Broadcast news pioneer Lowell Thomas was mourned and eulogized at St. Bartholomew's Church today before a celebrated crowd of 800, including the vice president and a former president.
Opera star Robert Merrill sang and the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale presided over the sea of silver-haired admirers who remembered Thomas for his daring overseas adventures and fatherly radio broadcasts.
Former president Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, Vice President George Bush and Barbara Bush, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig and Patricia Haig, and members of three national networks, including the man who hired Thomas at CBS, William Paley, were among those in attendance.
Thomas, who began his broadcast career with CBS in 1930 on what was to become the longest-running network news show, will be buried Thursday near his Dutchess County, N.Y., home.
"Lowell was one of the most remarkable men of all time . . . ," bellowed Peale, a personal friend of Thomas'.
Peale: From Marco Polo to Daniel Boone, from Buffalo Bill to Will Rogers . . . I rated Lowell Thomas among the greatest of men . . .
"The trip to Tibet. That was the greatest. He actually pulled that off and I went along. Just me and him. It was 1949."
Lowell Thomas Jr., 57 and former lieutenant governor of Alaska, now owns an aviation company that flies mountain climbers to the lower glaciers of Mount McKinley. He was an only child who greatly resembles his father with his pencil mustache and boundless energy. There is little difference in appearance: the solid square face, the glint in the eye, the slim frame -- even the voice, one of the keys to his father's phenomenal success.
"With my Dad, Tibet had been a lifelong desire. But Tibet didn't let people in. But he thought he could do anything, and he usually could. He had very few failures. I was in Iran on business and 26 at the time. He sent me a telegram: 'The miracle has happened. We have permission to go to Tibet. Meet me in Calcutta.'
"We took off with a caravan of donkeys and yaks into the Himalayas. It was probably the first and only time I was with my Dad on a 24-hour basis. My Dad gave me individual attention but it was always with others. Maybe because I was an only child and he loved crowds. I was closest to him in Tibet. In 1949 Tibet was very strange, like another planet. It was totally undeveloped; they didn't even have wheels, everything was on animal backs. It was like a trip to Shangri-La and later James Hilton told us that he was writing about Tibet in 'Lost Horizon.'
"There was always danger, both natural and from bandits. On the way back, while he was taking notes, he was thrown from his horse, and hurt his hip badly. We were about 60,000 feet up in the Himalayas, with no ambulances, no airplanes, no anything -- just me and Dad and about five tribesmen. It was as scared as I've ever been in my life.
"We had to carry him out on our shoulders and it took us nearly a month. He was in bad shape. But I remember the way he took the whole thing, like there wasn't anything wrong. He was still very cheerful, and this could have been the end. This was the '40s in Tibet, for Christ's sake. He just toughed it out."
Peale: His friends were all over the world, from Pawling to Mesopotamia and beyond. He had only friends. No enemies at all, ever.
"He used to invite people to the country to dinner or to stay," recalls Lowell Thomas Jr. "We had about 400 acres, cornfields, hayfields with a brook running through it, surroun- ded by mountains. It was the world to me. The house is what you call a mansion -- six bedrooms, three floors -- tough to afford them today. Oh, the guests we used to have. Herbert Hoover was a favorite of his; Franklin Roosevelt came to play softball, Wendell Willkie, Jimmy Doolittle the racing pilot, Edward Murrow. My dad was extremely in-terested in people who did interesting things."
"My favorite was the World War I German navy's Count Felix von Luckner. Dad wrote a book about him. He was a raider, a real warrior who sank Allied shipping during the war. Count von Luckner was a giant of a man, about 6-3, broad-beamed, very jolly, always laughing. He was very good to me. He had a little dachshund named Susie and the three of us would go hunting for woodchucks. Dad liked him because of his humanity. He used to sink ships, but he always made sure the sailors on the downed ship survived. Dad respected his humanity, even in the heat of the war.
"Dad was a great organizer, always getting up a softball game, a skating party, going riding or something. He was one of the first ever to ski here, copying the techniques the Austrians and the Swedes brought over here. I remember once, during a big snow when the roads were closed, we went out skiing through the fields. We headed towards some train tracks and saw a train coming. Dad waved at the train, trying to stop it between towns, which they never do. But somehow he did it, and we got on. It has always seemed so amazing to me that the train stopped for Dad."
Peale: From humble beginnings he became the personification of the Horatio Alger tradition . . .
"My wife Ruth and I sat with him one evening in summer on the terrace of his great house on Quaker Hill," Thomas Jr. continued, "and I got him to talking, which I must insert, wasn't all that difficult. His conversation on that occasion went somewhat as follows:
" 'One of the prime factors in taking me wherever I've gone was the fact that during my boyhood years we lived on a mountaintop in the Rockies at 10,000 feet. Living on that mountaintop during the formative years of my life chartered the course of all the years that followed.'
"I think I was always a little irritated but my father idolized whoever was at the top. He would say, 'Do you know who that man is? He's the head of General Motors.' My answer would be, 'So what? What kind of person is he?'
"He made a lot of success, the numbers of listeners, subscribers or volumes or copies of books that were sold. He had a great respect for people who had made it on their own.
"He had a pretty big ego and Mother was the only one who could really catch him on it," Thomas Jr. recalled.
"She wouldn't allow him to keep his memorabilia in the living room so he put it on the third floor. It was her home, really. Dad always felt she was the queen of the house and she ran it.
"Later, when Mother died, he had another house, and he displayed his memorabilia downstairs."
Peale: To the last, he was still motivated by the desire to excel.
"He did love the country," said Thomas Jr. "You know he was the first to take the broadcasts away from the city to the country. He had a studio at our place in Pawling. He used to get me to time the broadcasts and that was a chore. I remember later Dad told me that Ed Murrow was always afraid to broadcast outside the city. He was afraid he would lose some electric touch with the nerve center of the world. But Dad did it in the country. When he was finished, he'd go riding or play golf.
"He may have been too intense with his own career. Mother couldn't keep up with him in the later years. . . . He always stayed current. He never got to the point where he would say I wish the old days were here. Just driven, driven, driven, until finally, it just killed him . . .
"How would he want his own funeral? He would want to make it a light thing, with a lot of levity; he would want to ham it up, to keep it away from sadness. Just like he did with 'This Is Your Life, Lowell Thomas' with Ralph Edwards. I don't know if you remember the line but Edwards said, 'Now, just sit back Lowell, you'll enjoy this,' and the old man said, 'The hell I will,' and he tore the show apart."
Peale: "And so, Lowell, we shall miss you here until we meet again, over there. So, it is not goodbye, but in your own words, 'So long, until tomorrow.' "
"The last time I saw him, was in late July, at The Bohemian Grove just north of San Francisco. It's an all-male club of authors, composers, artists, oil company heads, corporation heads, men of great accomplishment -- the top people in America, I would say, the kind of crowd he likes.
"He was sitting outdoors under the trees by a small lake. Dad's 90th birthday was coming up in April and myself and a good friend, Tom Watson, wanted to do something special for him. So I walked over to him and I said 'Dad, by the way, do you have any special wishes as to where we might go in April to celebrate your 90th birthday?'
"He thought, and then said very sharply, 'The Vale of Kashmir.' "