John Cummings, a former Newsday reporter who covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and landed the first interview with a former Long Islander accused of murdering his family, died Friday after a long illness. He was 84.
Cummings of East Northport died at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, his family said. He had suffered from diabetes and other illnesses, his wife Lille May Cummings said.
He worked for Newsday for more than 30 years before retiring in 1987. He covered civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and was in a crowd of reporters when Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby.
Cummings was the first reporter to interview Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor from Patchogue accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1970. MacDonald, who denied killing his family, was convicted in 1979.
Former Newsday editor Howard Schneider, now dean of Stony Brook University’s journalism school, said Cummings was “a tough and tenacious reporter” who covered the Cuban revolution and political corruption in Suffolk County.
“John was very helpful to me starting out as a young reporter, but he also once set my story on fire as it emerged from my typewriter five minutes before deadline,” Schneider said. “He was a memorable personality.”
Cummings was born in Toledo, Ohio, and grew up in Pittsburgh, his wife said. He served two years in the Marines, including stints in Korea and Paris before he was honorably discharged. He studied journalism at Columbia University and worked nights as a New York Times copy boy before joining Newsday.
Cummings’ wife said she met her future husband when she was a TWA flight attendant and he was a passenger. They were married 60 years.
Cummings wrote or co-authored four books, including “Goombata,” about late mobster John Gotti. He also was one of many Newsday journalists who wrote the 1969 parody novel “Naked Came the Stranger.”
Carolyn James, editor and publisher of the Babylon Beacon and Amityville Record, who worked with Cummings at This Week, a chain of weekly papers, after he retired from Newsday, called him “a real old-time reporter, a curmudgeon in many ways, a doubter [who] always had to verify everything. . . . He had a passion for the truth and a great respect for his readers.”
Besides his wife, Cummings is survived by three daughters, Loretta Cummings of Bayville, Cheryl Font of Old Bridge, New Jersey, and Bonnie Haldas of East Northport; a son, Bruce Cummings of Manhattan; and nine grandchildren.
Cummings did not want a viewing or a funeral, his family said. He will be cremated and his family plans a memorial later this month.