And that’s the way it was with Walter Cronkite
There are certain events in history that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. Certainly two top events that are emblazoned in my mind would be the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the day our American astronauts landed on the moon.
And I don’t know about you, but when I think back to either of those days, I automatically think of Walter Cronkite, for that is who we all turned to when historical events occurred that were important to each and every one of us. I’ll always remember how Walter Cronkite would take off his glasses, I think that was such a natural thing to do that he made us all feel like he was just sitting across from us at the dinner table talking to us. He took them off on the day Kennedy was killed, and looked up at the clock on the wall in the studio, as if to acknowledge the horrible moment as a moment we could never forget, ever. He was choked up but took a breath and went on, because he had to hold it together. I know all too well how difficult that can be; I remember being on the air live on Good Morning America the morning that TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of New York’s Long Island. We were reporting on the event, and the next thing I knew I got a call from a friend to tell me that a life-long dear friend of mine was aboard the plane. In the flash of a moment I was part of the event, so deeply sad, so in disbelief that my friend Jed could really have been on that plane. I was so choked up that Charlie Gibson, who knew me so well, finished my sentence and said to our audience “Joan just learned that a dear friend was on that flight, I’d like to give her a moment to take a breath and compose herself.” When something sad and unthinkable happens, you know how you feel , like something powerful almost knocks you down-– well Walter Cronkite lived through all of those moments in front of us all with class, dignity, reverence, appropriateness and great strength.
But it is another much more light-hearted moment that I got to share with Walter Cronkite that I want to share with you today. About ten years ago I was asked to host a Motivational Seminar; I was to introduce the speakers of the day, and interview Walter Cronkite live on stage for 45 minutes as the “Main Event”. He was in good health, in good spirits, but a little hard of hearing – they said he would wear an ear piece in order to hear me well-- even though he was sitting right next to me. He was impeccably dressed. I personally think the older Walter Cronkite got, the more handsome he became. I found him to be a genuinely nice man, and very much wanted to be the best interview possible for that audience that was there with us that day. During that interview he had the most amazing recall I had ever encountered, recounting minute details of battles during war time, comments made by world leaders he’d interviewed and also the everyday Americans he had met in his travels around our country who had impressed him with their hard work, courage and tenacity.
I asked Walter about some of his favorite interviews and he told me his all time favorite was still about our astronauts stepping onto the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969. He was fascinated with space and with those who dared to go where no one had gone before. And he wasn’t the only one, an estimated 500 million people worldwide watched that event, the largest television audience for a live broadcast ever at that time. After the astronauts returned home, Walter got to sit down and talk with Buzz Aldrin about their amazing journey. He began by asking Buzz about the heart-pounding blast off, and asked him what he was thinking at that moment when NASA was counting down 5...4…3…2…1, knowing that he was about to be thrust into outer space, into the vast unknown. He said Buzz looked at him and said without hesitation, “All I could think about was that our spacecraft was built by the lowest bidder!” We both laughed, and what a genuine laugh he had… and what a genuine man he was.