By Mary K. Schaffer April 20, 2012
Seventy-seven years after Walter Cronkite traced his last steps on campus, his spirit still abides at the University. His likeness, etched in four metal plaques in the newly christened Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. Plaza at the communications building on Dean Keeton, stand guard as aspiring journalists and communicators hurry in, out and around it. The four pillars on which the plaques are placed rise up like sentinels to nurture the young minds that are not so different from the man himself.
Cronkite entered the University as a freshman in 1932, majoring in journalism, economics and political science. According to Rod Hart, dean of the College of Communications, who knew Cronkite as a personal friend, Cronkite was a regular college kid who “ate pizza and drank beer.” Cronkite himself wrote that he hardly ever went to class in his memoirs, A Reporter’s Life.
It was not until 1934 that Cronkite began to make his mark at the University. He pledged to the Chi Phi fraternity and became a brother that fall. He also worked for the radio station KNOW, which before its privatization had been the University’s own KTUT, as a sports announcer.
Soon, Cronkite also worked his way into campus news reporting, working for the Daily Texan. He wrote sports articles mostly, as well as features, such as one of author Gertrude Stein, who had made an appearance in March 1935 at the University to speak to students in Hogg Memorial Auditorium. Cronkite discovered Stein to be unlike the incapable writer portrayed in the media.
“A cow may be a cow, but no writer that had interviewed Miss Gertrude Stein, that had chatted with her for any length of time over two minutes, would ever again write such an inane review of the works of one of the most publicized of modern writers,” Cronkite wrote. “She is genuine–the real thing in person.”
During his college career, Cronkite also worked for Vann Kennedy and Paul Bolton, who had “wangled from friendly state-government types some space amid the rafters of the Capitol dome,” Cronkite wrote in his memoirs. Kennedy and Bolton published a political monthly, wrote speeches for politicians and advised them on election strategy. Cronkite cites this job as the “end of [his] college education,” since he was much more interested in politics than school. In 1935, Cronkite exited the University as a junior, pursuing journalism full time.
“Oddly, no one, including my parents, made much of a protest,” Cronkite wrote. “It may have been that, in the throes of the Great Depression, nearly everyone valued a job in the hand more highly than an education in the bush.”
Cronkite built himself a legacy unmatched by any other journalist after his stint at the University, earning himself the title of the “Most Trusted Man in America” during his time as anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. He reported America’s history as it unfolded, recording such historic events as World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, President John F. Kennedy’s death, Watergate and Vietnam. His coverage of space and the work of NASA earned him a Moon Rock Award, which is currently housed at the University, according to Briscoe Center library assistant Kathryn Kenefick.
On April 19, 2012, the College of Communications honored Cronkite, one of its greatest students, by dedicating the entire communications plaza to his legacy as one of America’s finest reporters. Two of his children, Chip and Nancy Cronkite, were in attendance as Dean Hart memorialized Cronkite’s name forever in the College.
“He was a humanist, a dedicated journalist who personified the values of integrity, accuracy, courage and independence,” Hart said. “The young minds he hoped to inspire have a guide in Walter and his values. If you can hear me now, Walter, that’s the way it is.”