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MATTERS AT HAND: Giants of journalism passed on last week

Two journalistic giants died last week. One of them, Walter Cronkite, was a national icon. The other, Cal Olson, was a hard-working editor of regional daily newspapers. I met Cronkite once; I worked closely with Olson. I consider him a mentor. My...

Two journalistic giants died last week.

One of them, Walter Cronkite, was a national icon. The other, Cal Olson, was a hard-working editor of regional daily newspapers.

I met Cronkite once; I worked closely with Olson. I consider him a mentor.

My encounter with Cronkite occurred in an elevator in a Washington, D.C., hotel. I was attending a convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; Cronkite was a speaker.

When the elevator door opened, Cronkite stepped in, stuck out his hand and said, "Walter Cronkite."

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It was a nice gesture, I thought, one that he must have practiced thousands of times when he encountered people who recognized him. While his introduction didn't exactly put me at ease, it did show that he understood his status and was willing to share a moment -- and create a memory.

In his talk, Cronkite told two stories that I remember, both of them self-deprecating.

One involved his days as a cub reporter in Houston. On his first day of work, he was assigned to get the total tonnage of goods that passed through the Houston harbor. This seemed a trivial task, and Cronkite challenged its importance. The editor admonished him strongly to get the number and to get it right.

Cronkite sought solace from more experienced reporters on the staff.

How could such an insignificant detail be so important?

His colleagues explained that it was not just a number, but THE number. The local numbers racket paid out on the tonnage total, and it wasn't insignificant to them.

The other story involved Cronkite's fame. He enjoyed yachting, and once he was cruising along the coast of Newfoundland. He could hear people on shore calling, "Hello! Walter! Hello! Walter!"

"How touching," he reported thinking. "They know me even in this remote fishing village."

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Then he hit the sand bar.

The people were shouting, "Low water! Low water!"

Two important lessons here, I think. Get it right. And don't take yourself too seriously.

Cal Olson gave me my first fulltime job in journalism on the basis of my application letter. No interview. No test. I was paid $110 a week as one of two night reporters at The Forum in Fargo.

During my first few days on the job, a liquor store near downtown was robbed. It was about 9 p.m. when Olson sent me to the scene, and pretty close to 10 when I got back to the office. The press started at 11.

Olson came over to my desk and told me to write it fast. I typed a paragraph. He grasped the paper, pulled it out of the machine, read it quickly, made a couple of marks on it and sent it to the typesetter.

I wrote a second paragraph.

Same thing.

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I wrote a third paragraph.

When I finished the story, in five grafs or so, Olson said, "You're gonna make it, kid."

Never since have I been as proud as I was about midnight that night, when the paper came up with my five paragraphs included. I couldn't go to the Forum staff's watering hole to celebrate, however, because I was not yet 21 years old.

Olson took chances, created opportunities, offered encouragement, provided support --and expected results.

He also produced them. As a photographer, he covered the 1957 tornado. His iconic photograph of a man carrying the lifeless body of a girl killed in the twister helped The Forum to win a Pulitzer Prize for that year. As city editor and managing editor, he guided The Forum's news coverage for decades.

He was famously competitive. A colleague this past week remembered that Olson sometimes came to Grand Forks on assignments. He'd call The Herald's photo chief, Colburn Hvidston, to say, "I'm in town," then hang up. Hvidston later worked for Olson at The Forum.

Cronkite and Olson occupied different places in American journalism, of course. For me, though, each personified the essentials of the profession.

Probably every American older than 50 remembers Cronkite's calm, serious demeanor, and his commitment to the news. Certainly every journalist who passed through Olson's newsroom remembers his own commitment to journalism.

They were a couple of giants.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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