Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cronkite Farewell

Family, friends and former colleagues gathered to pay their last respects to Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS News anchorman, journalist and noted sailor. New York's St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church was the Cronkite family church and it provided a beautiful backdrop for the service entitled, "In Thanksgiving for the Life of Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr."

Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Morley Safer, Steve Kroft, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, Barbara Walters, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Harry Smith, Maggie Rodriguez, Connie Chung and John Roberts were among the many broadcast journalists in attendance. The crowd also included the legendary creator of 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, and news executives and producers from throughout the industry.

Grandson Walter Leland Cronkite, IV, gave the first reading, Romans 12:9-21. "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good," it begins. Then there are lines that are reminders of Cronkite, "Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in not be not claim to be wiser than you are...but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all." Daughter Kathleen Cronkite then led everyone in Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." She was followed by grandson William Maxwell Cronkite Ikard, who read Mark 4:35-41, which concludes, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Cronkite loved sailing.

Andy Rooney climbed the stairs to the engraved wooded lectern to deliver some remarks. But from the very outset he was upset. He recounted how he had met Cronkite during World War II, when the U.S. Air Force would arrange to take them on bombing missions. The Air Force made it possible for them to file their reports on their return. Then suddenly Rooney said, "Walter was such a good friend. I can't get over it... I just feel so terrible about Walter's death I can hardly say anything. Please excuse me. Thank you." With that he stepped down.

Cronkite's long time producer and friend, Sandford "Sandy" Socolow, then told several little known stories about him. It turns out that Cronkite could not accurately pronounce the second month of the year (February) and CBS News received a lot of complaints. So for many years Cronkite would spend the last two weeks of January rehearsing. When February rolled around Cronkite was fine for a couple days but then his pronunciation would slip for the remainder of the month.

Socolow told of the time Cronkite decided, to the horror of his staff, that he was going to ad lib the Evening News instead of read the news from a script. In those days film was the source of video, and directors would need a seven second cue to roll the film. Cronkite told the directors he would touch his nose when it was time to roll the film. Of course, it didn't work well at all as several times Cronkite's voice stepped on the film story. The experiment was abandoned after two days to the relief of the production crew.

At one point, when his contract was up, long after he was established as the number one anchorman, he decided to tell his bosses that they didn't want a raise. He proposed, instead, that they give him three months off a year. Upon hearing this request one Evening News writer suggested they call Cronkite's boat "Assignment." That way CBS News could then announce to the audience, "Walter Cronkite is away on Assignment."

Sailing friend Mike Ashford spoke for several minutes about Cronkite's love and daring on the sea. Chip Cronkite spoke very personally about his father and some of the experiences they shared together. The Reverend William McD. Tully gave the homily. Near the end of the service the St. Bartholomew Choir sang "Finlandia," a family favorite. Then, as Cronkite's casket was led out of the church, the New York Jazz Academy Classic Jazz All-Stars played "When the Saints go marching in."

Walter Cronkite was once the most powerful person in broadcast journalism, and his career spanned much of the twentieth century. He not only covered history, he was history. Cronkite was always a decent, kind and caring person. He never forgot where he came from. He will be buried in Kansas City next to the love of his life, his wife Betsy Cronkite.

Now Walter Cronkite's spirit will live on in newsrooms across the nation.

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