Published April 08, 2012
When Mike Wallace left a message on my answering machine a decade ago, my dozing roommate thought it was all just part of a dream.
This was college, and we had one of those setups that broadcast phone messages as they recorded them. To my roommate, who had been passed out on the couch for hours, surely this was a dream.
Why else on a random weekday morning would the iconic CBS newsman's voice -- heard almost every Sunday on "60 Minutes" -- be ricocheting inside an apartment rented by three college kids he wasn't investigating?
But it was no dream, and the answer to me is now clear: Mike Wallace, decades into his career, wanted to inspire others to join his profession. And he was willing to reach out -- to cubs like me -- to help them get started.
Here’s the story behind that voice message, and what followed. It encapsulates what I’m sure is a minor series of moments in the famous newsman’s life. But now that he is gone, it does illustrate part of his legacy: the many young journalists who aspire to his stature. I count myself among them.
Three years before he left that message, I landed on Martha's Vineyard to visit a friend working there for the summer. Looking for my luggage in the island’s small airport, I happened to find myself standing next to -- of all people --Mike Wallace. It was the first time I had ever seen him in person.
I grew up watching "60 Minutes" with my parents each Sunday. Freshman year of college, my professor tasked journalism students to write about our ambitions, and I declared I wanted to be like Mike Wallace when I’m 81 years old. Now, here he was in the flesh.
I know I introduced myself and told him I was studying journalism. And I remember him telling me to make sure I get a well-rounded education. But the truth is, beyond that, I don't remember much about the encounter -- likely because what followed was so much more memorable.
After grabbing my luggage in the small Martha's Vineyard airport, I excitedly ran to meet two friends waiting for me out front. I was ecstatic, and breathlessly told them about my once-in-a-lifetime conversation with Mike Wallace.
Both of my friends had the same response: Who?
I was in disbelief and tried to impress upon them the magnitude of what I had just experienced: You know, Mike Wallace! CBS News! "60 Minutes"! The pinnacle of TV journalism!
As I was assaulting them with accolades about the veteran reporter, I noticed he was walking behind me, well within earshot. Embarrassed and caught off-guard, my mouth pushed out something before my mind could vet it: "Look, there he is! Isn't he beautiful?"
I'm sure Mike Wallace had been called a lot of things by that time. "Beautiful" was likely not one of them.
In response, he waved his hands toward me like he was auditioning for an old Western movie and said, "There's Mike, my main man."
We didn't speak again for three years.
In March 2002, then a college senior trying to decide where to go after graduation, I felt it was time to try to reconnect. By now, he probably wouldn't remember a thing about me -- or even meeting in the first place. But it was worth a shot.
I somehow got in touch with his assistant, Jennifer, and told her I'd like to talk with her boss. She told me to fax her a letter -- like I'm sure she's told so many others who have called wanting to talk to Mike Wallace.
My letter, addressed to Mike Wallace, began: "I called you 'beautiful,' and you called me your 'main man.'"
I wasn't sure if he would remember the encounter, but who would make up such a thing? Plus, I noted in my letter that the day we met ended up being just before JFK Jr. died off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. He would likely remember being on Martha's Vineyard that weekend.
While I was in the shower days after sending my letter, I could hear the phone ringing throughout the apartment, and I could hear that someone was leaving a message.
When I came out of the bathroom and pressed "Play" on the message machine, to my amazement I heard Mike Wallace's voice.
It bellowed: "Michael Levine, my main man. Mike Wallace. Call me or [my assistant] ... and set up a meeting for when you're going to be here in town. ... I would like very much to sit down with you."
Sure enough, weeks later I sat across from him in his CBS office in New York City. I remember it was filled with books and awards. I don't remember how long we talked, but I remember him telling me how hard it is to be a reporter. And I remember him saying something to the effect of, "So you really want to do this? You really want to get into journalism?"
I told him, "Yes." To that, he picked up the phone and called someone at the local CBS affiliate across West 57th Street in New York. I don't remember what he told the person on the other end, but when Mike Wallace hung up the phone he gave me this direction: "Go across the street. You have an interview."
I went across the street -– and though I didn’t end up working for CBS, my journalism career was under way. I joined Fox News Channel in Washington, and the fact that I jumped into journalism at all is in great part due to Mike Wallace.
Mr. Wallace, it was an inspiration to watch you and an honor to meet you. Just wanted to say thank you.
And of course, you're beautiful.