JOHN DERR: With Cronkite at the Water Cooler
This past week, Americans remembered again the deep-throated baritone voice of Walter Cronkite.
The CBS newsman had captured the hearts of his homeland to the extent that -- even in his lifetime -- he was known as the "most trusted" man in the country. No one questioned that honor.
For me personally, it was interesting to read all the various obituary stories and glowing appraisals of Cronkite's career, because I was too close to the forest to see the trees. For some five or six years, while working at CBS sports in New York, I saw him maybe every day. His office adjoined the newsroom, and I was on the other side of the 17th floor.
In the hallway, about halfway between them, was the water fountain. Some folks thought Walter was too "high-hat," but all I know is that he waited his turn to get to the fountain.
These casual meetings between us usually resulted in some low-key comments, sometimes about sports, sometimes about news and sometimes just gossip. But Walter was not a fellow for a lot of idle chatter. He had a normal New Yorker's interest in how the Yankees were doing. And if they weren't doing too well, he might ask me if I thought they would get any pitching help.
At the time of his death, it had been several decades since his nightly suppertime on-air visits, reporting and sharing his views with an absorbed audience of moms and pops and often the children. If it was time for the Cronkite broadcast, everything else was on hold.
He had been trained as a newspaper reporter -- in print, then radio and television. Like many of the newsmen of that era, he was still partial to the written word rather than the spoken word. Cronkite was good in all three avenues of reporting, but his audience just wanted to hear his presentation of the news.
Cronkite's retirement in 1981 at age 64 was properly made public, with applause for his great career. But few people knew that he had been fired. They didn't call it that; they just said he was retiring. But it was dismissal, and he didn't want to go.
Even after he went off the news show, he was told by CBS Chairman William Paley and President Frank Stanton that he would remain on the CBS "Big Board" for life and continue doing special broadcasts. But after he had done one or two, he was told there was nothing more for him to do. And then one day he was notified that he would no longer be on the board. CBS had a tendency not to give retirement watches to players who were replaced, or to discuss the reasons why.
I was not there when they decided to retire Cronkite, but I know it wasn't pleasant. Earlier I had been there when it was decided that Edward R. Murrow (who had hired Cronkite and me, along with a bevy of great correspondents but had fallen out of favor with CBS) was departing to head the U.S. Information Agency for Jack Kennedy.
Sometimes the reasons for change at the network were hard to understand, as when they said "so long" to Arthur Godfrey, Cronkite and others when their ratings were still good and their sponsors had not evaporated.
It even happened to some of us little fellows.
When Jack Fleck won the 1955 U.S. Open over Ben Hogan in San Francisco, it was a tremendous surprise, Fleck was invited to Washington to meet and play with President Eisenhower the next week. About 9 o'clock on a Wednesday night, I received a call from the White House, inviting me to come to Washington and play with Fleck and Mr. Eisenhower at noon at Burning Tree.
That's a long drive from Montclair, so I was up early and off to the capital. With the late-night call, the early-morning departure and the excitement of the day, I had failed to notify the powerful CBS execs. How was I to know that going AWOL to play with the president was a capital crime? But it was.
The reason given for the dismissal as head of the sports department: insubordination. When I told Ed Murrow about it, he kicked a wastebasket all the way across the room and yelled, "That's the damndest thing I've ever heard!"
Walter Cronkite may not have wanted to retire either, but at least he died knowing that Americans had loved him, honored him and would miss him.
John Derr was a longtime sports correspondent for CBS before retiring to Pinehurst. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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