Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Walter Cronkite as Cub Reporter at Forgotten Tragedy

I went searching in my online newspaper archives for some early newspaper articles by the late, beloved Walter Cronkite. In the process, I found this gem, a 1937 article about an oilfield explosion in Texas that demolished a nearby school and left 425 children dead. The event is known as the New London explosion, one of the biggest disasters of the New Deal era, but almost completely forgotten today (even among "disaster trivia" junkies like myself). What strikes me the most about the article is how well-written the article Walter Cronkite wrote is, even though Cronkite was only a 21-year-old junior reporter at the time. Cronkite was hailed for his gravitas (an overused word if I ever heard one) as an older man, but you can actually see traces of that gravitas when he was only 21. Take these final paragraphs from Cronkite's article:
One hour and 20 minutes after the explosion, a cablegram came from Venezuela, from a father who had entrusted his children to his brother. "Tell me the truth," it said, "Are Bob and Vera safe?"

The brother wanted to reply truthfully, but even today he could not. The children were among the missing, neither listed as dead or injured. Perhaps the next brick pulled from the wreckage would tell."

You may think of Cronkite as just an old talking head on the television, but damn that man could write. Too bad they don't make newspaper men like him any more. As Cronkite later admitted in a 1977 interview, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."

1 comment:

  1. God, we need men and women like Cronkite nowadays. There are journalists who are dedicated and admire the ones who came before as role models, but it isn't the same.

    Of course news itself has changed -- news is produced for profit, so that Paddy Cheyefsky's Network is now reality.

    New London has several websites. It wasn't an oilfield explosion -- the school itself exploded, due to cost-cutting. The school board had authorized for light, heat and electricity to be provided by tapping into a natural gas residue line (legal at the time -- or, more like "not illegal"). There had been a leak in the line for a couple of weeks. Gas is naturally odorless so student complaints of headaches were ignored. The gas filled up the crawlspace underneath the building. Someone in shop class turned on a switch and a spark ignited. New London is why they started adding an odorizer to natural gas.