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News photographer Al Bullock captured history

A Belmont man who captured many historical events as a Navy cameraman and later as a KGO-TV Channel 7 photographer — including the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 — died Aug. 16 at age 96.

For the skinny 17 year old kid the choice he had before him was really no choice.

Basically it was Reform school or the Navy.

He kissed his hometown of Utica New York goodbye and signed up.

The year was 1940.

By December 7th 1941, Photographers Mate Second Class, Albert Nelson Bullock had found his place in the world.

Ford Island Airfield at Pearl Harbor.

Bombs and bullets going every which way, he stood by one of the runways and filmed it all with his hand cranked 16 mm camera.

Welcome to the war, Seaman Bullock.

Between then and V-J Day Al saw service all over the Pacific mostly as a “Flag cameraman” going wherever his Admiral went, shooting whatever there was to be shot.

Like the day in 1945, 50 miles off the Japanese coast.  Bullock was aboard the Admiral’s flagship the USS Santa Fe, a light cruiser, when a Japanese bomber made its way thru the protective screen of planes, ships and guns and dropped a pair of 550 pound bombs on the nearby carrier Franklin.  Explosions and fires were everywhere as the Santa Fe moved in to help remove wounded and fight the fires. Most everyone was trying to get off what they figured was a doomed ship as Bullock fought to make his way onto the carrier to film the fight to save her.

At war’s end Al was at Treasure Island.  Serving a few last brig days he owed the Navy.

Once released he decided to stay in the Bay Area.

He did all sorts of things, sold airtime for a San Mateo radio station, worked for a local photographer shooting weddings and kid’s birthday parties and led ski trips to the Sierra.

By the early 60’s Al had made a name for himself filming local car races and other sports events. (He went on to become one of the team of photographers who gathered every year to film the Indianapolis 500 in the years before television broadcast the event live. Even after TV took over Al went back on a regular basis contracting to shoot for car owners, suppliers and the like.)

In the early 60’s Al’s work caught the eye of Roger Grimsby the anchor/news director at KGO-TV.

Grimsby had a simple creed in those days. “If it’s a fire, show me the flames, if it’s a murder, show me the body or don’t bother to come back.” Al never came back empty handed.

In 1962 Al was hired to what would become a 31 year career at Channel 7.

It wasn’t all roses.  Al Bullock had a temper, he didn’t suffer fools and he wasn’t shy about telling reporters, other cameramen (no ladies back in the day) and the bosses what he thought.

Despite all that, it was his work that kept him employed.  He was generally regarded as the best breaking news cameraman in the City.

Whether it was the Free Speech and then anti-war movement at Cal, San Francisco State, and other campuses; or the demonstrations for Huey Newton and the Black Panthers if there was action to be had, Al Bullock was there.

Many of the stories Al covered for KGO-TV, I covered for KGO Radio and in 1975 Ch. 7’s News Director, Peter Jacobus, thought it might be worthwhile to team us up.

Al knew a ton of cops, by sight, I knew their names and where they worked.  Hand fit into glove.

One day, a few weeks after some teenaged San Francisco Chinese gangsters turned the Golden Dragon Restaurant into their own shooting gallery I got a tip that police and fire department divers had a line on where one of the murder weapons might be found.  We told the desk we were going to Burlingame for lunch and wouldn’t be available for a while.  As we arrived on the edge of the bay across the water from SFO’s runways, one of the homicide inspectors threw up his hands, uttered a medium profanity and then laughed and said,   ”I should have known you two would show up.” In less than 20 minutes one of the divers popped to the surface, his arm outstretched, with a pistol in his hands.  Al got the shot and Channel 7 got the exclusive.

Al covered the kidnapping, search for and capture of Patty Hearst, the saga of People’s Temple and its end in the jungle of Guyana, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk and the Loma Prieta earthquake and untold numbers of news conferences, “fast breaking ground breakings” and what we called Channel 7 exclusives where no other news outlets had bothered to show up.

By 1992 Al was 69 and the bosses figured it was time for him to retire.  Al didn’t take to the idea, there were grievances, threats of lawsuits and all sorts of stuff. But in the end…his days of daily news were over.

Al served two terms as President of the Peninsula Press Club (Now the San Francisco Press Club), he was a Life Member of the Bay Area Broadcast Legends, and a member of the Television Academy’s Silver Circle.

Over the years he was known by a variety of nicknames, the genesis of one I vividly remember.

A bright sunny San Francisco day on California St just up from Powell.  There was something going on in an open manhole in the middle of the street.  The camera was on Al’s shoulder and he was bent over filming what was going on.  Suddenly another Ch. 7 news unit came driving by and the late reporter Tim Findley yelled out, “Throw the gnome in the hole.”

Well, we didn’t, though there were times…

Al Bullock out lived numerous News Directors, Assignment Editors, Executive Producers, General Managers and more than a few Reporters.

At the age of 96, he just couldn’t get past Father Time.

He’s survived by his son Bob, his daughters Candy and Georgette and a bunch of loved and loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I recall seeing a plaque in the living room of his home in the Belmont Hills.

There was a film camera on it and the words, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll film the Universe”

Well Albert, you’ve got it now.

Rest in Peace Old Friend

Peter Cleaveland

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