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Cronkite’s Texas: A Q&A with Walter Cronkite

Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, shares an interview he had with newspaper legend Walter Cronkite. Cronkite talks about The Daily Texan and why he ultimately dropped out UT.

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After you graduated from San Jacinto High School in Houston in May 1933, you decided to enroll at the university. Why UT?

Well, I could have gone to college back in Missouri. My grandfather had a dental practice there. But honestly, I didn’t think I could hack that because of the distance from home. I had no interest in staying in Houston to attend Rice Institute, because in those days Rice was more of a science and technology school. Texas AandM wasn’t even on my radar. My real motivation for going to Austin was my interest in journalism. I was determined to be a newspaper reporter. I thought highly of The University of Texas journalism program at the time. I don’t recall, but I seriously doubt that Rice Institute offered journalism classes in those days, probably still doesn’t. [It doesn’t.] A couple of other things attracted me to UT. I had a strong interest in politics, so the fact that Austin was the state capital was a plus. But more important, I liked that The University of Texas had a daily student newspaper, The Daily Texan. So I just knew that I wanted to go to The University of Texas.

How did you become interested in journalism at such a young age?

I had a teacher at San Jacinto High School by the name of Fred Birney, who I credit with guiding me into the journalism profession. Birney also helped me to set some professional standards very early on that I have tried to follow ever since. Birney was a newspaperman. I think he worked for the Houston Post. He talked the public school administrators into letting him teach journalism at the high schools in Houston all of them which I think there were five at the time. He did a circuit, a different school each day. Birney’s journalism classes were terrific in every respect. I first met him in my junior year. Birney talked me into being the sports editor of the Campus Cub, our school newspaper. That was my introduction to newspaper work. I was hooked from then on. And once I was hooked, I didn’t see much value in classes that weren’t somehow related to journalism, which, looking back many years later, I realize wasn’t a good attitude to have. But I was career-oriented before I graduated from high school.

Fred Birney actually got me my first job in the newspaper business when I was still in high school. He got his most eager students jobs as copyboys and cub reporters for a very minimum wage. David Westheimer, who later became a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, was one of those eager students. I worked one summer after my junior year in high school at the Houston Post. Sometimes I got an assignment to cover luncheon speakers at the Kiwanis, Lion’s Clubs and Rotary Clubs. My pay was a free lunch. Very rarely did any of this coverage make the paper but occasionally it did. I was always very proud to see my piece in the paper, obviously.

Did your parents encourage you to go to college?

Yes, that was just understood. After all, my father was a professional. He was a dentist. But money was a problem for us. This was during the Depression and money was hard to come by, even for a dentist, although that may be difficult to believe for anyone who visits a dentist regularly today. My father finally decided that we could scrape the money together for me to go. One thing that helped was that I got a job as the campus correspondent for the Houston Post right away. I used to have a brief story almost every day, sometimes two stories. It was a pretty good little stipend, just a few dollars a week, but a few dollars a week were important during the Depression.

Had you ever been to Austin before you enrolled?

No, I hadn’t. I went to Austin to visit the campus a little bit before classes began to set up my Houston Post business and to be there for registration week. I also went to The Daily Texan office. Fred Birney had told me about the Texan and how good it was. The students there were delighted to see me, which made me feel welcome. That first visit I met a nice guy who was going to be the editor that year. His name was D.B. Hardeman. After school started, D.B. kind of took me under his wing, and, as a matter of fact, got me pledged to his fraternity, Chi Phi. I was a lifelong friend of D.B.’s. He died [in 1981].

Who were your student friends?

I was lucky in that I made friends with a couple of students who sort of became mentors. One was D.B., who had an especially keen interest in politics and showed me around the Legislature. But every time I turned around on campus I seemed to meet somebody who was really knowledgeable and very interested in being helpful. Another student mentor was Stuart Long, a journalism major. Stuart was a close friend. He was going with his future wife Emma during school days. They were a very loyal couple. Years after we left school, Emma was elected to the Austin City Council. My best friend was a guy named Vance Muse Jr. His father was a famous lobbyist in Texas. Vance Muse Jr. was a classmate of mine at San Jacinto High School. He wrote a column for The Daily Texan called “Musings by Vance Muse.”

