At Jack McWethy Memorial, the Ghost of a Famous Grin

jackmcwethy At Jack McWethy Memorial, the Ghost of a Famous GrinWASHINGTON, D.C.—"Sometimes the end comes like a thief in the night," said Sam Donaldson.

Mr. Donaldson was standing on a stage at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., yesterday morning, quoting the Bible. Like the hundred or so mourners who had gathered in the large auditorium, Mr. Donaldson was struggling to make sense of the sudden recent death of his friend and former colleague, John "Jack" McWethy.

A week earlier, on Feb. 6, Mr. McWethy had been skiing with his wife Laurie at a resort in Keystone, Colo. He was cruising down an intermediate slope, when suddenly the accomplished, veteran skier lost control and slid chest first into a tree. The fluke crash proved to be fatal. He was 61.

The crowd of mourners, who had gathered for the memorial service at the shimmering glass building on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, listened to the veteran ABC newsman, and nodded their heads.

Mr. Donaldson recalled how Mr. McWethy had first come to join ABC News back in the late 70′s. At the time, Mr. McWethy was a print journalist, covering the White House, for U.S. News & World Report. Sometime around 1979, the pioneering broadcaster Roone Arledge caught a glimpse of the young reporter in action at a presidential press conference. Back in New York, according to legend, the "bat phone" in the ABC News control room began ringing off the hook. It was Mr. Arledge. ‘Get me that kid.’" When I found out that Roone had hired Jack," said Mr. Donaldson. "I was jealous … Jack was intuitive. Jack was fair. Jack was"—here, he paused and raised an eyebrow—"not a showboater." Everyone laughed.

A few years after joining ABC News, Mr. McWethy became the network’s national security correspondent—a position he went on to help define for all of TV news until his retirement in 2003. Along the way, Mr. McWethy reported on the U.S. military from hot spots around the world, racked up myriad awards for excellency in journalism and became revered among his competitors as the dean of the Pentagon press pool.

Half an hour into the service, David Martin, the longtime national security correspondent for CBS News, took the stage.

"I listen to all these wonderful things about Jack and I think, that’s easy for you guys to say," he began. "You didn’t have to compete with him."

Mr. Martin recounted how in the early 90′s the CBS brass had grown exasperated at getting beat on story after story coming out of the Pentagon. They decided to bring in the hard-charging Mr. Martin to "take Jack down" and "turn off his water."

On his first day, Mr. Martin strode into the Pentagon press room, cocksure and spoiling for a fight. Mr. McWethy greeted him with a smile and a handshake. The graciousness continued. Eventually, Mr. Martin changed tactics. Rather than trying to fight with his competitor, he decided to emulate him. He began wearing the same style suits as Mr. McWethy and carrying around a skinny reporter’s notebook in his back pocket, à la Jack. "I realized I was never going to take Jack down," said Mr. Martin. "But I could let him pull me up."

Mr. Martin recalled how well respected Mr. McWethy was among the soldiers, and the bureaucrats and generals, they reported on. Nothing happened in the U.S. military without Jack knowing about it. There was one time many years ago, Mr. Martin recalled, when Mr. McWethy was about to leave town on vacation. Mr. Martin’s office phone rang. It was Ollie North, asking for Mr. McWethy’s home phone number. The U.S. was about to bomb Libya, he explained, and the lieutenant colonel was hoping to catch Mr. McWethy before he left town.

When Mr. McWethy retired in 2003, Mr. Martin joked that he felt like the guy in the Paul Simon song: Who will be my role model now that my role model is gone? "It’s not funny anymore," he said.

On Thursday, many members of the military came out to pay their respects. Throughout the auditorium, men and women in military uniform could be seen here and there among the dark suits. The U.S. Army String Quartet played softly now and again from one side of the stage. A barrel-chested Army singer belted out melancholy songs in a mournful baritone. And Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold delivered a glowing speech, in part, on behalf of what he deemed Mr. McWethy’s largest fan club—that is, members of the U.S. Armed Services.

Throughout the morning, speaker after speaker recalled Mr. McWethy’s integrity as a family man, his perspicacity as a reporter and his constant bemused grin through it all.

"We will remember his smile," said ABC News president David Westin. "And let’s be honest, sometimes his smile bordered on a smirk."

"When I think of Jack … I always see that grin," said anchor Charles Gibson. "That lopsided, enigmatic, infectious, amused grin, so often on Jack’s face. What is he thinking?"

Toward the end of the ceremony, a "video remembrance" played on the large screen at the front of the room. There was Jack in action. Dodging bullets in the streets of Liberia. Grilling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Crankily fighting with producers for two extra seconds of airtime. And flying shotgun in a B2 stealth bomber.

At one point in the video, a colleague recalled Mr. McWethy’s "very, very dry sense of humor." That observation was followed by a clip of Mr. McWethy, grappling with a growling German shepherd that was savagely biting and tearing at a layer of protective padding wrapped around the reporter’s arm. Mr. McWethy, deadpan, to an onlooker: "That’s a strong dog."

After the ceremony, the guests filed out of the auditorium and offered condolences to Mr. McWethy’s two sons, Adam and Ian. Everyone then gathered in a spacious foyer nearby to munch on sandwiches, sip sparkling water and share memories of Jack.

Members of TV news establishment mingled with military brass. Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, towered over a semi-circle of guests, and told stories about how he recently fractured his hip. Howard Rosenberg, a producer at Nightline, accepted congratulations for helping to put together the remembrance video. A bespectacled Bob Schieffer shuffled through the crowd. Cokie Roberts patted a friend on the back.

A reporter from Air Force Magazine stood near the bar and surveyed the crowd. For years, he had worked alongside Mr. McWethy at the Pentagon, sharing information, and becoming friends. "Lots of familiar faces," he said, looking around. "Looks like the Pentagon, circa 1991."

The conversation looped back to a commencement speech that Mr. McWethy had delivered years earlier at his alma mater DePauw University. Earlier, during the ceremony, several people on stage had referenced Mr. McWethy’s speech, which seemed to capture a certain quality of his—perhaps, the way in which he spent life alternating between flashes of wry levity and observations of genuine emotional depth.

At DePauw, the Pentagon correspondent had laid out the McWethy rules of life, which were at times silly (never take a laxative and a sleeping pill at the same time) and, at times, heartfelt (never confuse your career with your life).

During his time onstage, ABC’s Charles Gibson noted that Mr. McWethy had told the DePauw graduates that "why" is the most important word in the English language.

"Jack did die far too young," said Mr. Gibson. "None of us can understand why."