Remembering Cronkite: The night 'Uncle Walter' came to the door

Monitor Editor John Yemma (right) and other staffers with The Daily Texan student newspaper at the University of Texas in Austin greet Walter Cronkite at a Friday night party in 1974.

Walter Cronkite, who died Friday, always took an interest in young journalists. He was known as "Uncle Walter" for his low-keyed but authoritative style. As many appreciators have already noted, that style carried over into his personal life.

This is a story that goes back to the spring of 1974. The College of Communication at the University of Texas had named Mr. Cronkite the first recipient of the DeWitt Carter Reddick Award for outstanding journalism (Monitor connection alert: Mr. Reddick, a beloved professor at UT, had been a part-time correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor from 1927 to '31.)

Cronkite flew down to Austin, where he had been a student in the 1930s, gave a series of lectures and seminars on campus, graciously shook hands at an awards ceremony, and even dropped into a few classes.

This was in Cronkite's heyday, when he dominated the evening news. He had gotten many greater honors than the one he received that day. The trouble he took to come all that way to Austin did wonders to dignify the education of the journalism students at UT, especially the ragtag but energetic cohort that worked at the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, where I happened to be managing editor that semester.

Off-handedly, one of the Texan editors mentioned to Cronkite that, it being Friday, there was a party for Daily Texan staffers at his apartment that night. Drop by if you can.

Not that anyone expected the respected anchor of the CBS Evening News to knock on a noisy apartment door in South Austin that spring night.

He did, of course. The living-room was crowded. The music was loud. The dress code was T-shirts and sandals. Cronkite walked in in his gray, glen-plaid suit with that genial smile and avuncular manner.

For a bunch of budding journalists, this was the equivalent of President Obama showing up impromptu at a gathering of the Young Democrats Club of Chicago. Or perhaps Warren Buffett dropping in to the Fort Lauderdale Retirees Investment Circle.

Cronkite chatted amiably about news (Watergate was in full cry and President Nixon would resign in a few months), about Texas, and about journalism. He laughed when one of the students joked that he always wondered if the normally seated TV anchor wore pants. He laughed like he'd never heard the joke before.

This being a student party, Uncle Walter stayed just a little while, all amiability and coolness, and then he was out the door -- and a bunch of star-struck young journos were pinching themselves to be sure they hadn't been dreaming. (It was a different era, kids. Trust me when I say that it was a Big Deal.)

The University of Texas has an outstanding journalism department. It provides an excellent education over four years. The Daily Texan, which is affiliated with the department but journalistically independent, is a powerful, hands-on learning experience for students. It takes nothing away from those institutions to say that the night Uncle Walter came to the door he bestowed a kind of torch-passing validation on a motley crew of young newshounds.

Such was the stature of The Most Trusted Man in America.


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