July 18, 2019
Walter Cronkite Memorial
DEFINITION: Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
“And that’s the way it is …”
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it is appropriate that we remember the man who delivered the news of this momentous occasion, Walter Cronkite. For decades, families across America invited him into their living rooms every evening, trusting he would bring national and world events into focus. With his deep voice and warm demeanor, Walter Cronkite delivered the news of the day — good and bad — with unfaltering dignity and integrity.
Cronkite had a legendary enthusiasm for all things space-related. He reported on every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission, and as Americans gathered around their television sets on July 20, 1969, he gleefully shouted the words the world had been waiting to hear, “Man on the moon!” Cronkite covered the Apollo 11 mission from launch to moon landing, staying live on the air for nearly 18 hours.
This was a different time. There were not endless sources for news, available on smart devices 24/7. Everyone tuned in at the same time, to the same station, to find out what was happening in the nation and the world. In this capacity, Cronkite delivered the news into the homes of 25 million Americans each day. He was part of their everyday lives, with his comforting demeanor and direct gaze. That is probably why he became known as “The most-trusted man in America.”
Born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Missouri, Walter Leland Cronkite was the only child of Helen Fritsche Cronkite and Walter Cronkite Sr., a well known dentist in St. Joseph. Although the Cronkite family relocated to Kansas City when Cronkite Jr. was a child, he returned to St. Joseph often as a boy, taking the interurban train to visit the family farm located at the present day intersection of 36th St. and Frederick Ave.
Cronkite spent much of his childhood as a delivery boy for his grandfather’s drugstore in Kansas City where he got an early taste for journalism making deliveries for the Kansas City Star. Later, as a Boy Scout, he attended the Democratic National Convention in 1928, which further piqued his interest in politics and world events. In 1936, Cronkite started working in radio at KCMO. It is there that he met Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Maxwell, who was an advertising writer for the station. They were married in 1940, the beginning of a marriage that spanned more than 60 years.
Cronkite’s professional life took him across the country and across the globe. He served as a war correspondent under the Writing 69th Eighth Air Force, and his big break came when he was asked by CBS to cover the 1952 presidential nominating conventions in Chicago. He worked for CBS for 30 years, serving in many capacities, but he is most beloved as the television news anchor for the CBS Evening News.
While Cronkite’s career took him around the world, he never forgot his roots, and he remembered St. Joseph and his down-to-earth midwestern upbringing fondly. His daughter Kathy shared this sentiment:
“He gave me and my brother and sister an ability to appreciate both the small things and the big things around us. He appreciated everyone and everything. He had a tremendous intellectual curiosity, of course, but he was always the hometown guy from St. Joe, Missouri.” Kathy Cronkite, Vineyard Gazette, July 20, 2009.
Because of his midwestern connections and professional reputation, he was asked to return to St. Joseph in November 1969. Vice President Spiro Agnew had delivered a scathing indictment of television journalists at the Midwestern Regional Republican Conference. Agnew stated that their (journalists) views “do not, and I repeat, not, represent the views of America.” At the request of CBS, KCMO-TV asked the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce to host an open forum for citizens to ask questions and voice their concerns. Walter Cronkite returned to his birthplace, fielded questions and defended the integrity of broadcast journalists. Cronkite said that Agnew’s speech was an “implied threat to freedom of speech.” The segment aired on “60 Minutes.”
During his decades at CBS, Cronkite covered every major news story of the day, interviewed presidents and reported from the field. From wars to Watergate, Cronkite delivered the news with gravity and sincerity, telling the world, “That’s the way it is.” He won 11 Emmys for his news coverage over the years, and in January 1981, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. While he retired from CBS in 1981, he stayed involved in world affairs, returning to Hanoi to film a documentary and attending events as the guest of presidents. Despite these accomplishments, Cronkite remained humble. In his own words:
“There are better writers than me, better reporters, better speakers, better-looking people and better interviewers. I don’t understand my appeal. It gets down to an unknown quality, maybe communication of integrity. I have a sense of mission. That sounds pompous, but I like the news. Facts are sacred. I feel people should know about the world, should know the truth as much as possible. I care about the world, about people, about the future. Maybe that comes across.”
Walter Cronkite embodies the character trait of integrity. St. Joseph is proud to call him a native son.
You can learn more about Walter Cronkite’s life at the interactive Walter Cronkite Memorial, housed in Spratt Hall on the campus of Missouri Western State University, 4525 Downs Drive, St. Joseph, MO 64507. The Walter Cronkite Memorial is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. The memorial houses memorabilia and artifacts from Cronkite’s life as well as interactive kiosks, rotating displays and a full-scale reproduction of the CBS Evening News Studio. Currently, a special display features historic photos, artifacts and information about the Apollo 11 moon landing.
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