That memorable day when I met the world’s greatest journalist

In my last journalism job before I switched careers, I worked in the late 1980s as the Los Angeles bureau manager for what was then a small, family-owned, recreational boating newspaper called The Log (as in ship’s log).

The Log was based in San Diego and published every other week. It was a free newspaper distributed at marinas, yacht clubs, yacht sale offices and other boating-related sites throughout the Southern California coast.

I covered any and all topics related to boating between Dana Point and Morro Bay, including Catalina Island. If you weren’t a recreational boater in that region, you most probably would never have heard of The Log.

One of the major events I covered was the annual Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race, which at the time was the largest international sailboat race in the world. The race typically drew hundreds of boaters. It had developed a raunchy reputation, due to the boaters’ excessive drinking, rowdiness and even nudity.

Walter Cronkite, the former CBS Evening News anchor, decided to enter the race in 1989. A boating enthusiast, Cronkite had previously completed a book about boating on the east coast. He then decided to write a book about boating on the west coast. It was his book research that drew him to Newport Beach that year for the race.

Hosted by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, the race organizers were striving that year to change the nature of the event and improve its reputation. They wanted to tone down the drinking and nudity and make the race more family friendly. I had written a story about their efforts for The Log.

The yacht race typically included several pre-race social functions. I drove down to Newport Beach to attend one of them (a luncheon).

When I arrived, I saw a number of dignitaries talking with Cronkite: the rear admiral who served as the regional head of the Coast Guard, the head of the yacht club, the head of the yacht race committee, and the head of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (which patrolled the marina).

I was familiar with the dignitaries because, during the three years I had worked at The Log, I had interviewed all of them.

“Come over here, Tom. Meet Walter Cronkite,” they said.

A True Icon
I need to add here that growing up in the 1950s and 60s in America, Walter Cronkite was a large part of my life. He broadcast some of the world’s most famous events of that era, including the two Kennedy assassinations, the first moon landing and other space program highlights, presidential elections, Watergate, and the Vietnam War.*

Cronkite was a no-nonsense, by-the-book, facts only reporter. If he hadn’t died in July 2009, he would be horrified to hear anyone even utter the words “fake news.”

A public opinion poll once named Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.” He was not only an icon among budding journalists back then, he was the closest anyone in our profession came to a living deity. His photo hung in the major lecture hall at University of Missouri where I studied journalism.

Meeting Walter
As a young, shy reporter back in 1989, I was both thrilled and nervous to meet Cronkite in person. With much trepidation, I walked up to the group of people standing with him.

“Walter,” someone said. “This is Tom Unger from The Log.”

The first words out of Cronkite’s mouth were, “Tom Unger? Is it true what I read in The Log, that the race organizers are trying to make this a more family-friendly event?”

I was stunned. My head started spinning.

Three questions immediately ran through my brain: “Walter Cronkite read my story? And now he’s asking me about it? Am I in an episode of The Twilight Zone?

I didn’t know how to respond. I stood there speechless. Thankfully, it was time for lunch so we all trooped into the yacht club.

I was seated at the press table, which included reporters from the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, and all the major national yachting magazines. I was the most junior reporter there, based solely on the size of the publication where I worked.

One of the yacht club hosts said, “Walter, please come up here and say a few words.”

It didn’t seem like Cronkite was expecting this speaking request, but he didn’t hesitate as he strode up to the lectern. The very first words out of his mouth were, “I was reading Tom Unger’s story in The Log…”

All the reporters at that press table slowly turned and looked at me with a mixture of shock, awe, disbelief, and envy. I did my best impression of a tomato as my cheeks turned dark red.

A Second Encounter
My Walter Cronkite story might have ended there, but many years later I had the opportunity to meet him again. I was working at Wells Fargo, which had been the lead sponsor for an annual Portland State University (PSU) fundraising dinner. The dinner always featured a notable guest speaker and one year it was Walter Cronkite.

As part of our sponsorship, PSU always provided Wells Fargo tickets to a meet-and-greet with the guest speaker and the chance for a personal photo.

Working first as a reporter and then in public relations in Los Angeles, I had many such photo opportunities with celebrities. I always avoided them. To me, it felt so impersonal. The celebrity doesn’t know you so why take your photo with them? You might as well be standing next to a cardboard cutout of the star.

But in this instance, I jumped at the opportunity.

“Who knows?” I thought. “Maybe Cronkite will actually remember me.”

At the meet-and-greet that night, I stood in line with the rest of the folks who wanted their photo taken with Cronkite.

As I approached him, I realized he was wearing large, bulky hearing aids in each ear and they appeared to be turned off. Cronkite didn’t seem to be able hear anything and wasn’t interacting with the people who were posing with him for photos.

I didn’t bother speaking with him. I just had our photo taken together, something I should have done when we first met years ago but was too shy to ask.

So that’s my Cronkite story. I’ll never forget it. And, as Walter used to say, that’s the way it is.

*If you’re interested in learning more about this incredible reporter, I can recommend the biography Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley.

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