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Tom: Remembering Cronkite

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The recent passing of legendary journalist Walter Cronkite brought responses from those in the news industry the world over. Journalists from every outlet have offered words of admiration, praise and respect for him and his incredible accomplishments.

For those of us in Arizona, we have a special fondness and professional closeness to Cronkite, for we are the first university in the nation that named our journalism and mass communications school at Arizona State University after him.

In hearing of his passing, I recalled the time I had the honor of listening to his advice and thoughts regarding journalism and “reporting” the news.

Ever since middle school, I knew I was going to be a television broadcaster and Cronkite was the epitome of what being a journalist was all about.

Of course, it was not as simple as all that; his talk branched off into many other topics regarding the news industry and what being a journalist meant to him.

Therefore, it is with great humility and humor that I share what happened to me that day – in the spring of 1989 – when I got to meet Mr. Cronkite and asked for “professional advice.”

Our Intro to Mass Communication 101 professor announced one day at the beginning of class that his good friend – Walter Cronkite – was coming to the school and was going to visit our classroom.

Our professor shared anecdotes about him and encouraged us to do research so we “could ask good questions” if time permits.

Ever since middle school, I knew I was going to be a television broadcaster and Cronkite was the epitome of what being a journalist was all about.

The day came for his visit and I remember riding the bus from central Phoenix into Tempe. The only problem was the bus I transferred onto that day had challenges and I ended up being 15 minutes late to class.

After running across campus, climbing the stairs to the sixth floor of the old Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications (the elevators at the ground level were jammed with dozens of students wanting to get into the classroom to see him), I gave my name to the person checking in students who were allowed into the class.

The classroom – a huge auditorium – was overflowed with crowds of students, staff and faculty. The aisles were entirely covered with sitting students and backpacks.

The ushers told me there were two seats in the front row, near the center and said “Go sit there.” I cringed inside, as Cronkite was already speaking and the enthralled crowd was thoroughly enjoying his talk.

I began making my way down the aisle for what seemed like forever, toward the front row, center aisle seat. Cronkite saw me as I was making my way down the aisle and stopped speaking until I sat down. He then resumed his talk.

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I remember listening to him and absorbing as much as I could about covering news and what it meant to be professional.

Afterwards, students and faculty crowded around him and asked for autographs, photo ops and took the time to talk to him briefly.

I stood off to the side for quite awhile and waited for the crowd to subside.

Then, there was a brief moment when he paused and sort of looked around, for the crowd was beginning to dwindle.

It was then that I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him I wanted to be a television reporter. I told him I was White Mountain Apache from central eastern Arizona and that I was a first generation college student who wanted to do well in school and learn all I could about the craft of reporting the news.

I will never forget what I said next as he stood there looking at me with a calm, respectful, serious expression.

“So, I want to ask you for your professional advice, being that I’m going into a field where there aren’t many Native Americans and most news outlets don’t cover Native America and our issues, what advice would you give me that would help me become a great reporter?”

Cronkite never looked away as I spoke to him and waited for his response.

He stood there, calm as could be, but incredibly serious as he said in his melodious, even-measured, gruff tone: “Be on time.”

I was mortified because he remembered me as the student who came in late. Yet, as I think back on that moment 20 years later, I now know what he meant.

Cronkite meant that as a journalist, you must have ethics and integrity. “Being on time” means you are professional and you get the job done, even if that means working 24-plus hours straight on a news story to get it researched, written, edited and re-edited.

“Being on time” means you are at interviews promptly and you understand that time is important and valuable.

“Being on time” means you work with focused vision, equally blended with knowing you must be responsible with facts and being balanced and fair while you are reporting the news, for information you share impacts countless people and their lives.

“Being on time” means you have respect for your craft and that you must be trusted with your word, whether it be written or heard.

And finally, it means you take personal responsibility to make the most of every minute of your life – whether it is professional or personally – just like Walter Cronkite.

Valarie Tom, White Mountain Apache, is a journalist living in Phoenix.