Afterlives of the Rich and Famous

Walter Cronkite

The most trusted man in America,” world-class journalist Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., was born on November 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Missouri, the only child of dentist Dr. Walter Leland Cronkite and his wife, Helen. When Walter was ten years old, the family moved to Houston, Texas, pursuing his father’s opportunity for a position at the University of Texas Dental School. Walter, a Boy Scout, credited his early interest in journalism to an article in American Boy about the lives of reporters on assignment in other parts of the world, and he became editor of the school newspaper and yearbook during his time at San Jacinto High School.

After two years studying political science and journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, Walter left college in 1935 to accept a part-time job as a news and sports reporter for the Houston Post. His first official broadcasting job was for the radio station WKY in Oklahoma City, and from there it was on to sports reporting for KCMO in Kansas City, where he met his future wife, Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, called Betsy throughout her life, in 1936. In 1937 he joined United Press International (UPI), and he became one of the premier American reporters covering the North African and European fronts during World War II. He was then appointed chief correspondent at the war crimes trials in Nuremburg and head of the UPI office in Moscow.

His long career at CBS News began in 1952, when he narrated a program called You Are There, which dramatized historical events. He also anchored CBS coverage of the 1952 Democratic and Republican presidential conventions and established himself as an articulate, uniquely appealing television newsman.

In 1962 Walter made his debut as anchor and editor of the CBS Evening News, a position he held until, at the age of sixty-five, he stepped down on March 6, 1981. During his brilliant tenure there, he interviewed every president from Eisenhower to Reagan; was the first to break the news to America of the deaths of President Kennedy and President Johnson; traveled to Vietnam to report on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive; brought cohesive understanding and clarity as the long, complicated Watergate scandal unfolded; participated in the first live transatlantic news broadcast in 1962; and was the live on-air reporter for the most historic of the NASA space program’s accomplishments, including the Apollo 11moon landing on July 20, 1969.

By his side every step of the way was his wife, Betsy, to whom he was married for sixty-five years until her death in 2005. Their three children, Nancy, Kathy, and Walter III, ultimately presented the Cronkites with four grandchildren.

Walter’s retirement from the CBS Evening News by no means indicated his retirement from broadcasting. To name just a handful of his post-1981 accomplishments, he did narration and voice-overs in an IMAX film about the Space Shuttle called
The Dream Is Alive, special material for the film Apollo 13, Benjamin Franklin’s voice in the educational cartoon series
Liberty’s Kids, a CBS documentary about Guglielmo Marconi called WCC Chatham Radio, and an eight-part television series for the Discovery Channel called Cronkite Remembers. He also chaired the Interfaith Alliance for the protection of American faith and freedom; supported the world hunger organization Heifer International; was a major fund-raiser for Citizens for Global Solutions; and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award, and four Peabody Excellence in Broadcasting awards. He was also inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

On July 17, 2009, Walter Cronkite died of cerebrovascular disease in his New York home at the age of ninety-two after a long, fulfilling life of unparalleled integrity.

From Francine

Walter is as happy and gratified to be Home as anyone we’ve ever seen, not because he was eager for his lifetime to end, but because he feels he used every minute of it the best he could and, he says, “made plenty of mistakes, but never one I didn’t learn from.” He emerged from the tunnel to find his wife, Betsy, a very small woman I believe was his grandmother, and a joyful pair of Springer spaniels waiting for him. He was fascinated by his time at the Scanning Machine, cherishing the life he lived, but utterly enthralled by the historic events he covered throughout his career. While reviewing his lifetime he also enjoyed remembering that his trademark newscast-ending phrase, “And that’s the way it is . . .” was his unconscious homage to a phrase used by his employer when he worked as a British newspaper editor in the mid-1800s—his employer ended every staff meeting with the words, “So there you have it,” and Walter loved the memory and the paraphrase he’d brought over from a previous lifetime.

Orientation wasn’t necessary. Walter virtually sprinted away from the Scanning Machine, out of the Hall of Wisdom, and quickly found John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger, all of whose deaths affected him even more deeply than the many others he reported. And then, as he describes it, he quietly returned to business as usual on the Other Side. He’s great friends with several past presidents, particularly Jefferson, Lincoln, and Eisenhower, and they actively study current world events and infuse what solutions manage to penetrate the egos of those in positions of power. He and Carl Sagan have resumed their passionate research into the infinite secrets of the universe and their lectures on future NASA explorations to those who will reincarnate and initiate many of those explorations. But his two favorite recreational pursuits are sailing and playing tennis with his old pal from Home, Peter Jennings.

He wants his children and grandchildren to know that he and their mother are still taking good care of each other and watching over them together and that he considers them his greatest accomplishments.

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