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.
<strong>The Most Trusted Freshman </strong> <strong>In America</strong>
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin
Courtesy of

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. FAIRSQUAREINDEPENDENT.” 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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week