Houston roots never far from legendary anchors’ desks
When Walter Cronkite turned the anchor desk of “CBS Evening News” over to Dan Rather in 1981, he was not only passing the job from one iconic television newsman to another. He was passing it from one Houston-area native to another.
For nearly 43 years, the two legendary reporters and anchormen steered the flagship news program at CBS through seminal moments in American history, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the war in Vietnam, to Watergate and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Though they traversed the globe to bring the American public the latest news, their upbringing in Texas continued to influence the stories they told.
Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite moved with his family at age 10 to Houston, where he attended Lanier Junior High School and later San Jacinto High School. From his childhood home in Montrose, Cronkite displayed a prescient interest in telecommunications, stringing wires across the neighborhood to create a telegraph system among his friends.
“We communicated by Morse code and were pretty good at it when it all ended abruptly,” Cronkite recalled in his 1997 memoir. “The telephone company took what we considered to be unnecessary umbrage at our use of the poles to string our wires.”
While at Lanier, Cronkite got his first experience with journalism reporting for the school’s Purple Pup. At San Jacinto High School, where he was editor of the Campus Cub newspaper, he met Fred Birney, a former Houston reporter who, Cronkite later wrote, “would inspire me to become a career print and broadcast journalist.”
In 1933, Cronkite enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked for the Daily Texan before dropping out in the fall of his junior year. In 1937, he joined the United Press wire service, where he became an influential World War II reporter, covering conflicts in North Africa and Europe.
Cronkite was recruited to join CBS in 1950 by famed newsman Edward R. Murrow, and he hosted a number of shows before succeeding Douglas Edwards as anchor of “CBS Evening News” in 1962. Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 22, 1963, Cronkite solidified his place in the public imagination as “the most trusted man in America.”
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago,” Cronkite told viewers. He paused, put his glasses back on and swallowed, as he struggled to hold back emotions. With a tremor in his voice, he continued. “Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded; presumably he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
Perhaps Cronkite’s favorite story was the space race, according to Don Carleton, a friend and director of the University of Texas’ Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
“From the earliest days of the space program, Walter brought the excitement, the drama and the achievements of space flight directly into our homes,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a 2009 statement mourning Cronkite’s death. With live coverage of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, Cronkite famously exhaled “Whew … boy,” a reaction he later described as “a speechless moment for all of mankind.”
After nearly 19 years at the helm, Cronkite passed the “CBS Evening News “anchor desk to Rather in 1981. With the transition came a distinct shift in style, with Rather departing at moments from the strict objectivism that typified Cronkite.
For the next 24 years, Rather cemented his place as an influential reporter, clashing with Vice President George H.W. Bush over the Iran-Contra scandal, conducting the first interview by a U.S. journalist of Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, interviewing President Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and presenting the first TV reports of abuses of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.
Once described as “Houston’s Horatio Alger,” Rather was born in 1931 in Wharton County. The family moved to the Heights, where he attended Love Elementary, Alexander Hamilton Middle School and John H. Reagan High School. He became the first of his family to attend college when he enrolled at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, graduating in 1953 with a degree in journalism. Though he has vaulted far from Huntsville since, he has kept close ties with his alma mater.
“He’s given money well into seven figures, has visited with students and conducted seminars,” said James Gaertner, the former president of the since renamed Sam Houston State University and a friend of Rather’s. “Every time I’ve been around, he’s just been the most gracious, nicest man you could possibly imagine, and it seems like it comes naturally to him. He’s not trying to be someone he’s not.”
Following graduation, Rather cut his journalistic teeth in Houston media.
“I tried desperately to get on with the Chronicle,” Rather recalled in a 2005 interview, “but I was a horrible speller.” So he began in radio, later working at KTRH, KTRK-TV, KHOU-TV, and, eventually, the Houston Chronicle.
While working as the director of news and public affairs for KHOU in 1961, Rather came to the attention of CBS executives for his pioneering coverage of Hurricane Carla. Enduring heavy winds and rain, and wading waist-deep in Galveston floodwaters, Rather confronted the elements long before it became a commonplace trope of weather reporters.
“The coverage of Hurricane Carla turned out to be a big break, maybe the biggest break I had as a professional,” Rather later recalled.
CBS hired Rather in 1961 to head its newly established Southwest bureau in Dallas and later its Southern bureau in New Orleans, where he contributed to on-the-ground coverage of the JFK assassination for CBS News, filing reports disseminated by Cronkite.
Alongside his hard-hitting news persona, Rather intermittently inserted folksy Texas expressions, known endearingly as “Ratherisms,” into his coverage. “The presidential race is hotter than a Laredo parking lot,” Rather said during the 2000 election, later adding, “This race is as tight as rusted lug nuts on a ’55 Ford.”
Rather came under fire in 2004 following a faulty report on “60 Minutes” that questioned President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Further scrutiny, as well as an internal investigation by CBS, led Rather to apologize, and in 2005 he signed off for the final time from “CBS Evening News.” He left the network in 2006. He remains an active journalist, hosting “The Big Interview” on AXS TV.
Cronkite died in 2009 at age 92. His legacy in the world of journalism remains palpable.
“His may be the only voice of a television newsman that we still hear in our heads,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, whose biography of the famed newsman “Cronkite” was published in 2012. “The way he delivered the news was so memorable and distinctive, but it was never grating. It was reassuring.”