The Most Trusted Freshman in America
Long before Walter Cronkite was the voice of the news, he was just a kid from Houston at the University of Texas, chasing girls, acting in school plays, and drinking cheap beer. Yet Douglas Brinkley, whose new biography of Cronkite will be released this month, argues that it was in Austin that the seeds of one of the greatest careers in American journalism were sown.
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Upon graduating from Houston’s San Jacinto High School in May 1933, Walter Cronkite went on a road trip in a late-model Dodge with class buddies to the Chicago World’s Fair. The fair’s motto was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts,” and it was held on 427 acres on the Near South Side of Chicago, along Lake Michigan. While Cronkite enjoyed hearing the Andrews Sisters sing live and studying dwellings in a Homes of Tomorrow exhibit, it was the See Yourself on TV interactive display that owned his enthusiasm.
“They were inviting people to come up and be on television,” Cronkite recalled. “Naturally, being the ham I’ve always been, I stepped up immediately.” Standing stationary in front of a newfangled contraption called a television—really just a twitching little screen—Cronkite looked into the camera and goofed off, playing two clarinets at once like Benny Goodman gone mad. Besides the clowning around, all that was noticeable on the screen was some Texas barber’s idea of a haircut. Yet this thirty seconds of World’s Fair camera time allowed Cronkite—who would go on to anchor the CBS News from 1962 to 1981—to comically brag that he was on the tube years before Edward R. Murrow.
At that point, however, journalism was a long way from Cronkite’s mind. When it came time for college, he enrolled in the mining engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin. Like many Houstonians, he dreamed of huge fortunes in the oil industry. But he was prone to sleeping late and soon discovered that learning the intricacies of hydraulics, mineral determination, and blasting was a complex business. By October 1933, it was brutally apparent that the physics in Professor C. Paul Boner’s class was too complicated for Cronkite to master. In the ne’er-do-well fashion of youth, he preferred attending stadium-rattling Longhorn football games and Dixieland stomps to dull science classes.
Instead of living in a dormitory, Cronkite moved into the Chi Phi fraternity house at 1704 West Avenue. It was the former home of Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s closest adviser. The editor of the Daily Texan was a Chi Phi named D. B. Hardeman. Cronkite became fast friends with him and began contributing to the paper. Determined to be the big man on campus, Cronkite went to every social function imaginable, usually with Vance Muse Jr., a high school classmate who now wrote a column for the Daily Texan called Musings. In letters to his mother, Cronkite boasted of dating popular girls from the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, including Louise Rhea, “the campus big shot of Fort Worth,” whom he brought to his fraternity’s formal dance one year. Later in Cronkite’s life, the humorist Art Buchwald took exception to the anchorman’s overdrawn boast of prowess with Longhorn women, claiming that his friend graduated from the University of Texas a “magna cum virgin.”
Encouraged by his fraternity brothers at Chi Phi, where he cut a popular figure, Cronkite ran his only political race—for freshman class vice president. His campaign slogan read “Freshmen, Vote for the New Deal Ticket. For President—GEORGE ATKINS of North Texas, Halfback of Football Team. For Vice-President—WALTER CRONKITE of South Texas, Daily Texan staff. FAIR—SQUARE—INDEPENDENT.” He was beaten badly. What made the licking unbearable was that Joe Greenhill, a friend from San Jacinto High School and one of his Chicago trip companions, was the ballot-box victor (Greenhill would later serve as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1972 to 1982). Losing punctured Cronkite’s whole big-man-on-campus facade and sent him looking for another way to make his mark.
And so, having turned from mining to politics, he now turned from politics to journalism. His path, however, was still unclear. Getting paid by the word was a hard racket during the Depression, and studying the communications industry—learning how to be a radio operator, for example—made only slightly more job-market sense. To really make it in the fourth estate, you had to develop a brand identity, like Walter Lippmann. You had to have a well-rounded knowledge of politics, economics, and international affairs. When a popular gossip columnist such as Walter Winchell, of the New York Daily Mirror, took to radio, beginning his broadcast with “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea,” it was clear that a global radio revolution was under way. A sense of the world, it seemed, was a prerequisite for an aspiring broadcaster. But Cronkite was too lackadaisical with his studies for that. He never even learned a foreign language. If UT stood for anything to Cronkite, it was partying at the Chi Phi house. “I missed a lot of classes,” Cronkite admitted.
But he found a home at the Daily Texan nonetheless. And while most of his articles for the paper were of the calendar-event kind, he did score a coup with an interview of Gertrude Stein at the Driskill Hotel. Accompanied by Alice B. Toklas, her famous partner, Stein was in town to give a public lecture. If one were to pick a high point of Cronkite’s fledgling journalism career in the thirties, it would be his profile “Miss Stein Not Out for Show, But Knows What She Knows.” Cronkite took a real shine to Stein, who was dressed in a “mannish blouse, a tweed skirt, a peculiar but attractive vest, and comfortable-looking shoes.” Calling Stein a “modern,” Cronkite enthused that the famed author of Three Lives was a twentieth-century-thinking woman visiting a nineteenth-century-thinking Austin. “She is genuine,” Cronkite reported after his 45-minute interview with Stein. “The real thing in person.”
