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Walter Cronkite

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Walter Cronkite, whose warm, personal style helped define the television news and earned him the title of “most trusted man in America,” died Friday. He was 92.

As the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite was much more than the country’s most-watched newscaster. He became a reassuring interpreter of the events that roiled America and the world, from civil rights unrest to the Vietnam War to Watergate to the hostage crisis in Iran.

He also became a national icon. His signoff, “That’s the way it is,” was added to the lexicon of American popular culture. So was “Uncle Walter.” The name Cronkite showed up in sitcoms and Johnny Carson’s monologues.

John Anderson, who mounted a serious presidential bid as an independent in 1980, briefly considered putting him on the ticket as running mate. (“I wouldn’t turn it down,” promised Cronkite.)

Born in St. Joseph, Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. spent his first 10 years living in Kansas City before his father, a dentist, moved the family to Texas.

In his 1996 biography “A Reporter’s Life,” Cronkite recounted his introduction to the news business at the age of 9. “I took the streetcar down to the Kansas City Star every Saturday night and, carrying as many papers as I could, caught the Troost streetcar back to the end of the line and peddled my papers there.” His net was only about 10 cents a week, but, he observed, “it was a beginning.”

Stretching out on the grassy slope beneath Liberty Memorial, looking at the railyards full of activity and downtown Kansas City beyond them, Cronkite recalled how “America was on display from that hill -- its history and its promise.”

At age 16 he found his calling, thanks to Fred Birney, a journalism instructor who circulated among Houston-area high schools. Birney appointed Cronkite editor of the school newspaper and then, in 1933, secured a job for him as the Houston Post’s correspondent at the University of Texas in Austin.

“Things could have been a lot different for me without Fred,” Cronkite told an interviewer in 2002.

Thus began a steady uphill climb in journalism. While on vacation, he stopped in Kansas City, picked up a copy of the Star and read of an opening at KCMO Radio. He was hired in 1936 as the station’s entire news and sports department.

He began visiting 12th Street, where the wild night scene “helped me grow up in a hurry.” On Election Day, two policemen working for Tom Pendergast escorted Cronkite to a polling station and instructed him to vote — twice.

He met Betsy Maxwell, who had just been hired from the University of Missouri’s journalism school to write advertising copy for the station. She and Walter met on her third day of work and began a lengthy courtship.

“Betsy and I went from the studio to lunch and from lunch to dinner. And from KCMO through life together,” Cronkite wrote. The couple married in 1940 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Betsy Cronkite died in 2005, two weeks before the couple’s 65th anniversary.

Cronkite toiled in print and radio for nearly two decades. In later interviews he referred warmly to these formative years as a “journeyman reporter.”

He was hardly a superstar then, but Cronkite did become valuable enough to the United Press, which he joined in 1939 to cover World War II, that he turned down an offer from Edward R. Murrow to join CBS and work in radio, because United Press countered with more money. Cronkite covered Normandy, the siege of London and the North Africa campaign and the Nuremberg trials for United Press.

When he finally did join CBS in 1950, it was on the television side. Over the next 12 years Cronkite wore a variety of hats: reading the local news at the CBS-owned affiliate in Washington, D.C., overseeing the network’s coverage of political conventions — he was given the title of “anchorman,” which stuck — hosting the CBS morning show with a puppet, anchoring its 1960 Olympics coverage and narrating a historical series, “You Are There,” that was shown in classrooms for decades afterward.

Published in Kansas City Star on July 17, 2009
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