Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD (SK)
Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD, who held the title of "Most Trusted Man in America," passed away Friday, July 17 after a long illness. He was 92. The avuncular Cronkite anchored CBS Evening News for 19 years until 1981 when he retired. During that time, he reported on such subjects as the Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Apollo XI lunar landing, Vietnam and the Vietnam-era protests, the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, Watergate and the Begin-Sadat peace accords.
Cronkite, an ARRL member, narrated the 6 minute video Amateur Radio Today. Produced by the ARRL in 2003, the video tells Amateur Radio's public service story to non-hams, focusing on ham radio's part in helping various agencies respond to wildfires in the Western US during 2002, ham radio in space and the role Amateur Radio plays in emergency communications. "Dozens of radio amateurs helped the police and fire departments and other emergency services maintain communications in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC," narrator Cronkite intoned in reference to ham radio's response on September 11, 2001. "Their country asked, and they responded without reservation."
Walter Leland Cronkite was born in St Joseph, Missouri on November 4, 1916, the only child of a dentist father and homemaker mother. When he was still young, his family moved to Texas. "One day, he read an article in Boys Life about the adventures of reporters working around the world -- and young Cronkite was hooked," said his obituary on the CBS Web site. "He began working on his high school newspaper and yearbook and in 1933, he entered the University of Texas at Austin to study political science, economics and journalism. He never graduated. He took a part time job at the Houston Post and left college to do what he loved: report."
Cronkite's Professional Career
Cronkite made his mark as a World War II correspondent for United Press where he covered the D-Day invasion and bombing missions over Germany. After the war, he served as UP's chief correspondent at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials and spent two years in Moscow. He joined CBS in 1950 as a Washington correspondent. He distinguished himself with his coverage of the 1952 and 1956 political conventions and as narrator of the documentary series The 20th Century. In 1962, he was named anchor of CBS Evening News, then 15 minutes in length; the following year, it became network TV's first 30 minute weeknight newscast. Cronkite's nightly sign-off -- "And that's the way it is" -- became part of the popular lexicon, his gravelly voice instantly recognizable.
At the time, the CBS Evening News lived in the long shadow cast by NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report, the most popular television newscast in the country. "Expectations for the Cronkite newscast were not high," the CBS obituary said. "But in 1963, the broadcast was expanded to 30 minutes -- and Cronkite won a title for which he had long campaigned, Managing Editor. The added time gave the broadcast more depth and variety, and the title gave Cronkite more influence over the content and coverage. And it came at a significant time. In September of that year, Cronkite launched the expanded program with an extended interview with President John F. Kennedy. Two months later, it was Cronkite who broke into the soap opera As The World Turns to announce that the president had been shot -- and later to declare that he had been killed."
CBS called it a "defining moment for Cronkite, and for the country. His presence -- in shirtsleeves, slowly removing his glasses to check the time and blink back tears -- captured both the sense of shock, and the struggle for composure, that would consume America and the world over the next four days."
One of Cronkite's enthusiasms was the space race. In 1969, when America sent a man to the moon, he couldn't contain himself. "Go baby, go!," he said, as Apollo XI took off. He ended up performing what critics described as "Walter to Walter" coverage of the mission -- staying on the air for 27 of the 30 hours that Apollo XI took to complete its mission.
In 1977, Cronkite interviewed Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat, who, according to CBS, told Cronkite that, if invited, he'd go to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The move was unprecedented. The next day, Begin invited Sadat to Jerusalem for talks that eventually led to the Camp David accords and the Israeli-Egyptian treaty.
"In 1981, Cronkite announced he would retire at the age of 65, to make way for a new anchor in the chair, Dan Rather," CBS said. "A commentator said it was like 'George Washington leaving the dollar bill.' Cronkite said on March 6, 1981, as he conclude his final broadcast as anchorman: 'Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away, they just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is.'"
After leaving the evening news broadcast, Cronkite was seen and heard occasionally as a special correspondent for CBS, CNN and NPR. From 1987-1992, he filled his last role for CBS News: Walter Cronkite's 20th Century, a 90 second radio segment for CBS Radio. A production company he cofounded in 1993, the Cronkite Ward Company, produced documentaries for the Discovery Channel, PBS and other networks. In 2004, he wrote a weekly syndicated newspaper column that appeared in 186 newspapers. For many years, Cronkite hosted the annual Vienna New Year's Concert on PBS and the Kennedy Center Honors.
In 2000, Cronkite was designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. Established during its Bicentennial celebration in 2000, the Library of Congress' Living Legend award is selected by the Library's curators and subject specialists to honor artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America's diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage. The professional accomplishments of the Living Legends have enabled them to provide examples of personal excellence that have benefited others and enriched the nation in a variety of ways.
NASA honored Cronkite by giving him their Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2006. "His marathon, live coverage of the first moon landing brought the excitement and impact of the historic event into the homes of millions of Americans and observers around the world," NASA said in a news release announcing the award. NASA presented the Ambassador of Exploration Award to the 38 astronauts and other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs for realizing America's vision of space exploration from 1961 to 1972. Cronkite was the first non-astronaut and only NASA outsider to receive the award, which consists of a small sample of lunar material encased in Lucite and mounted for public display. The material is part of the 842 pounds of moon rocks brought back to Earth during the six Apollo expeditions between 1969 and 1972.
Steve Mendelsohn, W2ML, was Cronkite's radio engineer at CBS for many years. "I had many chances to discuss my favorite hobby, ham radio, with 'the world's most trusted anchor man,'" he told the ARRL. "Gradually, his interest increased, but on finding that he had to pass a Morse code test, he balked, saying it was too hard for him; however, he told me he had purchased a receiver and listened every night for a few minutes to the Novice bands.
