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A Private Signoff for Beloved Voice

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

NEW YORK, July 23 -- He reached tens of millions in his heyday, but here within the magnificent stone-and-brick church on Park Avenue, it was 1,000 invited guests -- some famous, some family, all touched by their anchor -- who bid farewell to Walter Cronkite.

As Andy Rooney used a cane to make his way down the aisle of St. Bartholomew's Church, beneath the massive circle of a stained-glass window, it seemed clear that Cronkite's generation, now fading from the scene, would miss him most of all.

Rooney's voice broke as he began to speak Thursday, and the television curmudgeon was quickly overcome by emotion. He recalled meeting Cronkite, the United Press man, in London during World War II, when they would leave town during bombing raids and then return to file their stories.

"You get to know someone pretty well in a war," Rooney said. "I just feel so terrible about Walter's death that I can hardly say anything. He was such a good friend. Please excuse me -- I can't." Rooney left the lectern, hobbling through a side door to his right.

The afternoon began under slate-gray skies as a dozen cameras recorded the arrival of CBS royalty -- Les Moonves, Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Steve Kroft, Harry Smith. They gathered in the front pew, while Dan Rather -- who is suing the network over his departure from Cronkite's old chair -- sat somberly eight rows back. Colleagues and contemporaries from the other networks -- Charlie Gibson, Barbara Walters, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw -- came to pay their respects to Cronkite, who died Friday at 92.

Sandy Socolow, Cronkite's onetime producer, gave the crowd a lighter look at the journalistic war horse, dispelling any notions of legendary perfection. In fact, he said, Cronkite once inexplicably blanked on saying his own name -- he got as far as "this is" -- and had to be rescued by the control room, which cut away.

When security guards at the 1968 Democratic convention manhandled Rather on the floor, Socolow said, Cronkite "shouted about thuggery" on the air and later "felt embarrassed and ashamed that he had lost his cool." When Chicago Mayor Richard Daley -- father of the current mayor -- arrived for an interview the next day, Cronkite "felt he wasn't forceful enough" with the man whose police force precipitated bloody clashes with protestors. "It was one of the low points of his life," Socolow said.

The following year, when Spiro Agnew assailed the media's "nattering nabobs of negativism," "Walter was furious" at the vice president, Socolow said, and insisted on convening a town meeting on the news business in his native Missouri.

Not only could America's anchorman not pronounce February -- they would practice at the end of every January, Socolow revealed -- but he "had this bizarre idea once that he would ad-lib a newscast without a script." Cronkite decreed that "when it came time to roll a piece of film, he would brush his nose." Since it took projectors seven seconds to get up to speed, the timing never worked, and the experiment lasted two days. "It drove everybody crazy. . . . It was utter chaos," Socolow said.

Mike Ashford, an Annapolis sailing buddy who called Cronkite "the Commodore," recalled the anchor's love of the sea. Cronkite's sailing style in bad weather was "not for the faint of heart," he said. They would sail the Chesapeake Bay each fall, Ashford said, rewarding themselves with hot popcorn, cold beer and wine-soaked dinners, followed by a brandy and pipe. The "crusty old sailor" was sentimental, Ashford said, and would "openly and without shame shed tears for a friend whose old yellow Lab had died."

Cronkite's son Chip offered a brief remembrance of his father discussing one night's newscast over dinner, or whimsically asking his mother Betsy in the hallway, "Shall we dance?" Cronkite recalled his mother's memorial in this church four years ago and said he would soon travel to Missouri and "put Dad's ashes next to Mom's."

Before the service, some of the assembled traded Cronkite tales. "Walter epitomized trust, credibility, believability and the old journalism that we all grew up wanting to be a part of," said Connie Chung, who got a congratulatory call from Cronkite when she was named co-anchor of the "CBS Evening News." She said reporters never knew if their stories had been chosen until airtime and "would all sit in the newsroom to see if Walter had anointed us." Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who recalled feeling "8 or 10 years old" when he first introduced himself to Cronkite during the 1992 campaign, is now the Cronkite professor at Arizona State University. "To have his name on my door is oddly important to me," Brown said.

Back when the CBS anchor was asking to take summers off and retreat to Martha's Vineyard, a network executive joked that he should name his boat the Assignment so an announcer could credibly claim that Cronkite was on assignment.

In their final assignment, as rain began to pelt the stained-glass window while a brass band played "When the Saints Go Marching In," four family members wheeled the casket toward the front of the church. The crowd was left to ponder the words of the Rev. William Tully, who called the departed, "in our own New York religious terminology, a mensch."

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