“You get to know someone pretty well in a war,” said Andy Rooney.
It was 2:20 p.m. on the afternoon of Thursday, July 23, and Mr. Rooney, TV news’s most celebrated curmudgeon, was standing with a microphone at the front of St. Bartholomew’s Church, on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st streets.
The Episcopal church was packed with friends and family members who had gathered for the funeral of Walter Cronkite, who had died six days earlier.
Mr. Rooney launched into a war story. He said he first met Cronkite in London, during the Second World War, where both men were reporters. Back then, Mr. Rooney said, the U.S. military used to inform newsmen when they were about to conduct an air raid. These days, he said, you’re lucky if they tell you after they’ve made an air raid.
That got a few chuckles from the many dozen TV news reporters, anchors, producers and executives, who were sitting in the first few rows of pews.
Half an hour earlier, before the start of the service, Tom Brokaw and Maureen Orth had walked together down the center aisle of the church, past Aaron Brown to their right, and Connie Chung to their left. Actor Jerry Stiller walked a few feet behind them, followed by longtime journalist Carl Bernstein.
They passed by a cluster of ABC News stars, including Barbara Walters, Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and David Westin.
They made their way to the front of the church, and found seats. Nearby was the CBS clique: The Early Show‘s Zev Shalev sat alongside Harry Smith and Jeff Greenfield, not far from Bill Plante, Russ Mitchell and Dave Price,
Mr. Brokaw shook hands with Matt Lauer, who was sitting with fellow NBC News staffers, including Brian Williams, Ann Curry and Steve Capus.
CNN’s John Roberts, who left CBS when he didn’t get the job of CBS Evening News anchor, sat by himself. A few rows back was Dan Rather, who inherited that same job from Cronkite, and eventually passed it on to Katie Couric, who sat up front, next to Leslie Moonves.
Now they all looked up at Mr. Rooney, who furrowed his bushy white eyebrows and said that Cronkite’s passing had caused him great pain. “Please excuse me, thank you,” said Mr. Rooney. And with that, he shuffled away from the microphone, a mere two minutes into his speech.
Sandy Socolow, Cronkite’s longtime executive producer and friend, took center stage. He told a series of affectionate anecdotes, highlighting Cronkite’s imperfections.
Mr. Socolow recounted the time Cronkite lost his cool on the air at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and later regretted it. He observed that Cronkite played the clarinet badly and, for some reason, could never pronounce the work “February” correctly. “We would rehearse it for the last few weeks of January,” said Mr. Socolow.
He then explained the concept of “magic time,” a system of calculations and re-calibrations producers had to employ over the years in order to compensate for Cronkite’s irregular sense of timing while reading the news. And finally, he regaled the audience with a story about the time Cronkite decided he no longer needed a script and henceforth, would ad-lib the evening news. “Walter insisted that when it came time to roll the film, he would brush his nose,” said Mr. Socolow.
The experiment, Mr. Socolow said, lasted all of two days. Everyone laughed.
Mike Ashford, one of Cronkite’s sailing buddies, told stories about his friend’s love of the sea, hot popcorn, and cold beer.
Chip Cronkite said he loved to watch his father work and marveled at his speed—his ability to swing around in his chair during a commercial break and rewrite a story. He said his father was happy and that he was happy for his father. He was glad the old man got his life’s story down on paper, penning an autobiography before losing his mental steam. “I’m sorry I insulted him,” said Chip, “by saying I was surprised by how funny it was.”
At one point, Mr. Socolow recalled that one day, toward the end of his life, Mr. Cronkite received a visit from the patron saint of beaches, sailing and cocktails. Jimmy Buffett, he explained, had landed his waterplane on the East River, not far from Cronkite’s apartment. Mr. Buffett then proceeded to serenade the newsman turned sailor with a jamming ukulele.
On Thursday afternoon, there was lots of music, but no ukuleles. Seafaring themes, however, were in abundance. From Hymn 608 (“Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee/ For those in peril on the sea!”) to the hymn Finlandia (“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean”) to a recitation of a John Masefield poem (“I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life/ To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife.”)
When Bill Harbach finished reading the latter poem, he said a final goodbye to his old friend: “Good sailing, Walter.”
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