Writing newspaper articles now became Cronkite’s primary focus, and he fashioned his identity from the work. Using his Daily Texan clippings as bait, Cronkite secured a job freelancing articles about campus life and the Legislature for the Houston Press. He developed a keen interest in politics and often wore a soft fabric suit with a shining watch chain across his vest and two-tone wing tips, which he never polished. In time, he was contributing well-crafted columns to several other Texas newspapers as well. If these papers offered anything, it was a pittance (for one column in a local paper, he received 90 cents). But college cost money, while journalism usually paid him.
Except it didn’t pay him much. So when he was offered $75 a week (more than his father made as a dentist) to announce horse races at a bookie joint, he seized the opportunity. It was a dangerous, mob-related job. The sawdust-floor establishment smelled of smoke and rye. He made acquaintance with shady characters—gamblers, drunks, and con men. “I’d never been in a place like this before, so I gave them the real Graham McNamee approach, described the running of the race and all,” Cronkite recalled. “A mean character ran this place—a guy named Fox. . . . [He] came chasing into the room and asked me, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? We don’t want entertainment! We just want the facts!’ ”
Cronkite was a bit of a card, a jocular egotist wanting to please and show off in front of adoring crowds. Unfortunately, people simply didn’t see Cronkite as he saw himself. When he went out for the leading role in a UT Curtain Club production, he was cast instead as a stodgy, middle-aged doctor. Cronkite considered himself colorful, even dashing; other people thought of him as Mr. Beige. What Cronkite came to understand, during nightly rehearsals that went on from seven till midnight, was that he’d never become a Broadway or Hollywood star. To his peers he was simply mundane.
So he abandoned the stage in favor of a field in which everyone could be an adventurer. Broadcast radio was entering its own golden age during the Depression, with live programming on stations all through the day. Local stations needed singers, musicians, announcers, and whipcord personalities, along with Christian clergy to give prayers and pundits to speak on world affairs. Each U.S. radio station created a carnival in its studio. The four radio networks—CBS, Mutual, NBC Blue, and NBC Red—provided regional or national programming in the evenings. Cronkite’s best asset in 1934 was a budding reputation as an authority on sports—a boon in tackle-hard Texas. Years later he recalled that he failed his freshman engineering class at UT in part because he couldn’t fathom the workings of a pulley. Yet he had a good memory for football rosters, baseball box scores, and horse-racing numbers.
In 1935, while still a UT student, Cronkite was hired by KNOW, a major AM radio station in Austin, as “the man who gets behind the campus news.” It was a heady prospect, since he wouldn’t merely be a reporter but the “talent”—earning a dollar a day. The fact that Cronkite landed the job at KNOW, whose studio was in an alley behind Sixth Street, without any real radio experience indicated that he could sell himself. Later, the station asked him to write and read a sports report every Tuesday and Friday at 5:15 p.m. As an added perk he got to drink free 3.2 percent beer. In his memoir, A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite writes eloquently of how incredible it was to be alive in the “crystal days” of radio, reading the Western Union baseball score ticker. “One could tell a wireless faddist,” Cronkite recalled. “He or she was the one whose eyes were rimmed with dark circles from having stayed up all night, when reception was best, bringing in distant stations.”
At KNOW, Cronkite was shackled by the same conundrum that faced all radio at the time: corroborating facts was difficult. His boss, Harfield Weedin—who later became the general manager of Lady Bird Johnson’s Austin radio station, KTBC, and then the West Coast head of CBS Radio—warned Cronkite of abusing the airwaves with erroneous babble. Nevertheless, Cronkite was expected to read aloud sports scores with flair, even though he didn’t have the actual play-by-play color at his disposal. Because the wire services didn’t provide access to these game results, Cronkite had to be cunning and resourceful. A local Austin tobacconist, who encouraged patrons to linger in the shop and smoke, paid for a ticker service to provide up-to-date box scores, which were then transcribed to a blackboard. Cronkite would study the blackboard and memorize the teams, the scores, and the highlights for his broadcasts later. His modus operandi was ragged, but it worked.
In the spring semester of 1935, after two years at the University of Texas, Cronkite dropped out. At the time, college was still considered a luxury, not a birthright, and given Cronkite’s steadily diminishing returns, the family couldn’t afford the UT tuition. He had lost the opportunity to be a college-educated man.
Although Cronkite never earned a UT degree, he always considered himself an alumnus. “Hook ’em, Horns” forever. Because the Daily Texan had allowed him to write feature stories as a budding reporter, he remained extremely loyal to the university once he made it big at CBS News. UT’s burnt orange and white colors were his coat of arms. In the nineties, he lent his signature voice, pro bono, to a whole host of public service announcements promoting the university. If you attended a Longhorn sporting event during that decade, you’d see the huge face of Cronkite suddenly appear on the JumboTron, making appeals for financial support for the athletic teams. On a couple of occasions, when asked who his best friend was, Cronkite would jokingly name Bevo, the university’s Longhorn mascot.
Later in life he told his daughter, Kathy, who lives today in Austin, that he was embarrassed because he had never graduated. Kathy pointed out that even without a college degree, he had nevertheless become the best TV broadcaster in American history.
“Yes,” Cronkite shot back, “but if I had gotten a formal education, I could have been the kaiser!”