Feder flashback: My friend Walter

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Each year just before his birthday on Nov. 4, I would send Walter Cronkite a tie. And each year on that day, the anchorman of “The CBS Evening News” would wear the tie on the air before his audience of millions.

Walter and I kept up that tradition all through my high school years and well into college. It was his personal signal to the fan club I had started in his honor when I was 14 years old.

“Cronkite had good reasons for embracing Feder’s club,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in Cronkite, his 2012 biography of the anchorman. “The mimeographed newsletter was an excellent way to build a loyal fan base in those pre-Internet days. It was like a Facebook page or a Twitter account before its time. It was one more confirmation that by 1972, Cronkite had become part of the popular culture.”

The Walter Cronkite Fan Club ran its course, but we maintained our friendship for the rest of his life. Today would have been his 97th birthday.

Here is the piece I wrote about Walter Cronkite for the Sun-Times when he died on July 17, 2009. (Posted with permission.)

Cronkite was hero, role model, friend

Every day of my working life, I knew that Walter Cronkite was looking over my shoulder.

Literally it was true, since I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a giant picture or two of him hanging on the walls of my office or propped up on my desk, peering down at me through those wise, sympathetic eyes and bushy eyebrows.

But it was also true figuratively, since I considered him to be the inspiration of my passion for journalism, the guiding force of my career and the gold standard of the business.

Walter Cronkite was, as the tributes attest, “The Most Trusted Man in America” and the preeminent television newsman of the 20th century. In fact, the word “anchorman” was first used to describe his role in covering the 1952 political conventions in Chicago for CBS.

He also was my hero, my role model, my mentor and my friend.

At the age of 14, I wrote to him for the first time, expressing my respect and admiration for his work and declaring that I’d formed a fan club in his honor. About a week or so later, I received a letter back from him, bestowing his blessing on my effort. “I am humbled in the face of, but grateful for, your kindnesses toward me,” he wrote, “ . . . though I know that in reality you are paying tribute to all the men and women of CBS News who deliver the news fairly, without fear or favor.”

Thus was born the one and only Walter Cronkite Fan Club.

For years after that, operating out of my bedroom in my parents’ house in Skokie, I enlisted more than a thousand members (including many prominent figures in broadcasting, entertainment and politics) and published a monthly newsletter featuring items of interest about the great man. With their boss’s approval, Walter’s assistants often passed along tidbits for the newsletter.

Every year just before his birthday on Nov. 4, I would send him a tie, which he would wear that day on “The CBS Evening News” as a signal to the club. He acknowledged each one with a gracious note.

Among my most prized possessions is a photo he autographed to “Fan No. 1.”

With Walter Cronkite (1996)

With Walter Cronkite (1996)

Whenever he visited Chicago, as busy as he was, Walter would make time to see me. Sometimes he’d invite me to sit nearby on the newsroom set — just off camera — and watch him as he put the finishing touches on his newscast and imparted it to tens of millions of Americans. It was as close to an out-of-body experience as I will ever know.

Early in my freshman year at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Walter came to meet with students. I was invited to question him on a panel that also included two very bright graduate students (one of them was Marlene Iglitzen, who would later marry Gene Siskel). I remember trying to impress Walter by asking the toughest questions I could. I could tell he appreciated the effort.

When it was over, he called me aside for a private chat. He suggested that it might be time to shift my focus away from the fan club and redirect my energies toward my own academic and professional ambitions. He was right, of course, as he was every time he offered his advice and counsel.

For the next 35 years, we kept in touch. He told me I had a standing invitation for dinner whenever I was in New York. Entering a crowded Manhattan restaurant with him was like watching Moses part the Red Sea.

One night, in the summer of 1988, I was at home when the phone rang. “Bob, will you be going down to Atlanta for the Democratic Convention?” he asked. (He always called me Bob.) Before I had a chance to say that I hadn’t planned to cover the convention, he invited me to join him there for lunch. I was on a plane to Atlanta the next day.

Along with his charming wife Betsy (who died in 2005 after nearly 65 years of marriage), he regaled me for hours with his view of the world and stories about the business. A steady stream of friends and admirers — from politicians to publishers — made their way over to pay homage, swap a few ribald jokes and share gossip.

Lunar landing (1969)

Lunar landing (1969)

From time to time, Walter would comment on a column I’d written, which flattered me no end. He took particular interest in Carol Marin’s short-lived experiment with a serious, no-frills 10 o’clock newscast at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 in 2000. Despite what he perceived as the broadcast’s shortcomings, I think it pained him that such a noble effort wasn’t more successful.

No anchorman before or since has come close to his reputation for integrity and credibility. For generations of Americans before the advent of cable news and the Internet, watching him deliver “The CBS Evening News” was a nightly ritual. His trademark signoff, “And that’s the way it is,” became both a pop culture touchstone and a solemn benediction.

“If Walter Cronkite says ‘That’s the way it is,’ ” read the caption on a famous New Yorker cartoon featuring a martini-toting viewer, “then by God, that’s the way it is!”

Kennedy assassination (1963)

Kennedy assassination (1963)

He was the man at the center of virtually every major news story that unfolded during the second half of the century. Our collective memories of the Kennedy Assassination, the 1968 Democratic convention, the first lunar landing, the Vietnam War and Watergate will forever be linked to his voice, his face, and his calm and reassuring manner. “Unflappable” and “avuncular” are two words I first heard associated with him. They were synonymous with his character and personality.

Despite his immense fame and power (as evidenced when he brought Middle East leaders Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together for their first summit), he never placed himself above the stories he reported. True to his newspaper and wire-service roots, he cherished clear, correct, concise writing on the air and in print. He never lost his quintessential Middle American sensibilities. And unlike many of his lesser contemporaries, he never cashed in on the public’s trust — and he never sold out.

As I approached middle age and Walter ascended to his status as a revered elder statesman, our friendship endured. “I hope that the president of my first fan club has a very happy birthday,” he wrote when I turned 40. “The fact that your brainchild also was my only fan club has given that long-ago vote of confidence particular luster in my memory.”

One other line in that letter was pure Walter: “Now that you have moved from youth to baby boomer, do you still love me?”

I can’t imagine that he’d even have to ask.