"At the CBS Radio Network, Walter would arrive 10 minutes before we went on the air to read his script aloud, make corrections for his style of grammar and just 'get in the mood' to do the show. In those days Rich Moseson, W2VU, was the producer of a show called In the News, a 3 minute television show for children voiced by CBS Correspondent Christopher Glenn. On this day, Rich was at the Broadcast Center to record Chris' voice for his show and had dropped by my control room to discuss some upcoming ARRL issues [Mendelsohn was ARRL Hudson Division Director at the time -- Ed].
"When Walter walked into the studio, I started to set the show up at the behest of our director, Dick Muller, WA2DOS. In setting up the tape recorders, I had to send tone to them and make sure they were all at proper level. Having some time, I grabbed The New York Times and started sending code with the tone key on the audio console. For 10 minutes I sent code and noticed Walter had turned his script over and was copying it.
"We went to air, as we did every day, at 4:50 PM and after we were off, Walter brought his script into the control room. Neatly printed on the back was the text I had sent with the tone key. Rich and I looked at the copy, he nodded, and I told Walter that he had just passed the code test. He laughed and asked when the formal test was, but I reminded him that it took two general class licensees to validate the test and he had just passed the code. Several weeks later he passed the written test and the FCC issued KB2GSD to the 'most trusted anchorman in America.'
"Having passed the licensing test, Walter was now ready to get on the air. His first QSO was on 10 meters about 28.390 MHz. He was nervous and I called him on the phone to talk him through his first experience. As we talked on the air, a ham from the Midwest come on and called me. Acknowledging him, I asked the usual questions about where he was from, wanting to give Walter a bit of flavor of what the hobby was about. I turned it over to Walter, and following his introduction, the gentleman in the Midwest said, 'That's the worst Walter Cronkite imitation I've ever heard!'
"I suggested that maybe it was Walter and the man replied, 'Walter Cronkite is not even a ham, and if he was, he certainly wouldn't be here on 10 meters.' Walter and I laughed for weeks at that one."
In 2007, the Radio Club of America (RCA) presented Cronkite with the Armstrong Award, the RCA's foremost achievement award and named for its first recipient, Major Edwin Armstrong. Upon presenting the award to the esteemed newsman, Richard Somers, W6NSV, said, "Each year, the Radio Club of America recognizes outstanding achievement in the field of wireless communications by honoring individuals who have made significant contributions to the industry and the public it serves. The highest and most prestigious award given by the Club is the Armstrong Medal, created in 1935 and named after Major Edwin Armstrong, wireless pioneer and inventor of FM radio. Since that time, this award has been presented infrequently and only to the most accomplished and deserving individuals -- those who have made important contributions to the radio art and science. As his significant contribution, our award recipient has used the medium of television to keep the American public informed of the news in a manner never before imagined. And tonight, we have the distinct privilege of having that individual with us, America's best known and most respected broadcast journalist, Walter Cronkite."
When Somers was done with his speech, Cronkite stepped to the podium and Somers handed him the award. Cronkite simply said: "Thank you for accepting me as one of you and for your accomplishments in the field of communications."
Before the RCA banquet and ceremony, ARRL Hudson Division Director Frank Fallon, N2FF, presented Cronkite with the ARRL President's Award. This award, created in 2003 by the ARRL Board of Directors, recognizes an ARRL member or members who "have shown long-term dedication to the goals and objectives of ARRL and Amateur Radio" and who have gone the extra mile to support individual League programs and goals. Cronkite was selected to receive the award in April 2005 in recognition of his outstanding support of the ARRL and Amateur Radio by narrating the videos Amateur Radio Today and The ARRL Goes to Washington. "It was quite a thrill to make this presentation to Cronkite," Fallon said. "He has long been recognized as the 'most trusted man in America,' so lining our causes to his face, name and voice has been a great help."
Mendelsohn remembered Cronkite as a wonderful friend with a great sense of humor: "On one particular day, I was a bit withdrawn and missed several cues on the radio show. After the show, Walter come into the control room and asked our director, Dick Muller, WA2DOS, what was wrong. Dick explained that my dad had just had an operation and that I was quite worried, as my father was in his late 60s. Later that night, I went to visit my father in the hospital and when I arrived, all he would talk about was how thrilled he was talking with Walter Cronkite on the phone for a half hour before I arrived! I was stunned, as I had not told anyone but the director about the operation. I found out the next day that Walter had asked his secretary to call all of the hospitals on Long Island to find my dad and talk with him, and even though I saw Walter in the hallway after work, he never told me he had talked with my dad. This was the measure of the man, never too busy to help someone he worked with. To me, Walter was always a friend, not just The Most Trusted Anchorman in America."
Cronkite is the recipient of a Peabody Award, the William White Award for Journalistic Merit, an Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the George Polk Journalism Award and a Gold Medal from the International Radio and Television Society. In 1981, during his final three months on the CBS Evening News, Cronkite received 11 major awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1985, he became the second newsman, after Edward R. Murrow, to be selected for the Television Hall of Fame.
In 2006, Cronkite was asked in an interview with Gail Shister if he ever thought about death. "When you get to be 89," he said, "you have to think about it a little bit. It doesn't prey on me, and it doesn't keep me awake nights. Occasionally, when I'm upset about something else, I think, 'My gosh, I don't know if I should do this or that because I'm not sure I'll be here that long to enjoy it.'"