Remembering Walter Cronkite
by: Jim Bell, July 20, 2009 5:07:11 am
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on November 4, 1916. He lived in Kansas City until age 10, when his father, a dentist, moved the family to Houston. Cronkite graduated from San Jacinto High School, where he edited the student newspaper. Years later, Cronkite said he had the great good fortune of learning the trade from Fred Birney, a real newspaperman who was a pioneer in getting journalism into high schools.
"He talked the school board into letting him volunteer one day, five days a week, one day for each of the five high schools. And he gave his time to visit the high schools and conduct journalism classes, and to help us put out our school newspapers. We learned a great deal from Fred Birney."
Cronkite says in addition to the nuts and bolts of writing and reporting, Birney taught him the ethics of journalism.
"He was a very strong believer in accuracy and fairness in reporting, and he inculcated that in all of us. Several of us turned out to be professional journalists. He was my first mentor, no doubt about it."
After graduating from high school in 1933, Cronkite went to the University of Texas where he worked on the Daily Texan, and sent stories back to the Houston Post about what was going on at UT. He also worked weekends for the International News Service at the state capitol, covering committee meetings and other legislative goings-on.
By this time, Cronkite knew he had found what he wanted to do in life. He dropped out of college in 1935, his junior year, to take a string of jobs at radio stations in Oklahoma City and Kansas City and at the Houston Press. His boss at the Press was City Editor Roy Roussel, who Cronkite described as a fanatic about getting things right.
"And, uh, any small mistake and you'd be called to his desk, and he'd say the Chronicle, our competition, had this address as 1418 Westheimer, you say 1412 Westheimer, now who in the devil is right?"
Cronkite's career took a big step forward in 1936 when he went to work for United Press International Texas bureau. In 1939, UPI sent him to Europe to cover World War II and the rest is history. By the time the war ended, Cronkite was a nationally known war correspondent whose greatest achievements and stories were still ahead of him.
Former White House staffer Peter Roussel — whose father Hubert Roussel and uncle Roy Roussel were both editors at two of Houston's competing papers — says Walter Cronkite helped build the bridge between print and broadcasting, by teaching television how to cover and report the news.
"Coverage of all American institutions by the news media was dominated by print media. By daily newspapers, by magazines, all various forms of print media. As we all know in the last 25, 30, 40 years, that has changed in a major way. Coverage is dominated by electronic media."
Walter Cronkite was present at the creation of television news, and he spent his life making it the world's primary source of news and information. Roussel says Cronkite was one of a kind, and we won't see his like again. Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.