Today, a short while after his passing at the age of 92, he has even hit the supermarket tabloids as some unflattering news is breaking over how his children short-circuited a second marriage for Walter. Apparently they did not want to risk losing the reported $30 million estate he left behind — another high water mark for a journalistic career.
For a three-week stint in February 1960 I was privileged to interact with him on a daily basis during the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
When we bid adieu to Walter following the Olympic Games, we had the feeling that his career had peaked and that we probably wouldn’t be seeing him much on the tube anymore. However, we congratulated him on the fact that he had been the prime broadcaster on the exclusive black and white coverage of the games that marked the first time any Olympiad had been broadcast on TV worldwide. Still, we thought to ourselves that the telecast marked his swan song rather than the eventual springboard that it would prove to be.
How wrong we were!
Two short years later, he was named the anchor for the CBS Evening News and as long as he held that post he reigned supreme over the competition from NBC and ABC.
The reason for our sympathy for him in 1960 was that at age 43 (and from his always rumpled wardrobe, loosely combed long hair and rather droopy mustache), we thought it very unlikely he would have a commanding presence in front of the camera. To our happy surprise, when he took the helm of the CBS Evening News he presented a polished appearance, from properly coifed hair, a trim mustache, stylish horn-rimmed glasses and elegantly pressed, crisp white shirt. His voice, which was always tops, was in fine form and he had a folksy warmth about him that caused you to immediately believe everything he reported.
Even following his network retirement he retained iconic status and it was always a pleasure to see him in a variety of television appearances.
My best memories of him during the Olympics was first greeting him as a member of the Olympic press club at its headquarters on the top floor of the Mapes hotel. He seemed overjoyed to get his official membership card and complimentary press club pin (a snowman with a press pass tucked into the brim of his top hat). He even marveled at the closed-circuit TV setup we had connecting the club directly to the games. Another amenity was a bank of typewriters for use by reporters who could sit in the comfort of the hotel and knock out their stories, hand them to waiting runners from Western Union and then relax at the open bar in the club rooms. Since he had to be on the scene to cover for CBS, Walter never availed himself of the above-mentioned services but when the sun went down he was a nightly visitor to the press club.
A gregarious soul by nature, he enjoyed interacting with other press from around the world who visited the hotel, along with the constant parade of Hollywood and international celebrities that also frequented the room.
Since one of my assignments was to escort those celebs to the games on a daily basis, I had the opportunity to visit Walter at his “studio” setup, which was on the deck of a small A-frame chalet that had a sweeping view of the entire Squaw Valley venue. Other CBS cameras were strategically placed at the major individual venues and Walter could pull them up as events occurred.
It was on those visits that I gained an appreciation for the professionalism of his talent. Along with the camera man and engineer who were present, a steady stream of passersby would stop and wait for a break in the action to ask for his autograph. His friendly and jovial nature — that was to serve him so well in later years on television — was in full force and I wondered how bright and energetic he could be after his late night sorties to the Mapes each evening.
Invariably on those trips, as I stood at my post below the light man’s booth, I would feel a tug on the back of my coat and there would be Walter, a press club cocktail in hand, and he would whisper, “Think you can find me a seat, Harry?”
I noted to him that he had just seen the floor show the night before and wasn’t he getting tired of coming in every night? He retorted there was little or nothing to do at Squaw once night fell and he loved motoring down to Reno and the Mapes.
Unbeknownst to him, once I caught on to his nightly routine, I had instructed the maitre de, one John Thomas, to set up a small table for Walter near ringside with instructions to serve him anything he might want for dinner.
Since we had booked three top entertainers to perform in succession during the games — Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney — Walter was treated to the top of live entertainment and he was also no slouch with a knife and fork. The entire Mapes staff thought it was a fitting tribute for such a great newscaster and equally fine human being.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.