Cronkite Helped Revive Struggling Journalism School
It wasn't just any name Phoenix-area media executives went after in the early 1980s when trying to bolster the sagging journalism program at Arizona State University. They wanted the dean of journalism himself, the "most trusted man in America."
Walter Cronkite's decision to let the school take his name was a turning point that jolted the school back to life and increased its prestige.
"Walter is as much a part of Arizona as someone who was born here or lived here. He became a part of the fabric of the (Phoenix) Valley," said Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Cronkite, who died Friday, became quite fond of the school, proud almost of his legacy, one that will live on in Arizona. Knowing that his name could help empower future journalists brought him joy, Callahan said.
Today, the school is housed in a six-story, 223,000-square-foot building in downtown Phoenix. The school is state-of-the art, with digital media laboratories, digital labs and studio stations allowing for newscasts and satellite feeds.
It's a far cry from the manual typewriters Cronkite relied on in his early career to crank out a story.
Cronkite's tie to the journalism school dates back decades. When he agreed in 1984 to lend his name to Arizona State University's struggling school of mass communication, he did it simply as a favor to Tom Chauncey, an old friend and the owner of the local CBS affiliate at the time.
At first, Cronkite was asked whether he would simply lend his name to an annual award. After some thought, the local media executives took one more step. How about lending your name to the whole school? Chauncey gave it a go.
Bill Shover, former director of community relations at The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette and a founding member of the Cronkite Endowment Board, tells how Cronkite reacted.
"Within an hour, Cronkite called. In that unmistakable voice, he told me: 'I don't know what I've agreed to, but I always say yes to Tom.'"
Cronkite may not have known much about the school then, but it didn't take long for that to change.
For many years, Cronkite would visit the school twice a year, spending time with faculty and especially making time for students.
Cronkite's name became a magnet for new students and was a heady lift to those in the program. Many a time, he'd be caught in a sea of students, his face beaming, looking very much the part of "Uncle Walter."
The Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism was first given in 1984 to CBS founder William Paley and longtime CBS President Frank Stanton.
Until she died in 2005, Cronkite often came with his wife, Mary Elizabeth ,or "Betsy" as she was nicknamed, to the school, housed on the Tempe campus until moving in 2008 into the new building in Phoenix. One of the visits was for the annual Cronkite Award of Excellence luncheon, which recognizes a journalism leader.
He did not attend, however, in 2008, saying he wasn't quite up to traveling.
Callahan vividly remembers the day he got a call in 2005 about his leaving the University of Maryland to come to ASU. The announcement that he had gotten the job as dean had just been made, when he walked into his home.
"My wife said, 'You've got a voice mail.' I pressed the button and it was, 'Hello, Chris, It's Walter.'"
The voice was unmistakable. "It always gave me chills. He was incredibly gracious about how excited he was that I was coming to his school, which was so typical of the man."
The two became friends over the years, which sort of astounds Callahan.
"Part of me grew up with Walter in my living room, and I went on to become a journalist. It's hard for me to get past that it's Walter Cronkite."
Cronkite's contribution to the school is incredible, Callahan said.
"When it was named after Walter 25 years ago, it was a small regional journalism program that was OK, but certainly not nationally recognized."
Adding Cronkite to the name gave the school immediate credibility and immediate national recognition.
"You start drawing students from other places. It really puts you on the map," Callahan said.