Twenty-five years ago this month, New Orleans television station WWL sent me to San Francisco to cover the Democratic National Convention. One night at the convention, after finishing my assignment in the CBS News work space at the Moscone Center, I spotted a familiar figure. In the bustle of activity, he stood out, walking aimlessly by himself with shoulders slumped and looking rather dejected. It was Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was getting very little “face time” in the ongoing live CBS News coverage of the first national political convention since his retirement more than three years earlier. Dan Rather was in the anchor chair now, and in spite of the network’s public assurances at the time of his retirement that “Uncle Walter” would stay on to do specials and provide political commentary, the up-and-coming Rather was not about to be upstaged by the man once known as the nation’s “most trusted.” Rather and his producers weren’t calling on Cronkite much, and Cronkite had plenty of time on his hands behind the scenes.
As a reporter for a nationally respected CBS affiliate, I was somewhat familiar with the culture of CBS News. I knew, for example, that CBS staffers my age addressed the venerable elder newsman as “Mr. Cronkite,” not by the informal “Walter.” I approached him and introduced myself. We shook hands.
“Mr. Cronkite,” I said, “you may not remember, but we’ve met before. You worked with my dad many years ago, during World War Two.”
His reply came in the unmistakable baritone known to tens of millions: “Oh? And who was that?”
“John R.Henry,” I said, “of the old International News Service.”
“Ah, yes,” Cronkite said. “North Africa.”
Both my father and Cronkite were newswire war correspondents. My dad worked for the old International News Service. Cronkite worked for United Press. Both covered the 1942 allied invasion of Morocco.
In pages 88-90 of his 1996 memoirs, A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite recounts how, after the initial assaults, he and my dad raced each other across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the States on two U.S. Navy warships to file their reports. Cronkite boasts of pulling a fast one—catching a flight off his ship as it approached the U.S. coast and reaching New York in time to file the first story, but what he doesn’t mention is that my dad’s account of the invasion, “Casablanca Dead Ahead,” landed on the cover of the prestigious Cosmopolitan magazine, and Cronkite’s didn’t!
Years after the war, after Cronkite joined Edward R. Murrow at CBS and my dad married the young reporter who was to become my mother, Margaret Brewer, and they moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Mississippi where he become president of the old Merchants and Farmers Bank on Market Street, the two wire services merged to form what is now known as United Press International.
At the Moscone Center, I reminded Cronkite that in August, 1970, at his invitation, my dad and my brother John and I came to visit him at the CBS Evening Newsroom in New York. My father had taken Johnny and me to the Big Apple on vacation. I was 13, and I had spent my childhood watching Cronkite on Columbus station WCBI-TV anchoring CBS News coverage of major world events throughout the 1960s, including the John F. Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and man’s first landing on the moon. Somewhere along the way, my dad let slip that he had worked with Cronkite during his years as a wire service reporter.
My dad had worked in New York during those years and he knew his way around the city. By the time he took us there to visit in ’70, I was already curious about the news business. He was taking us to the usual tourist sites—the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the New York Stock Exchange and other points of interest—and we dined at Toots Shor’s, but I kept thinking about what I wanted to do most: go by CBS, get a first-hand look at the network news operation and, yes, meet Walter Cronkite.
I kept pestering my dad, saying, “C’mon, Daddy—you said you know Walter Cronkite. I wanna go by CBS!” Finally, on about the third day of the trip, probably just to get me off his back, my father picked up the telephone in the hotel room and called over to CBS, and I’ll be damned if a day or two later we weren’t sitting in Cronkite’s glass cubicle off the newsroom, watching the avuncular anchorman reading the news “live and direct.”
We arrived at the CBS Broadcast Center at 524 West 57th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan on a Friday afternoon about a half-hour before the broadcast. We checked in with the receptionist and a security guard escorted us down the maze of institutional green corridors comprising the building that once housed a dairy depot a few blocks from the Hudson River. I was all eyes as the last hallway opened up on the familiar newsroom, where Cronkite sat already perched behind the anchor desk, facing the camera. He saw us walk in and shot me a wink. I remember thinking he looked just like he did on TV, except it was in person.
During the broadcast, Cronkite’s wife Betsy and his son Chip arrived and joined us in the cubicle. There, we made small talk while watching Cronkite do his thing. After signing off with his signature “… and that’s the way it is,” Cronkite came out behind the desk and across the newsroom to join us in the cubicle. He embraced his wife and son and shook hands with my father. “Hello, Jawn,” he intoned. My dad’s response was something along the lines of “Walter, how are ‘ya.” My dad introduced Cronkite to my brother and me, and I shook the hand of the most trusted man in America.
For a young teenager from Columbus, Mississippi, this was heady stuff. I always thought Walter Cronkite and my father bore a vague resemblance to each other. While my dad was heavier and balder, both wore a mustache, both spoke in an authoritative baritone and both had a graceful but no-nonsense command of English.
While reminiscing with my father about war stories and catching up on lost time, Cronkite fiddled with a TV monitor situated above the doorway to his cubicle. He was keeping an eye on the playback of The NBC nightly news. Former competitors themselves, Cronkite and my dad chatted about Cronkite’s then-current competition on the peacock channel.
Cronkite had a date with his wife and son to go to the theater, so time was short. My dad gave him an M&F Bank business card, which Cronkite examined with a wry smile, and we all said goodbye.
As Cronkite and I talked about all this at the ’84 Democratic National Convention, he seemed to relax and cheer up. I could see that it was getting his mind off not being in the anchor booth that night.
At some point early on in the conversation, he asked how my dad was. I explained that he had died of cancer back in ’78. By the end of the conversation, other news people had caught sight of the famous anchorman and a small crowd gathered around us. Some of them started up their own conversation with Cronkite, and I slipped quietly away.
When Walter Cronkite died on Friday at 6:42 p.m. central time, I was on my way into an editorial meeting at the New Orleans news channel where I’m now the Executive Producer, WGNO-TV. It was not until after the meeting that my staff and I learned of his death and we rearranged our 9 and 10 o’clock rundowns to incorporate the sad news.
On ABC 26, we ran network obituaries paying homage to the great broadcast news icon. On the CBS News web site, I watched a piece narrated by Katie Couric, and I smiled with recognition when she mentioned how in his early years, Cronkite covered the allied invasion of North Africa and was “first back with the story.”
But none of the coverage completely communicated what I view from personal experience to be what made Cronkite great: that is, his sense of values. I know first-hand that even at the zenith of his career in a business where competition is cut-throat, Walter Cronkite never considered himself too b
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.