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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

My Day With Walter Cronkite

Posted July 23, 2009 2:18 p.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2009 3:16 p.m. EDT

I spent a day with Walter Cronkite in March of 1989. The legendary CBS anchor agreed to fly to NC to help launch WRAL’s Save Our Sounds campaign. It was a multi-year campaign to help raise awareness about coastal pollution problems through public service announcements, documentaries and investigative news reporting. I handled the reporting end of the campaign and it ranks as the most rewarding part of my long career here at WRAL.

I sat next to Walter for a private plane trip from RDU International to Wilmington. I was immediately impressed with the depth of his environmental knowledge. He had done his homework. He knew about some of the major sources of pollution along our major rivers which feed the coastal sounds and estuaries. After discussing topics ranging from algae blooms to storm water runoff we pierced the subject of politics. He showed me a handwritten note he had received the day before from President George H.W. Bush. It was a highly complimentary note about Walter’s work both on and off the journalistic beat. Walter whispered to me: “He should be spending more time leading the country and less time patting people like me on the back.”

In Wilmington Walter and I climbed aboard Sky Five{[/a}} and flew over Topsail Island. He knew the area well as a sailor. He explained to me how Topsail got its name back in the day of Blackbeard. Ships passing by could see the tall masts of pirate vessels in the distance. The tops of the pirate sails prompted many merchant ships to turn around and avoid a confrontation with the likes of Blackbeard.

Later we touched down for a coastal oyster roast and informal chat with area fishermen. When asked what North Carolinians could do to help bring about needed changes to the environment Walter said the old fashioned approach is still best: write your senators and representatives in Congress. I asked Walter "but do they really read those letters?" He answered: "They may not read those letters but they COUNT them." In other words if you can muster a major letter writing campaign volume really does matter.

Later that evening Walter Cronkite gave a hard hitting speech at Stewart Theatre. He prodded politicians to fix serious pollution problems along our coast which he called "a disaster zone."  It capped a wonderful day with a wise and kind yet candid man I had admired for years. I was deeply saddened to hear about his death but like so many people I join in the celebration of his rich life.