That's the way it is: A sports writer influenced by Walter Cronkite

Jul 19 2009 - 6:30pm

DETROIT -- Walter Cronkite was why I decided to become a newsman -- at 6 years old.

The story always draws an incredulous reaction from those who approach me, wondering when, why and where the journalistic seed was planted. But even 43 years later, nobody is more astonished at the twist of fate than yours truly.

It just happened.

To paraphrase Cronkite, that's the way it was in December 1966.

I was a patient at Detroit's Children's Hospital, recovering from the first of what would become two open-heart operations in a span of 13 months. My parents broke the doctors' news to me earlier that day -- I could never participate in competitive, organized sports because of the health risks. That's understandably devastating for a boy whose limited world at that time revolved around dreams of playing second base for the Tigers.

But my parents arranged to get a TV in my room and, for whatever reason, I watched Cronkite's broadcast that evening from my hospital bed. It's funny how you can forget something your wife just told you 2 minutes earlier, but to this day I distinctly remember Cronkite reporting Walt Disney's death that night in 1966.

Who knows? Maybe it was the soothing baritone of the man who became known as "the most trusted man in America." Perhaps it was the comforting reassurance of the CBS anchorman who endearingly became "Uncle Walter" during searing times of national tragedy.

But something that night sparked a 6-year-old's imagination.

The next day I told my parents that I wanted to be a journalist like Cronkite, and they never stopped encouraging me.

The holidays approached, and my father built me a desk and got me a typewriter for Christmas. It became my "anchorman's desk." As I spent much of the next year recuperating from surgery, my "anchorman's desk" became my sanctuary.

I'd type news stories and report them to my family later that evening, using a "microphone" that actually was the cardboard spool under a roll of paper towel with a crude replica of the CBS eye attached. Dad made it clear to everyone that nobody left the dinner table until Drew read the evening news.

I immersed myself in the Apollo space program because Cronkite called it man's greatest adventure. And when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon 40 years ago, the "anchor desk" was set up in our living room for my broadcast into a tape recorder.

My father asked me once what I would ask Cronkite if I had the good fortune of meeting him. I told him, I wouldn't ask him anything. I'd just listen. Cronkite was America's voice-over, the calming narrative during the tumultuous and triumphant moments that shaped American history in the last half of the 20th Century.

Although I never met Cronkite, I nonetheless feel a tremendous sense of personal loss after his passing.

I did meet his "Evening News" successor, Dan Rather, a few years ago at a CBS party in Augusta, Ga., during the Masters. I shared with Rather my hospital story and he gave me that same initial look of amazement. However, he also said inspiration doesn't always take the path easiest explained.

It just happens.

There will be much retrospection upon Cronkite's career and contributions in the coming days. And through the eulogies and accolades, there will be an appreciative thank-you from a 6-year-old who in one mystical moment lost one dream but realized another.


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