Who on the faculty had the most influence on you?

Well, that would have to be DeWitt Reddick. I took his second-year reporting class. He was a marvelous teacher, highly effective. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the full benefit of all that he had to offer as a teacher because I left the university before graduating.

Do you have memories of other professors?

I took a physics course from Dr. [C. Paul] Boner during my freshman year. It was one of those huge classes that satisfied the requirements for Arts and Science majors. I didn’t do well in that class. Actually I believe that I flunked the course. Many years later, when I was covering the race to the Moon and I was explaining celestial physics to a palpitating public of millions of viewers, I would worry that if poor Dr. Boner was watching me explain physics he might be having a stroke. For Pete’s sake, I couldn’t even figure out in his class how a pulley worked. I still can’t [laughs].

I also had a professor named Robert Montgomery. He was a pretty wild-haired guy, I mean, literally wild haired. He had a great bushy head of hair and wore glasses. My memory of him is looking very much like a Hearst cartoon version of a Bolshevik. But he was a marvelous lecturer. I remember one of his great lines. He used to do that great professorial trick of doing a little sotto voce. He’d drop his voice as if he were saying this parenthetical remark to himself. I remember one day he mentioned Andrew Mellon. And he said, “Andrew Mellon, Andrew Mellon, the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Judas Iscariot.” Montgomery was under constant attack in the Legislature. They were always raising the question of Montgomery teaching Marxism at The University of Texas. Well, few of them knew what Marxism was. But I suppose my economic ideas were formed a great deal by him. Remember, we’re talking about the middle of the Depression and in that period, all of us were very liberal. I can’t think of any really strong conservative spokesmen anywhere even in the fraternity house where we had rich sons of rich fathers.

I didn’t take J. Frank Dobie’s famous course, “Life and Literature of the Southwest,” but I dropped in on some of his lectures. I think D.B. Hardeman persuaded me to go with him to listen to Dobie, who was the most famous member of the faculty. I also went with my friend Stuart Long a couple of times to Dobie’s classes. Apparently he didn’t mind having all of these students drop in on his lectures. It was a popular thing to do. Dobie used to have informal groups of students meet at his house and I attended some of those gatherings, usually with Stuart Long. To us younger people with literary pretensions, Dobie was a hero.

Where did you live in Austin when you were a student?

The first house I happened to get a room in was right next door to the Chi Phi House on West Avenue, which helped make my pledge easier. The Chi Phi house was the old Colonel Edward M. House home. House was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s closest advisers. It was a magnificent old home. It’s been torn down since then, unfortunately. It should have been a historic landmark.

Did you have roommates?

Yes, just one, Bill Butler, who had been my classmate at Sidney Lanier and San Jacinto schools in Houston. He became a lawyer, and was at one time the U.S. district attorney for South Texas out of Houston. He was a conservative. In fact, he was a Dixiecrat at one time and when the Dixiecrats folded he became a Republican. We argued politics at some length but always fell short of falling out over our political differences. We remained very close until he died of cancer just after retiring.

I understand that you also acted in the University’s Curtain Club, the student theater group?

Yeah, well, I don’t know, I just thought it was a good idea at the time but I don’t know what inspired me to do that. I certainly didn’t do much acting. When I was at UT most of the things I did were kind of serendipitous. I did very little planning of my life. The director was a guy named Parks, and my guess is that I went around to cover something for the Texan, got intrigued talking to Parks about what he was doing, and he said, “Why don’t you join us.” That would be my guess. Eli Wallach, who later became a famous movie and stage actor, was a graduate of my class at the Curtain Club. Eli and I have been good friends over the years. But of course there were a lot of other famous ones around. Zachary Scott, who also became a well-known movie actor. Elaine Anderson, who married Zachary, was in my class. Elaine became a stage manager in New York. She later became John Steinbeck’s third wife. Elaine and I have also been friendly ever since college days. There were two or three others.

