Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Today I’m thinking about how, back in the summer of 1992, I had a phone conversation with Walter Cronkite.

The occasion was a High Profile cover for The Dallas Morning News, a story about author James A. Michener, then 85 years old. I had spent an amazing day with the hospitable Mr. Michener — just the two of us, talking, having lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, then talking some more — at his summer home in Brunswick, Maine.

By the time I went home, I had a list of his friends and associates I wanted to chat with. And the one I was most eager to contact was Mr. Cronkite, then 75 and still busy as ever, though retired from the CBS News anchor chair for 11 years.

Over the 10 years I was a High Profile reporter, I often placed such phone calls to secondary sources who were as famous as, or even more famous than, the people I was profiling. Cesar Chavez, Lady Bird Johnson, Dan Rather, Ross Perot, Lloyd Bentsen, Barbara Walters, Franco Zeffirelli, Dame Joan Sutherland — ordinary folks like that. There were only a few times when I was a little nervous about making those calls.

The call to Mr. Cronkite was one of those times.

I mean, this was Walter Cronkite. How many times had I watched him on our family’s TV set as that deep, reassuring voice informed me about the tragedies and triumphs of the 1960s and ’70s? How often had I heard him introduce himself: “This is Walter Cronkite…”? Or sign off with, “And that’s the way it is…”?

Thousands of times, surely, over some three decades. I probably knew that voice as well as I knew my own father’s.

So yes, I was nervous. But I called his office at CBS and left a message for him. And a few days later, my phone rang, and that unmistakable voice informed me: “This is Walter Cronkite.”

So hypnotized was I that I had a little trouble remembering to scribble my notes. But he was kind and patient, and we talked for 10 or 15 minutes, mostly about Mr. Michener and their friendship. Among other things, he told me that his favorite Michener book was Chesapeake.

In the story I wrote (published on Aug. 16, 1992) I ended up using an anecdote about one of their adventures aboard Mr. Cronkite’s beloved sailboat, the Wyntje:

“One time when we went sailing on Chesapeake Bay, we picked Jim up in Oxford, Maryland. We were sailing to Annapolis, and it got nasty out there. Jim was getting pretty wet, and I was worried about him, so I asked if he’d like to go below. But he wouldn’t.

“Eventually the storm passed, and I told Jim that it was lovely of him to insist on staying with me.

“He said, “Walter, I couldn’t afford not to stay on deck. The State of Maryland just made me an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake. How would it be if they heard I went below in a storm?’ “

I went home that day and told our then-13-year-old daughter (who had met Mr. Michener on our Maine trip): “Guess who I talked to today for my Michener profile?”

“Who?”

“Walter Cronkite!”

“Wow!” Pause. Puzzled look on her face. “Who’s Walter Cronkite?”

I then realized that Mr. Cronkite had retired from the anchor desk when she was only two years old. “He used to be the anchorman on CBS,” I told her. “He’s really iconic, really famous and respected among journalists. Well, among everyone who’s a grownup, really. I can’t believe I got to talk with him!”

All these years later, our daughter is now 30, married and the mother of two small children. I know that Walter Cronkite will never mean to her what he meant to my generation, or to her grandparents’. She’ll never think of any news anchor as “iconic,” really. The communications world has changed so radically that there will never be another news figure with the kind of respect, authority and clout that Mr. Cronkite had.

He was a serious journalist, a real newsman. He did his job well, he loved his work, and he helped to change the world and make it a better place. That’s the best way any journalist can hope to be remembered.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea. Godspeed, Uncle Walter.

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