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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Walter Cronkite in Fredericksburg

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

By the fall of 1969 Fredericksburg had grown accustomed to hosting famous people. The town honored German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer with a reception at the old fairgrounds. German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard attended Sunday services with President and Mrs. Johnson at Bethany Lutheran Church. Even President Kennedy made a brief off-the-radar stop in town after his election in 1960. I've heard stories of wayward astronauts stopping for gas and asking directions to the LBJ Ranch. Still, no amount of calculated indifference could keep heads from turning when Walter Cronkite walked into the restaurant at the Sunday House Motel.

Walter Cronkite, the managing editor of CBS News, was the voice of authority in America, even more so than the president. Cronkite was an icon in television news.

Walter Cronkite
Walter Cronkite
Courtesy Wikipedia

A 1972 opinion poll named the sad-eyed gentleman with the brushy eyebrows, push broom mustache and comfortable Midwestern baritone the most trusted man in America. Time Magazine called him "the single most authoritative figure in television news."

Cronkite oozed integrity. When he delivered the news the folks at home, gathered around the TV set, felt like they were sitting on daddy's knee.

Lyndon Johnson certainly understood Cronkite's power. In 1968, when Cronkite suggested on the air that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, Johnson knew he had a problem.

"If I've lost Cronkite," the president lamented, "I've lost Middle America."

Between 27 and 29 million viewers turned in every weekday evening at 6:30 pm Eastern Time, (5:30 in Fredericksburg) to watch Walter Cronkite. In fact more people got their news from Cronkite or from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley over on NBC than any other news source.


When Americans tuned in to catch the evening news on September 22, 1969, they were surprised to see Harry Reasoner in Walter Cronkite's place behind the news desk in New York. That's because Cronkite was dining at the Sunday House Restaurant in Fredericksburg.

Cronkite was in town to interview former President Johnson for a television documentary called "LBJ." The newsman interviewed the former president in one of the guest houses at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall but spent his evenings in Fredericksburg.

When he wasn't working, Cronkite relaxed by playing tennis with his producer at Lady Bird Johnson Park. Later the newsman dined at various restaurants around town.

People in Fredericksburg who watched Cronkite regularly on TV were surprised to see him in the flesh, walking around like a real person. Some skeptics had to be convinced the big guy with the double chin and receding hairline was really THE Walter Cronkite and not somebody's opa.

One night Cronkite attended an FFA banquet in Fredericksburg. Some people at the banquet thought pranksters were at work when a couple of local officials went from table to table introducing the kindly gentleman as Walter Cronkite of CBS News.

Art Kowert, editor of the Fredericksburg Standard, heard Cronkite tell one of his favorite stories. One evening at a small town motel, just as Cronkite was introducing himself and showing his credentials at the desk, the clerk looked over at the TV and saw the real Walter Cronkite in New York doing a news segment.

The clerk, suspecting an imposter, reached for the phone to call police. Cronkite had to do some tall talking to convince the clerk he really was Walter Cronkite and that the image on TV was taped earlier.


Cronkite spent 5 days in Fredericksburg and Stonewall. He flew in on Monday and flew back to New York on Friday.

Then in November Cronkite returned to the Hill Country to wrap up the filming. The first segment of the series aired in January 1970.

Walter Cronkite was only here a short time, but Fredericksburg made an impression on the newsman. In 1976 he came to San Antonio to do a show with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. Art Kowert was there. The two old-school journalists got reacquainted after the performance.

"Do you still have those charming Sunday Houses and those delightful old homes?" Cronkite wanted to know.

And that's the way it is.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 8, 2022 Column



Sources:
"Around the Square," Fredericksburg Standard, October 1, 1969.
"Walter Cronkite and CBS News Crew Here This Week," Fredericksburg Standard, October 1, 1969.
"Around the Square," Fredericksburg Standard, January 7, 1970.
"Around the Square," Fredericksburg Standard, January 14, 1976.



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