Did you join the Curtain Club to improve your voice skills for radio?

No. My adventure in the University’s Curtain Club had nothing to do with journalism at all. I was just having some fun with a lot of other students who knew how to have fun. The only play I can remember acting in was The Ninth Guest, which was something of a disaster because of a problem I had with my glasses falling off of my nose. I had no thought of being an actor or of being able to speak on the radio. I always was intrigued with radio, but I never really thought a lot about being a radio reporter. I remember when I was in Houston and still in high school, I became friendly with a guy named Kern Tipps at KTRH radio, who became a radio legend in Texas, especially for his work as a sports announcer for the football broadcasts that the Humble Oil Company sponsored. By the way, I was told that the station’s call letters KTRH stood for “Kome to the Rice Hotel.” Thankfully, knowing how to spell has never been a qualification for a job in radio. Anyway, Kern Tipps imitated Floyd Gibbons, who was famous nationally in those days as a radio announcer and movie newsreel narrator. He talked very rapidly. I don’t know whether he learned it from Floyd Gibbons, but Kern pasted his script together in a scroll, so he wouldn’t waste any time turning pages. He pasted the whole darn thing together this long script they had on the floor and he stood at the microphone, and held this script along his fingers. I went down to watch him broadcast, two or three times. And I kind of had a hankering to do that sort of thing, but my main interest was in newspapers.

But didn’t you work on the radio when you were a student at UT?

Yes, I worked for KNOW Radio, which had started out as KTUT. When I found out that they didn’t have a sports program, I proposed to do one for them. I did five minutes of sports a day, baseball scores mostly. A guy named Harfield Weedin was the station manager. I got a job as a sports reporter for the station doing this five-minute thing, and they paid me virtually nothing, about a dollar a day. It was a primitive setup. We had no news wires, so there was no news on the station. Because there were no news wires, I had no way to get the baseball scores. Our studio was in downtown Austin, so I would go down to the alley behind the Driskill Hotel on Sixth Street. There was a smoke shop down there that had an old Western Union baseball score ticker it was just like the old stock tickers with the glass bowl and the whole thing, and it carried all the major league and minor league baseball scores. They were all daytime games then. This smoke shop had a big blackboard, and the bartender, who served 3.2 beer and sandwiches, would go and read the ticker whenever he had time. He would put the latest line score up on the blackboard, along with home runs and strikeouts and everything. Well, I’d go down there to get this information for my radio program. I was so terrified that I was stealing this information that I wouldn’t write it down. It was one of the best bits of journalistic training I ever got. I was afraid to write it down so I memorized it. I would sit there and I’d get 3.2 beer, which was illegal for me to have. I sat there and studied that blackboard, memorized all those damn games, finished the beer, and ran back up this alley to the radio studio before I forgot the scores. I wrote the scores down quickly and then went on the air. I did that for about a year and never got caught.

You mentioned that while you were a student you saw future Texas governor W. Lee O’Daniel in the days when he peddled flour on the radio.

That’s right. Oh gosh, the greatest fun I had at KNOW was when I filled in, on a few occasions, announcing “W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys” They were regulars on the Texas Quality Network. They broadcast from our studios whenever they came to Austin. The Texas Quality Network needed a local announcer, so they gave me the job a couple of times. That was sensational fun. They would start playing and over the music I would announce: “W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Dough Boys are on the air!!! LIVE!!!” [Laughs.] Oh, God, nobody would’ve thought in those days that O’Daniel would be a governor of Texas. That was just unthinkable to me. I mean the man was vacuous. But that was an early example of my inability to make accurate political predictions [laughing].

I found a story in The Daily Texan in 1935 announcing a new program on KNOW every Tuesday and Friday afternoon at 5:15. It says that you would create and announce all programs. The ad states that you would “include the news behind the news, and the latest gossip gathered by a corps of operatives on the campus.”

