Sunday, July 19, 2009

Uncle Walter

Friday night, as I returned from a quick trip to the Try And Save supermarket to buy some nice buffalo meat, I turned on my television to The Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, to hear her say, "Walter Cronkite has passed away at the age of 92."
This saddened me greatly although the news was not unexpected. I had mentioned in this blog recently that he was very ill and not expected to recover. But still the news came as a shock.
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was an American Broadcast Journalist most closely associated with the CBS television network, anchoring (indeed, the term "Anchorman" was originally applied to Walter) their evening news broadcast from 1962 to 1981, setting the standard for news journalism excellence during that tenure. According to frequent viewer polling he was called "The most trusted man in America," for his enthusiasm for reporting, his integrity in never bowing to corporate or outside pressure, and his kind demeanor, often being referred to as Uncle Walter.
Walter was born in November of 1916, three years before my father, in St Joseph, Missouri, the son, and grandson of dentists. He was a college dropout, just like me, and took jobs as a reporter of news and sports for newspapers. In 1936 he met his future wife Mary Elizabeth Maxwell while working as a radio sports announcer in Kansas City. They married on 1940, and remained married until her death in 2005. They had three children.
He became a top journalist covering stories in World War Two in North Africa and Europe. He was one of eight journalists to be selected by the Army to fly on bombing raids over Germany. He even landed on a glider with the 101 Airborne Division, my dad's outfit, and covered the Battle of the Buldge. Perhaps Walter and my father met, who knows?
At the invitation of Edward R Morrow, he joined CBS in 1950. He gained praise for his coverage of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1952, the first to be covered on national television, and where the term "anchor," was applied to his work.
In 1962 he succeeded Douglas Edwards as the anchorman for the CBS Evening News. He was thrilled with the unexpected job offer, and made sure to never ask his bosses why he was given the job in fear that it would be taken away because he didn't already know. In that position he became an American icon.
The broadcast was expanded from 15 minutes to 30 in 1963, making him the first anchor of an American network 30 minute nightly news program. His competition was the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report, with the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who consistently beat CBS in ratings, until NBC execs decided to decrease the news budget, allowing The CBS Evening News program to gain in viewership from 1968 on. He trained himself to report the news at a slower than average 124 words per minute in order to be easily understood, and continued to be the top rated anchor until his retirement in 1981.
Walter and I had at least one thing in common... our passion for astronomy and the space program. In 1969 his coverage of the Apollo 11 and 13 missions was the most watched in the nation, and I was one of those viewers.
During his tenure as anchor he covered the assignations of President Kennedy (fighting back tears as he reported of his death) and Martin Luther King. He declared that the War in Vietnam was unwinnable (try an imagine a major news anchor saying something like that about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration), prompting President Johnson to state, "If I lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
He made a brief appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as himself. I happen to own a VHS tape of another episode of that program, in which Mary, while trying to get Mr. Grant to forgive her for telling a colleague about a dalliance of his, offered to even things out by telling him of one of her own. "You know him," she said. "He came for a brief visit, and we had... a thing... and that man was... Walter Cronkite." Lou Grant cracked a smile and all was forgiven.
My memories of Walter are rather vague, at least during his time as the anchor of the CBS news. While he had that position I was busy being a drug addled teenager in High School, and he retired while I was in the Navy, overseas and far away. I remember him more clearly from special programs he hosted concerning science and current events. And I have a DVD of George Clooney's production of Fail Safe, which Walter introduced. Like Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, and Arthur C Clarke, Walter was one of the dwindling few who have been known to me throughout my entire life. His wisdom, integrity, decency, and passion for the truth will be sorely missed. My condolences go to his family and friends.
He died at his home in Manhattan yesterday, surrounded by his family.
"And that's the way it is."
May he rest in peace.

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