On a summer day in the late 1970's a family walked onto the studio floor at the CBS Evening News in New York, a few hours before the newscast. Two adults and a small boy with bushy brown hair made their way up to that famous desk where Walter Cronkite brought us the world every night. The boy's father was a veteran CBS technician. His mother was a housewife and more than a little nervous about what was about to happen.
The father had brought his son to CBS that afternoon to meet his idol. It wasn't Reggie Jackson. When most young boys wanted to be baseball players or firemen, this youngster loved the news. More specifically, he was captivated by Cronkite. He dreamed of being able to reach people, inform people and speak to them the way Uncle Walter did. He was five.
The father pointed out the famous world map on the wall, walked his son into the bustling newsroom and finally into an office just off the studio floor. Behind the desk sat the most trusted man in America.
He was an icon and a national treasure, yet he still carried himself and treated people like that young reporter from Missouri. Not intimidated by celebrity, the young boy and the news anchor quickly began a conversation. Cronkite was amused. The boy's parents shook their heads almost in disbelief. Cronkite bent down to try to talk to talk to the boy at eye level. On a glossy photo he wrote "To Thomas - who is after my job, and undoubtedly will get it - Wishing you all good luck - Walter Cronkite."
Later that year the boy invited the newsman to his birthday party. While Cronkite graciously declined the invitation, one afternoon a gift arrived. Cronkite had sent a football, signed by Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Bart Starr that had been a gift from the football great sent earlier that year.
It still sits on my desk in a glass case. He actually told my father, "Make sure he plays with it." I would see him again only on a couple of occasions as I grew up and he drifted out of the public eye.
We lost more than a pioneer of television with the passing of Walter Cronkite, we lost someone who personified the American spirit and in doing so touched our lives. All of us can take a lesson from the way Cronkite tackled his responsibilities, both professionally and personally, with an unswerving pride and dedication. He showed us what it meant to be impartial, sincere, and principled while still achieving greatness. He was, after all, the personification of American excellence.
The media, in particular should take note of his example. Infotainment and bias had little place in Uncle Walter's world. Today, in an era when everyone is a columnist and news is unabashedly editorialized, we should hope that Cronkite's example will be instructive. In his absence, some journalists have helped foster a culture of distrust and seemingly unwieldy cynicism, fueled by increased competition, sensational coverage, innuendo and loose facts. The skepticism that the media has fostered, one can argue has boomeranged on journalism itself making a man like Cronkite not just a rarity but a virtual impossibility today.
When he left the anchor chair in 1981, I didn't lose interest in delivering the news, but rather began to listen more to another prominent communicator named Ronald Reagan. Over time, my focus changed but any sense I have that one can in fact reach people, help them understand their world and hopefully live better, all started with Walter. Today I teach political communications and have had the privilege of serving in government at the local, state and Federal level helping articulate the policies that impact our lives. I've been behind the camera, and have spent time in front of it as well.
My father instilled in me a sense of decency and purpose. Watching Cronkite made me realize early on that one person's voice and example can have a great impact on many. Reagan combined the two, inspiring in me a sense of duty and a passion for public service. All three are gone now leaving me to live by their example, in my own way and poorly by comparison. But I will try.
The young boy with the bushy brown hair is gone too, but the man who writes this in his place owes you Walter a debt of thanks. Good night. Rest well.
Thomas J. Basile is a Republican commentator and former Executive Director of the New York State Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter @TJBasile and at www.TJBasile.com.