by Bruce Farr
(Bruce Farr is a Ludlow-based writer, editor and commentator for Vermont Public Radio. Bruce kindly agreed to share this recollection of his lunch with Walter Cronkite.)
A shrimp cocktail. That’s what legendary news anchor and journalist Walter Cronkite ordered and ate that early afternoon back in May of 1994, when I had the tremendous good fortune of sitting down with him for an interview over lunch. Don’t ask me what I ordered that day; for the life of me, I can’t even recall whether I even took a single bite. In fact, a lot of what occurred during that momentous meeting exists as a kind of blur in my memory; understandable considering how nervous I was.
The interview had sort of fallen into my lap. I was then working as an executive speechwriter for American Express, and Cronkite had come to town to inaugurate the brand-new Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Because Amex had underwritten a large portion of the cost of getting the school up and running, Cronkite had agreed to be interviewed by Amex for an article in its employee magazine. So I—the nearest thing the Amex “suits” could conjure up as a “journalist”—was conscripted for the job.
The setting for the lunch was the Phoenician Resort, a toweringly decadent, overwrought and overbuilt token of the affluent 1990s. Before we ate, I sat in a gilded hall listening to a number of congratulatory speeches by local politicians, business magnates and celebrities who had all gathered to pay their respects to Cronkite for championing the new school. At one point, I stopped to shake the hand of Helen Thomas, herself an icon of the reporting business, who had shown up to pay tribute to her esteemed colleague.
When we finally sat down at a table in a secluded dining room, Cronkite couldn’t have been more kind or gracious. “Please, call me Walter,” he intoned, with a mirthful twinkle in his eye and that oh-so-familiar gravity of voice that had been imprinted on my and millions of other brains throughout his fabled career. Sitting there, I dared to tease myself with the thought, “Hey! I’m eating lunch with Walter Cronkite!”
I ran through a list of fairly stock questions: how he got started in broadcasting, what were his most significant memories as a TV journalist, what he felt the state of broadcast journalism was like today, etc., etc., ad nauseum. However mundane it might have been he answered everything I threw at him thoughtfully, with measured words and what seemed genuine interest.
The hour went by in a flash, and soon one of his staff stopped by to remind him of his afternoon agenda.
“Anything else, Bruce?” Cronkite asked.
“Just one last thing—er—Walter,” I replied.
It was then that I closed my reporter’s pad and launched, passionately, into the topic that Cronkite had doubtlessly tolerated hearing from many thousands of colleagues, friends, family and fans through the decades. I explained to him in some detail how, when I was a freshman in high school, I had come home that fateful day in November of 1963 to listen to him report the almost inconceivable events of that afternoon, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Cronkite listened intently as I related how I was riveted to the TV screen, watching him remove and put back on his black, horn-rimmed glasses and gulp audibly as he struggled to maintain his composure in the wake of those tragic events. I said to him, “I pulled up the hassock and just sat there watching you and trying to come to grips with what had happened.”
When I finished he looked at me, I thought, a bit curiously and then, leaning across the table toward me, asked, in that familiar baritone, “Uh, Bruce, what’s a hassock?”