Walter L. Cronkite Jr., was best known as the predominant news voice in America for the 19 years that he was anchorman for the CBS Evening News program. That is true, but he also is known for sharing his treasures and his name with the Arizona State University in downtown Phoenix, site of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications that opened in 2007.
A couple of months ago while attending the National Federation of Press Women Conference in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, I was included in a group that visited the six story, 225,000-square-foot building that opened its doors in August 2008. The school occupies all of the second and third floors and part of the fourth and sixth.
As we entered the Cronkite School we were greeted with the First Amendment painted on the wall, a theme repeated throughout the building. It is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that protects the rights of free speech that is essential for all citizens, including all journalists — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Half of the sixth floor is tailored for the Cronkite News Watch Newsroom and broadcast anchor desks. The room overlooks the city of Phoenix and beyond. This is where KAET Channel 8 Public TV transmits live. Print and digital students report and write daily news stories, features, enterprise and investigative stories for dozens of daily and weekly newspapers and news websites. They also produce video and photographs and broadcast students produce TV news packages for television statewide.
We were in awe of the entire building, but it was the Cronkite museum that most interested me. After Cronkite retired, long-time friend Tom Chauncey, owner of KTSP-TV, asked him if he would be willing to have the journalism school at ASU named for him. He felt honored and agreed. He then began going through the hundreds of keepsakes he possesses and shared many of them with the school to be displayed in the Cronkite Museum there.
He also took time to interact with the students and staff and every year he went there to present an Excellence in Journalism award to a leader in the media.
Cronkite reported many events from 1937 to 1981, including the bombings in World War II, combat in the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the murders of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., and Beatles musician John Lennon. He also did extensive coverage of the U.S. space program from the Mercury flight to the moon landings to the space shuttle. He had a lot of mementoes including cameras, typewriters, computers, even telephones and front pages of newspapers carrying many of the stories he covered.
While I don’t even dream of coming anywhere near Cronkite in reporting the news, my career years, beginning in 1956, were included in his 41 years in the public eye.
Cronkite is remembered best by many for breaking the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. That was 49 years ago this month. While Cronkite had been standing at the United Press International (UPI) wire machine in the CBS newsroom as the bulletin of Kennedy’s shooting broke, he clamored to get on the air to break the news.
I was alone in the newsroom at The Denison Herald when that story broke and we received the word over an Associated Press wire machine, just like the one on exhibit in his museum. I clamored to call the editor back from lunch and was able to run to the composing room and yell, “Stop everything, the President has just been shot in Dallas.” Granted the museum machine isn’t a UPI one displayed there, but somehow he did get an AP one.
Cronkite’s typewriter on which he wrote script reporting on the Kennedy assassination and events that followed is in the museum along with a story about the murder. His antique portable typewriter sits beside his old Corona typewriter.
The journalist who was known as “The most trusted man in America” in an opinion poll in the 1960s, was known for his extensive coverage of the U.S. space program. He was the only non-NASA recipient of a Moon-rock award and later was presented an actual moon rock which he gave to the University of Texas. One showcase in the museum displays headline pages of “Man on the Moon” with a picture of Cronkite displaying a New York newspaper’s edition.
Telephones and cameras always play an important role in any journalist’s career, but few of us are farsighted enough to keep old versions of them. I do have a camera collection, but unfortunately it does not include a press camera like the one pictured here. Cronkite kept both cameras and telephones. I remember the old dial telephones and some of them still are around, but the hand held upright phones were a little before my time.
Cameras are a little different. When I first began working at The Denison Herald, we used the 4x5 press cameras like the one displayed in the museum. They were heavy and cumbersome because the 4x5 sheets of film were in separate film holder slides. Each holder held slides for two pictures. After shooting one picture the holder had to be removed and turned over for the second one. Shooting a picture took time.
Not on display, or at least I didn’t see it was the battery operated flash equipment that probably weighed 25 pounds and was carried in on your shoulder. I had a turn with those, but only when flashbulbs weren’t available.
Cronkite died July 17, 2009, at his home in New York City at the age of 92. His papers are preserved at the University of Texas in Austin.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.