The heroes of my early life were, inevitably, the saints of the Catholic Church.
The first “non” saint hero I can remember having was Dr. Tom Dooley. I was later to find out that this noble young doctor bringing modern medical care to war torn Southeast Asia was actually a gay spy for the CIA who was basically playing a two way blackmail game with the US Navy in return for intelligence information on the movement of the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas in Laos.
Since then, I have struggled to find heroes in a world that seems to take great delight in bringing down those who seek to achieve lofty goals. Recently, I did get to meet someone who has always been a hero of mine, someone who has avoided being brought low by greed or sleaziness.
Walter Cronkite came to Anchorage on a cruise and stayed around to accept an award from the Alaska Broadcasters Association. When I heard about the event, I immediately leaned on one of my friends at public broadcasting to get a ticket. I have been on the Public Broadcast Commission for many years. It is a commission that pays no per diem, no honorarium and has no money for travel. When you sit on this commission, you sit on it because of your belief in, and devotion to, the concept of public broadcasting. So I figured membership on the commission should at least get me a seat at the Cronkite banquet.
For those of us of a certain age, Walter Cronkite was the face and voice that we will always associate with some of the most amazing, tragic and historic times in recent memory. He was a broadcaster of the old school. When there was breaking news and he suddenly appeared on screen interrupting your regular programs, he was often rumpled, makeup was minimal and he was in his shirtsleeves. He looked like a newsman breaking news.
My memories from JFK’s assassination are of JFK’s wife bent over holding his head; his brother emerging from the plane that brought the slain president back to DC holding Jackie’s hand as she walked in that bloody suit; and Walter Cronkite welling up with tears as he announced the death of the president, looked up at the clock on a wall out of sight and made the conversion to Eastern time for the president’s death, then he took his glasses off and wiped his eyes.
Walter Cronkite sat at the center of history during a time when some pretty important history was being made. He brought Sadat and Begin together for the first time. He went to Viet Nam and then had the courage to come back and tell the truth of what he saw. It’s said that when LBJ heard that Cronkite had come out against the war, he said that if he’d lost Walter, he’d lost the country.
At the banquet, Cronkite told the story of CBS winning the draw to cover the moon landing. Because there was only one line available, only one network got the privilege.
He had an astronaut sitting with him during the broadcast who wanted to know what he was going to say when the first man touched down on the moon. He wanted to know so that he could have an appropriate response ready. Cronkite replied that he didn’t practice his adlibs.
When the event actually occurred, what Cronkite said was “Wow. Oh wow.” No other words could better have expressed what most people around the world were feeling at that moment. No smart remark, no pithy saying, no pre-rehearsed quote. Just “wow”.
That’s how I felt when I met him after the dinner. He was a gentleman of courage, dignity and integrity who had survived and prospered in a world that doesn’t always reward those virtues. As I shook his hand, all I could do was repeat over and over “It’s such an honor” while attempting something between a bow and a curtsey that just made me look as though my pantyhose were twisted around my chest.
I left that banquet knowing I’d been in the presence of a truly great man. Those opportunities don’t come along too often. I’m glad I was able to take advantage of this one when it did.