Friends and family who gathered to pay their final respects to Walter Cronkite on July 23 remembered the CBS anchorman as a devoted father, an avid sailor, a consummate reporter and “in New York religious terminology: a mensch,” said the Rev. William McD. Tully, who presided over the funeral mass at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan.
Cronkite died July 17 at the age of 92.
His casket was draped in a crimson velvet and tapestry shroud. The opening chorus of the Navy Hymn “Eternal Father, strong to save,” evoked Cronkite’s love of the sea: “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”
An emotional Andy Rooney was the first speaker.
“Walter was such a great friend,” said Rooney, 90. “I can’t get over it.”
Rooney recalled when he first met Cronkite, during a World War II air raid in London. Rooney was a reporter for Stars and Stripes. And Cronkite was at United Press.
“You get to know someone pretty well in a war,” said Rooney. “I just feel so terrible about Walter’s death that I can hardly say anything. He’s been such a good friend over the years.”
Cronkite’s longtime producer Sanford Socolow noted that Cronkite “had a reputation for being cool, calm and collected. But that doesn’t do him any justice. He could be ferocious at times.”
Those instincts emerged during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When police roughed up then CBS News correspondent Dan Rather, Cronkite famously (and somewhat politely) observed: “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, if I may be permitted to say so.”
Cronkite’s subsequent interview with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, added Socolow, was “one of the low points for Walter. He felt he wasn’t forceful enough with Mayor Daley,” in taking him to task for the Chicago authorities’ crackdown on protestors and the media.
“Walter was furious about that.”
But Socolow also recalled many light moments with Cronkite.
Cronkite’s stentorian voice may have been one of his many attributes. But apparently the legendary broadcaster had a problem pronouncing February.
“We would get all sorts of complaints,” said Socolow. “It got to the point where we would start rehearsing him from the last week in January.”
Cronkite never worked behind the camera. But one day he had a brainstorm for a new twist on the 22-minute broadcast.
Cronkite, said Socolow, “had this bizarre idea … that he would adlib the news cast.”
Everyone thought it was a terrible idea. Nonetheless, said Socolow, “We tried it. Walter insisted.”
Cronkite said he would brush his nose to signal the producers when it was time to roll a piece of film.
“It was utter chaos,” said Socolow, “It lasted for two days.”
After Cronkite retired and earned a place on the CBS Board of Directors he would grouse about the incessant corporate-speak.
Cronkite, recalled Socolow, “said all we talk about is earnings per share. And every time I think up a question about television nobody wants to talk to me about it.”
Cronkite’s son Chip Cronkite, who has his own career in television documentary as an editor and worked on many independent projects with his father after Cronkite retired from the CBS Evening News, delivered an emotional and poetic eulogy.
“I loved my Dad. I loved him coming home for dinner so we could talk about that night’s program. I loved riding my bike to meet him in the summer when he drove home to the country house.
“I loved sailing with him, trimming the sails while he navigated. He was good at that too. Back in the days before satellite navigation he would get us back to the harbor’s mouth after hours in a dark fog.
“I admired my Dad. He was just a reporter, he’d say. He just ended up reporting bigger and bigger stories. He was fast too. I liked watching him swivel around and rewrite stories during the commercial breaks.
“During the 1960s when the country felt like it would revert to the 1860s, his reporter’s instincts for fairness and accuracy, seemed to me, to help Americans on both sides of the political fence understand each other.
“He liked to quote Thomas Jefferson: ‘A nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects whet never can and never will be.’
“My folks had lived through the depression, war and Cold War before I was born in the same year as Sputnik. Dad said he walked home from the hospital that night along the East River making plans for this new son of his. I think most of those plans came true.
“Thank you Dad, thanks for rushing to the side of the boat when the boom knocked me overboard. You stood there ready to jump in after me and then you were glad you didn’t have to.
“Thanks for getting ready to take out my appendix yourself with a sharpened spoon, on the plains of Africa two days’ drive from a hospital. That time, I was glad you didn’t have to.
“Thanks for being such fun to work with as you and Sandy Socolow and I went from one small production company to another in the 1990s
“Thanks for being such a good role model: doing your homework, being polite, saying to Mom as you passed her in the hall or the kitchen, shall we dance, and then taking her for a few turns around the room.
“I’m happy for my dad. I’m happy he had so many interesting and varied friends over the years and that he’d bring them home. I’m happy that he finished his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life, before his health began to fail.
“I’m sorry I insulted him by saying I was surprised how funny it was. He said I should have known how funny he was.
“I’m happy he had such caring doctors and nurses in his last few years.
“When we were young my sisters and I came to Sunday school here at St. Bart’s. Four years ago we memorialized our Mom here, than we went out to Kansas City to bury her. We’ll be going back out soon, to put Dad’s ashes next to Mom’s.”
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