Richard Valeriani, a longtime NBC News correspondent who covered the civil rights movement and the Johnson and Nixon administrations from the network’s Washington D.C., bureau, died today. He was 85.

He would spend 31 years as an on-air correspondent for NBC Nightly News and often appeared on Today. Colleagues would say Valeriani was “always the first” journalist to get to the scene to report a story, which is how they knew it was significant.

A native of Camden, NJ, who spoke five languages, Valeriani began his news career with the Associated Press in the late 1950s, when he was transplanted to Cuba to live and report on the Bay of Pigs. While in Cuba, he was hired by NBC and was the last American journalist ousted from the communist country.

He went on to cover the Civil Rights movement, for which he won many awards and brought wider national attention to the cause. He was part of NBC’s live coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy was the NBC Senior White House correspondent under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, making the famous “Nixon’s enemies list.”

He was seriously hurt in early 1965, when he was hit on the head with an ax handle while covering a melee in Marion, AL, that broke out as African-Americans protested the arrest of a voter registration worker. He filed newscasts from a hospital bed.

His next post was as NBC’s State Department correspondent, during which time he traveled with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — a period he covered in his book, Travels with Henry.

Valeriani got a big-screen moment in 1995, playing a CNN reporter whose opening newscast sets up the plot of the submarine thriller Crimson Tide starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. It was directed by Tony Scott and produced by the blockbuster duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.

In 1996, Valeriani began a new career as one of the first and leading media trainers, working with such high-profile clients as Kathryn Bigelow, Sumner Redstone, Jimmy Fallon and Ted Danson as well as senior officials in the U.S. and foreign governments and top executives from Ford Motor CO., IBM and Merck.

Valeriani is survived by his wife of 38 years, Kathie Berlin; a daughter, Kimberly Oser; and grandchildren Wyatt and Devon. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Seeing Eye, the Guide Dog Foundation or Guiding Eyes for the Blind.