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At Cronkite funeral, a friend, sailor -- and newsman -- is remembered

The anchor's personal adventures are more of a focus than his pioneering career during the service at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York.

July 24, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — After a week of being lauded as a journalistic icon, Walter Cronkite was remembered Thursday in more personal terms: as an exuberant sailor and a caring friend who was not afraid to show emotion.

Cronkite's friends and family shared their memories of the late CBS newsman at a New York funeral service at St. Bartholomew's Church that focused less on the anchor's pioneering career and more on his high-spirited nature.

Not only was he one of God's "great witnesses," said the Rev. William Tully, but he was "a mensch."

Cronkite, 92, died a week ago at his home in New York. He will be buried in Kansas City, Mo., next to his wife, Betsy.

Friend Mike Ashford said that whenever people used to ask him what Cronkite was really like, he would reply, "He's just the way you hope he is."

The two bonded over their love of the sea, although Ashford noted that sailing with Cronkite "was not for the faint of heart." As spray pelted the boat and the crew held on for dear life, Cronkite, "hunched over the helm, would catch my eye, grin, and holler 'Sensational!' " Ashford recalled.

"Walter was more than a crusty old sailor," he added, remembering the tears the newsman shed when his yellow Labrador retriever died. "He had an antenna sensitive to friends' pain. He knew the words to restore the fun, chase the worry and make things good again."

Cronkite's son, Chip, said the longtime CBS anchor "helped Americans on both sides of the political fence understand each other." But he thanked his father for the familial role he played, such as "saying to Mom as you passed her in the kitchen or the hall, 'Shall we dance?' and then taking her for a few turns around the room."

The sanctuary of St. Bartholomew's was packed with bold-faced names from the television industry who gathered to pay their respects to the man who imbued the anchor chair with influence. Evening-news anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric were there, along with Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Barbara Walters and a host of television executives.

Longtime friend and CBS colleague Andy Rooney was overcome as he stood up to eulogize Cronkite.

"I just feel so terrible about Walter's death that I can hardly say anything," Rooney said. "He's been such a good friend over the years. Please excuse me, I can't."

Former CBS News executive Sanford Socolow said Cronkite was "always a wire service reporter in his heart," living by the adage "Get it first, but get it right."

Still, the great anchor had his quirks. Socolow noted that there were "aspects of Walter that would drive anybody crazy," recalling the time that he decided to ad lib the newscast without a script, a chaotic experiment that lasted two days.

And he said Cronkite's mispronunciation of the word "February" drew so many viewer complaints that they would make him practice saying it for the last week of January, to little avail.

But it was Cronkite the sailor who was invoked most often throughout the service.

"In yachting terms, Walter Cronkite would be called a 'one-off,' " said friend Bill Harbach. "He was absolutely an original."

A few days before Cronkite died, Harbach said he sat by his bedside and read him the poem "Sea-Fever" by John Masefield, changing it to the second person as a farewell to his old friend. He recited it in the stillness of the church:

You must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all you ask is for a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel's kick and the wind's sing and the white sail's shaking,

And the grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

--

matea.gold@latimes.com

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