[Laughing] Oh, God. That must have been a heck of a program. I don’t even remember it very well, to tell you the truth. We tried several things like that from time to time none of them lasted very long. Frankly, there wasn’t a great demand for our programming. KNOW was always looking for program ideas; it was purely local, it didn’t have any network or any syndicated features. It wasn’t difficult to talk Harfield Weedin into putting us on the air to do anything we wanted. He didn’t have a lot of options. I was doing that afternoon program on KNOW, and my friend Vance Muse and I decided to have a phony Walter Winchell-type feud. Winchell, who was the most famous gossip columnist and reporter at the time, had a fake feud with some other radio personality to get attention for them both. I’d lash out at Muse on the radio and Muse would lash out at me in the Texan and nobody paid any attention. Nobody ever read his column in the Texan, near as I could tell, and no one ever listened to my broadcast. It’s interesting, Harfield Weedin was doing auditions for a full-time announcer for the station. So I auditioned, and he turned me down. He said that I would never really make a radio announcer. It would be best that I forget about being a broadcaster. As it turned out, that same Harfield Weedin became the general manager of Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station and later the West Coast head of CBS Radio.

I found some notes in your papers stating that your radio experience in Austin gave you an opportunity to be a one-time announcer on a national radio network broadcast right after you left the university.

Well, I forgot about that. My gosh, that’s right. I did announce once, but only once, for famed big band leader Ben Bernie on a national network. I was down in Galveston covering Bernie at Sam Maceo’s “Hollywood Dinner Club” for the Houston Press. The announcer was late showing up, and the network’s program director asked me if I did radio work as well. Because I had done some radio at the University, I could truthfully say yes. Actually, I may have exaggerated a little and said, “Why, of course, I’ve done quite a lot.” I announced the first three numbers of Ben Bernie’s band on the air. Bernie was the guy who first recorded “Sweet Georgia Brown.” By the way, nobody hired me as a result of this performance. I mean, lightning didn’t strike exactly. But I loved announcing: “Good evening, everyone, from Sam Maceo’s Hollywood-on-the-Beach in Galveston.” Oh, that was great. Maceo’s was a legendary gambling joint, very illegal of course, that attracted the most popular bands and singers of the day. A lot of the church-going Houston business elite could be found in the casino on Saturdays gambling, discreetly of course. It was a fancy nightclub, or at least I thought it was fancy in those days. I’m not sure whether I would today or not.

Did you have other jobs in Austin while you were at the university?

Well, I was running around getting jobs wherever I could. The truth is I didn’t go to class very often, as my student records will show. Instead I went around trying to make a little money here and there. I did everything, including working in a bookie joint. One day I came into the radio station and Harfield said, “There’s a man who called, wanting to talk to you and his name’s Fox. Here’s his phone number.” I called up Mr. Fox and he said, “Hey, kid, I wanna see ya.” Well, he was living in the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. So, I went to see Mr. Fox. He was wearing a seersucker suit as I remember and he had a big cigar in the corner of his mouth. He was opening a bookie joint and needed someone to announce the horse races. He offered me $75 a week, which was more money than my father made in his dental practice.

So I gulped rather hard, and allowed as how I would do it. I thought maybe that would put me on easy street. Maybe I’d be able to give up all this work to actually study and go to class, which I probably wouldn’t have done anyway but that was my justification for taking the job. I didn’t get any sleep at all that night after accepting the job. I dreamed of all the possibilities of being in with the Mob, mainly about never being able to get out of the Mob. I imagined how they’d cut my throat and truss me up in wire and dump me in Lake Austin. I was terrified. I went down the next morning and there was Mr. Fox and a couple of his cronies. I sat in a back room with a microphone, with all of this wire service tape bringing the results of the horse races. The wire service reports read like this: “They’re at the post; they’re in the gate; they’re first, they broke so-and-so; they’re in the first furlong, second furlong.” They would announce the winners and what they paid. I’d heard races broadcast on the radio by Clem McCarthy and other such great broadcasters, and I looked forward to kind of doing my Clem McCarthy thing down there. So I imitated McCarthy, throwing in a lot of extraneous information such as describing imaginary people in the crowd, while trying to reconstruct the race from these brief wire messages on the tape, and my gosh, Mr. Fox came dashing into the back room, yelling, “Whaddaya doin’ whaddaya doin’? Just read it out, just read it out!” [Laughs.] Apparently I’d given them far too much information out in front, where they were doing their betting. Well, I worked two days there, and I just couldn’t stand the moral pressure and the possibility of being found out and of being sent to jail so that was a very brief job.

