry.