He was chain-smoking Philip Morris Ovals from a sterling silver cigarette case. His gaze was steady, his smile genuine, his handshake warm. It was 1962, I had just been hired by CBS News, and this was my first day at the redone milk barn in New York that is headquarters for the company and a kind of poor man's cathedral for broadcast journalism. "Collingwood," he said. "Welcome! If you need help getting adjusted, just let me know and we'll have a drink or something."
Charles Collingwood died this week. He was 68. It was cancer. It was a distinguished life. Hard work, good times, experience, sophistication and humor.
A few facts . . . He came from a small town in Michigan, went to Cornell, was a Rhodes scholar. Edward R. Murrow hired him to work for CBS News in London a few months before the United States got into World War II. Collingwood wrote his parents, "I will be entirely on my own and I can do a job of straightforward reporting. I will be able to tell the truth as near as it will be humanly possible to ascertain it."
A short time later, he won the Overseas Press Club Award for his coverage of combat in North Africa. He was 23 then, movie-star handsome, fearless and fast getting a reputation for beating the competition on big stories.
It was live radio in those days . . . nothing but radio. The Blitz, the Battle of Britain, D-Day, the liberation of Paris, the surrender. And his reporting all came out of that big box in the living room.
Collingwood got a two-day beat on the world with his broadcast of Paris liberated. By the time most other reporters got to the city, he was living it up with the women and the bubbly.
He was the classic foreign correspondent in the days when the job had an aura of romance and daring. The Berlin Airlift, the Greek Civil War, Mao's final victory in China -- Collingwood covered them all in one way or another. He could smell stories and work sources. He wrote quickly, easily and well. That was one of the reasons Murrow eventually brought him back to New York, as a handpicked fill-in and understudy. Collingwood moved on to the United Nations, the White House, then television.
When bad ratings forced Murrow off "Person to Person," Collingwood came on in relief. In between and around that he covered what was then called the Indochina War and continued covering it to the end.
Once in Vietnam I saw him write an entire documentary one day, win an all-night poker game, then cover jungle fire fights all the next day with never a wink of sleep or a missed comma. Through it all, his London-tailored bush jacket and trousers didn't seem to wrinkle the slightest.
He was filled with practical correspondent's wisdom about that green jungle hell, such as: Never stay overnight with a commander who bivouacs his unit in a river bottom. And: When applying in Laos for visas to North Vietnam always wear a dark suit, white shirt and tie. Otherwise, all you would ever get were smiles and tea.
In 41 years on the air, Charles Collingwood had been everywhere, seen everything -- twice. But he was never bored.
Over the years, he made a lot of money for a reporter. He spent a lot, too. He owned Picassos and pre-Columbian art . . . and lost some of the better pieces during bad runs at the track and at the tables.
He retired three years ago. He bore the burdens of time with grace, saw the past without the gloss of myth. Exhibit A -- a recent broadcast about World War II: "Despite the nostalgia of old men who were there and despite the idea that somehow or other war is invigorating, war is no fun. And in spite of the sense of relief and jubilation that we had after V-E Day, the fact is it had been a hard, unpleasant, painful war."
We need to say something about his style in the office. He was sometimes called the "Duke of Collingwood." In the '50s he could still wear spats without embarrassment. When he lived in London, his plumber came over from France.
If a news organization is like a big, unruly family -- and in a lot of ways it is -- then Charles Collingwood was everyone's favorite uncle. He was a leader of his own generation, and the mentor of the next one. He seemed to know everything -- reporting, writing, how to live life, how to be a gentleman in a tough trade. That is the core of it. To his pupils he was, will always be, "The Duke," a legend and one of the great gentlemen.