By WILL COPPS
Meeting a famous person is never quite like anyone expects. I had run the possible scenarios through my head a million times, but nothing had prepared me to come to know a true American hero.
Walter Cronkite was not only an anchorman, he was the face of what many I heard that day call “The Golden Ages,” a time when over two-thirds of Americans saw Cronkite deliver news on a nightly basis and end with his famous line, “and that’s the way it is.”
I’m fortunate enough to have a father, Michael Copps, who is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner. He and Cronkite are friends going back a long way, and were the two speakers before a panel on Media Reform at the Columbia School of Journalism in Manhattan on Thursday, Feb. 8.
Dad and I were waiting in the green room at Columbia, relishing in the light from the stained glass that used to be in Joseph Pulitzer’s office and eating shrimp sandwiches. Dad’s Blackberry went off and we jumped to our feet. Cronkite was coming, and the two of us went to meet him out on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street.
His personal assistant stepped out of the CBS car first. Soon after, the 90-year-old Cronkite was, with assistance, out of the car, using all the energy he seemed to have in order to wave at my dad. They shook hands and dad introduced me immediately, talking about my accomplishments at the University of Mary Washington. “The University of Mary Washington? That’s great,” said Cronkite, congratulating me on my promotion to editor.
I wasn’t surprised he seemed to know the school. The man seems to know everyone, including every President of the United States, personally, since Herbert Hoover. It was not a far walk, but we walked at Cronkite’s pace and passed a lot of people. Some stared. Others nodded. One woman even stopped to salute, reciting lines from Cronkite’s earlier work.
He had a great sense of humor when he addressed the hundreds of people, seven television cameras and countless still cameras some 15 minutes later. Cronkite talked about many of the problems in modern media. He cited inflated profit expectations, mass media ownership and more.
Summing it up, he stated that “[Reporters] are required to do ever more with ever less… but the need for high quality reporting is greater now than it ever was.”
The speech was filled with humor. He stopped multiple times for water, once stating “I don’t usually have to drink this much water, or much of anything. When I do, it’s usually not water.” The crowd was thrilled and Cronkite left to a standing ovation.
Next up to take the podium was my dad. I was prepared for a great speech. I have witnessed my dad on television, radio, written about in newspapers and much more than I could ever list.
None of it prepared me for the way he worked the room. He ended to a cadence of complete silence before everyone there started cheering passionately.
After the subsequent panels were over, Nicholas Lemann, the Dean of Columbia, ambushed my dad with questions. Dad remained in his seat in the audience and a microphone was thrust in his face. The eloquence with which he immediately answered Lemann’s questions made it seem he had been preparing the responses just as much as his typed out speech. The Dean was left speechless, and nodding.
Afterward, dozens of people came up to me. I was, in fact, the man who walked into the room with Cronkite and my father. I answered questions on media consolidation and media deregulation before I was asked, “So what is your position, anyway?” “I’m the Commissioner’s son.” I had some fun with it, and I expected them to lose interest. A couple did. But one man came up to me with a video camera. “I’m filming a documentary that prominently features your dad, he’s my true hero.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The owner of the Seattle Times, Fran Blethen, was next. “I just want to tell you, your father is my personal hero.” We talked about him for the next ten minutes. It happened more and more times throughout the afternoon as well, as countless people championed him and his efforts against big media.
I had always respected my dad and what he does, but I had no idea that the man who walks around the house singing 60’s music and dancing was such a respected man to so many people.
The day I met Walter Cronkite was the day I met my hero. Little did I know, that hero has been living under the same roof with me for the last 20 years.