With the end of every year comes an accounting of life—our triumphs, our disappointments, our hopes fulfilled or yet unmet. It is also a time to reflect on those who won’t be coming with us into the next year. This annual exercise feels particularly poignant in 2009: The passing of celebrities in the past twelve months was striking not only for the roster of names—Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon, Les Paul, Robert McNamara—but also for the unrelenting number, particularly during what was informally dubbed the “summer of death.” In Texas, we noted with special sadness the loss of native greats like Farrah Fawcett, Horton Foote, and Patrick Swayze. We also bid farewell to many who shaped our state’s consciousness and fate, from politician Don Yarborough and federal judge William Wayne Justice to civil rights advocate the Reverend Claude Black and Chicana poet Angela de Hoyos, from real estate mogul Trammell Crow and restaurant king Norman Brinker to trial lawyer John O’Quinn and first female university president Lorene Rogers. Not to mention the 35-plus Texas soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is in this spirit of reflection that we pay tribute this month to the lives and stories of Texans we’ll miss. Our list on the following pages is idiosyncratic and by no means comprehensive; indeed, an accounting of all those who have made a mark on our state would require several issues (last month we celebrated the late Bud Shrake with a selection of his letters). Instead we’ve taken the measure of six high-profile figures—as remembered by other Texans who knew them—as well as a host of characters who, while significant in their communities, were not nearly as well-known. It was the late Horton Foote himself who once said, in reference to his playwriting, “I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it, because I don’t know how people carry on.” In a sobering year, we seek to remember with that same wonder people whose stories—passionate, eccentric, compelling—remind us of what it means to live. KATHARYN RODEMANN
Dan Rather on Walter Cronkite
[ 11.04.1916 – 07.17.2009 ]
Portrait illustration by HELLOVON
Walter Cronkite, the iconic anchor of the CBS Evening News , was the face of television journalism for four decades. Born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, he grew up in Houston and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked on the Daily Texan before taking a job with the Houston Post . After distinguishing himself as an intrepid World War II correspondent, Cronkite was recruited to CBS by renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow in 1950. A reassuring voice amid the chaos of assassinations, war, and social unrest, Cronkite was famously dubbed “the most trusted man in America.” He died at age 92.
Dan Rather inherited the CBS Evening News anchor chair from Cronkite in 1981. He is now the anchor of Dan Rather Reports , on HDNet.
Walter started working in television in 1950, when the Korean War broke out. That’s how he got his break as an anchor. He was a reporter then, at the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C. Now, this was Neanderthal television. All he had was chalk and a blackboard, but he was adept at explaining the war without news footage. Part of the secret to his success was that he was a terrific ad-libber. Ad-libbing is not rocket science, but it’s harder than it might appear, particularly when one has to stay on the air for a long time, say, on election night or during some sort of catastrophe. He later earned the nickname Old Iron Pants because he could stay on the air for hours on end.
An anchorman tries to keep his emotions bottled up as much as possible, but there are moments of great grief or great joy when it’s just not humanly possible. As an anchor, Walter was very good at keeping his emotions in check. There were a few times, though, when he could not remain detached. If you remember, when Walter delivered the news that President Kennedy was dead, he took his glasses off, and it was very obvious that he was fighting back tears. That captured the national mood. In a few seconds, Walter personified what we were all feeling, and it touched the audience. The same was true when he covered the moon landing. He had this boyish enthusiasm about the space program, and so when the Eagle landed on the moon, he said, “Oh, boy!”
He was indefatigable and relentless on a story. Sleep meant nothing. Holidays, weekends meant nothing. Walter liked few things better than breaking a story. He always backed his correspondents in the field, particularly if we were working on a controversial story. In 1965 and ’66, I spent almost a year in Vietnam, when the war was being expanded. We did not have telephone contact between Saigon and New York at that time, which shows you how long it has been, so we corresponded by telex. He would telex a few words of encouragement: “Great story on X,” or “Know this is a difficult assignment. Thinking about you.” During Watergate, when we were catching a lot of heat, some of it internal, he gave me his complete, unadulterated support. He’d say, “Don’t let ’em scare you.” By then—’72, ’73, ’74—he was huge. He was the Great Walter Cronkite, so you can imagine what that kind of call meant to me.
Now the standards for news have dropped tremendously, not only online but across the board. I don’t want to engage in old-man talk here, but Walter had high standards. He believed in quality and integrity. Just as Murrow did before him, he believed in the importance of American journalism. Walter was the North Star, which is to say that if you strayed off course, you could always look to Walter to find your way. AS TOLD TO PAMELA COLLOFF