“I’ll know that I’ve retired when I don’t have to travel by plane,” Walter Cronkite remarked recently when someone showed him figures indicating over 300,000 miles of travel in the past year.
“I thought at first it was some sort of press agent’s dream,” he said. “I’ve never kept a log of my mileage, but after a few minutes’ consideration, my guess is that those figures are correct.”
Until recently, Cronkite was anchorman for the CBS Television Network programs “Eyewitness” and the “Sunday News Special.” He covered the Project Mercury space flights of U.S. astronauts Shepard, Grissom and Glenn, and the veteran newsman has served as anchorman for the network’s coverage of the national political conventions, elections and inauguration. He is also host-narrator for “The Twentieth Century.”
Talking to people in the news
Cronkite has been managing editor of the network’s Monday through Friday “CBS News with Walter Cronkite” program. Besides reporting the news, he takes an active part in selection and editing of news and film, and is often his own leg-man, covering fast-breaking news stories on the spot.
Cronkite’s secretary says that she has orders not to make any appointments for him after 10am on any day. Cronkite wants enough time to go out and give personal coverage to stories.
“I like to talk to people in the news,” he points out. “I think it improves the story to talk directly with the newsmaker — from the point of view of the audience as well as the reporter.
Almost like a desk reporter
“There’s practically nobody I can’t call on the phone. I’ll get through because they know my name and my voice. I could never do that when I worked for United Press.
“I feel almost like a desk reporter,” he says. “Do you know that I’ve got a list of cities that I can get to and from inside a working day, and still be in New York in time to do the show?”
Cronkite produced a list which included Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Albany, Cleveland, Miami, Dallas, St. Louis and Milwaukee.
Can’t sit still
He also says that if he needs to, he can leave New York after he Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus, Charlotte and Cincinnati, and get back to New York in ample time to “ride and write” the show on the following day.
“I couldn’t stand it if I had to sit still. Reporting is my life — I like the people who work in news, reading wire copy, looking at news — film, the excitement, the frenzy — but most of all I feel fortunate that through my work, I can be there when things happen.”
As a World War II correspondent, Cronkite covered the Battle of the North Atlantic in 1942, landed with the invading Allied troops in North Africa, and took part in the Normandy beachhead assaults in 1944.
He dropped with the First Airborne Division in Holland, and was with the U.S. Third Army at the Battle of the Bulge when it broke through the German encirclement at Bastogne in December, 1944. He reported the German surrender and the Nuremberg trials.
Walter Cronkite and family
He is married to the former Mary Elizabeth Maxwell of Kansas City, whom he calls Betsy. They live in New York City with their three children, Nancy, 13, Kathy, 11, and Chip, 4.
Betsy has learned to take his sudden trips in stride. It no longer panics her when the phone rings, and Cronkite apologizes for not being able to make dinner that night because he has to be off right away to a place in Scotland called Holy Loch to cover a report on a U.S. nuclear base there, and the Scots’ reaction to it.
Mrs. Cronkite adds: “Once I gave up going to Monte Carlo with Walter to be here for the three-legged race at my daughter’s field day at school. And then her race was called off because of rain.
“I don’t usually go along unless Walter is going to be in one place long enough for it to count,” she continues. “Or I don’t go if it is going to be frantic, with me the only woman with a lot of men.”
Major TV awards
During the 1961-62 season, Walter Cronkite was the reporter on three outstanding CBS Reports projects: The trio of hour-long informal interviews with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, titled “Eisenhower on the Presidency”; a case history of a gambling establishment, “Biography of a Bookie Joint,” (nominated for an Emmy award) and an interview with Walter Lippmann on the persons and issues which have shaped the news, “Walter Lippmann, Year End.”
Since joining CBS News 12 years ago, Cronkite has been associated with programs which. time and again, have won major television awards — such outstanding network series as “Air Power” and “You Are There,” in addition to “The Twentieth Century,” “Eyewitness,” CBS Reports and various CBS News Specials notably the 1960 national conventions coverage).
After five years of very close association with Cronkite, Burton Benjamin, executive producer of “The Twentieth Century,” agrees that the man is first, last and always a reporter. Benjamin says: “Has story, will travel” perfectly characterizes him.
“At Cape Canaveral not long ago,” Benjamin recalls, “a New York reporter asked me: ‘How does Cronkite do it? He never stops.’
“He had been waiting for one of the big shoots and it had been scrubbed — for 48 hours was the official announcement.
“Cronkite had hopped a plane, flown to Chicago to deliver a speech, moved on to Topeka for a Twentieth Century assignment, and was back at Canaveral at work at 7am when the shoot went off.
“The first time we went on location together was also at the Cape. We had been up half the night getting there. When we were about to turn in around 3am, the briefing officer said casually: ‘They’ll be around for you at 5:45.’
“Since the briefing was hardly that important, and I didn’t know Cronkite, I figured he would stay asleep and miss it. Somehow I managed to be in the motel dining room at 5:30.
“The only one there was Cronkite, just finishing his coffee. ‘What kept you?’ he asked.”
“I have seen him fly all night to make a morning interview, and bring to it all the alertness and information that makes him a great reporter.
“On our series, he has traveled by jet, nuclear submarine, helicopter, boatswain’s chair to get a story.”
Getting up to Greenland
“Our toughest travel problem: To get him from Ireland to Camp Century, Greenland, the ‘City under the Ice,’ 800 miles from the North Pole. Direct transportation seemed out of the question.
“Bringing him back to the United States and then awaiting a MATS flight would take too long. We finally figured it out this way:
“We would fly him from Dublin to Paris and then to Copenhagen to catch an S.A.S. trans-polar jet headed for Los Angeles.
“This jet stops for refueling only at an obscure airfield in Greenland named Sondre Stromfjord.
“Cronkite would get off here — perhaps the only passenger ever to do so. From this point, the trip to Century would be easy.
The next day, Paris came on the line. Cronkite at Orly. The Irish plane was late; he missed the Copenhagen plane and thus the Polar flight.
“Most reporters would have added, ‘and I’m coming home.’ Not Walter. He had talked to S.A.S., there was another Polar flight the next day, it was sold out, but he had wangled his way into an extra cockpit seat.