I have a clipping here from an April 1935 issue of The Daily Texan. It’s a front-page story you wrote about the murder of a Texas Supreme Court justice, Judge Pearson, and his wife.

Yeah, I remember the story very well. I guess it was my first banner line on a story. The story was a tragic one. It turned out that their son murdered them. The boy reported the murders and claimed that he had also been shot by the murderers, but he had actually shot himself. As I recall, they put him away as a mental case. He escaped at one point, but was recovered. It was a great tragedy. I covered it from the beginning, from the time we got the police report on it, and went out on the story, and did the interviews. It was a good police story.

I understand that Vann Kennedy, who owns a television station in Corpus Christi, gave you a job while you were a student at the university [Kennedy died in 2004].

That’s right. I got a job working with Vann, who had the International News Service (INS) Bureau and also was publishing his own little paper. Vann taught me a great deal. He’s a man of such integrity. We’ve remained in touch all these years. Vann had a little tiny office up with the pigeons in the very top of the Capitol. For some reason or other he wasn’t given space in the pressroom. He had a lot of things going, besides his INS job. My guess is he was a stringer for INS and he was by himself, which was typical of INS. It was a very thinly staffed service. Vann hired me as his office boy, and I’d cover the Senate and the House committees. I stayed with Vann until I was offered a job with the Scripps-Howard Bureau in the Capitol. Scripps-Howard had three newspapers in Texas the Houston Press, the El Paso Herald Post and the Fort Worth Press. As a matter of fact, I think Vann got me the job. I worked practically full-time as a correspondent covering the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Why did you drop out of the university?

Well, it just sort of happened. In the spring semester of 1935, I still was allegedly going to school, but if an important legislative committee hearing was held during class I’d just skip class. During the summer break, I worked at the Houston Press. I was moving along quite rapidly and was really doing very well there. When fall came I just didn’t go back to school. I’d had a kind of a tough time at the university. Studying was a problem and I wasn’t carrying my weight at school. I was very embarrassed by it. So I stayed and continued to work for the Houston Press until the summer of ’36, when I took a job at a new radio station, KCMO, in Kansas City.

But despite the experience of being a terrible student, I nonetheless learned a lot by simply being on that wonderful campus and being exposed to a lot of bright fellow students and brilliant teachers. I always was rather voluble and read very heavily and could be argumentative about my ideas of life and social structure and politics and economics. I engaged in all-night-long bull sessions at the fraternity house and at the O.P.K. restaurant and other places where students gathered, always with what I thought was a top-notch crowd. I was lucky enough to be in with people like D.B. Hardeman and Stuart Long, who were good students themselves or at least they were very aware people. But the University experience was not a wasted one for me. Although there may be a lot of dropouts around the world who are just plain old goof-off dropouts, there must be a lot of others like myself, who were readers, who were aware, conscious of affairs surrounding them, that are current with the mystery of the moment and interested in the past, who read and looked up things, who learned a lot, without the formality of the classroom. And all those people could do the same thing without going to the University campus.

So my time at the University certainly was not wasted as far as I was concerned. Nevertheless, I still wish I had stayed with it and graduated. I’d like to have gone on and done a lot of scholarly things, as I look back on it, but that wasn’t my thinking at the moment. The University of Texas was a very good school then, but it’s a great one now. I’m really proud of my association with UT and apparently it’s proud of me. They’ve made me a Distinguished Alum, despite the fact that I didn’t even graduate [laughing].

Dr. Don Carleton is executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. He is the author of Being Rapoport: Capitalist with a Conscience; Dolph Briscoe: My Life in Texas Ranching and Politics; Red Scare; and three other books. He also holds the University’s J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History.