Many older Mainers will remember Walter Cronkite from seeing his face on TV, delivering authoritative news about President Kennedy’s assassination or the Iran hostage crisis, but a few remember him as a colleague or a family friend.
On Saturday, several Mainers — including a former CBS News colleague of Cronkite’s, a University of Maine professor and a friend from Camden — fondly recounted memories of the times they spent with the famed anchorman, who died Friday evening at the age of 92.
Durham resident Sandor M. Polster worked with Cronkite at CBS News starting in 1973, writing for Cronkite’s evening news broadcast. Polster, reached by phone on Saturday, remembered Cronkite as a friendly but demanding boss.
“They were the best seven years of my life,” he said. “He was without parallel.”
Polster has owned a home in Maine for nearly 40 years, but never managed to meet up with Cronkite in the state, despite Cronkite’s frequent summer visits to Maine on his 64-foot Hinckley sailing yacht Wyntje.
They linked up electronically in 2004, however, when Cronkite spoke with Polster’s students by phone when Polster was teaching a seminar at Thomas College in Waterville on political journalism. Cronkite had planned to appear at the seminar in person, but couldn’t make it because of a health issue, Polster recalled.
“They knew what Walter’s contributions had been,” the Durham resident said of his students. “This was a moment of uniqueness for them. [Interviewing Walter Cronkite] was something you rarely got to do.”
Polster said it was easy to get Cronkite to agree to talk to his students. He said he promised the former anchorman lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“He loved to come to Maine,” he said. “Walter loved Maine.”
Polster said he had a scary moment early in his career at CBS, after he had worked for The Associated Press in Portland, when he, Cronkite and two other CBS News employees got together to play tennis in New York City. Polster said he served the ball and Cronkite made a mad dash for it, crashing into a wall in the cramped court.
“Will I forever be known as the man who killed Walter Cronkite?” Polster said he remembers thinking to himself.
He didn’t worry long, he added. After lying on the court for a few seconds, Cronkite hopped back up to his feet and declared that the serve had been out of bounds.
Polster said he was visiting his daughter in New York on Friday when he heard the news of Cronkite’s death. He said he planned to return later this week to attend the funeral.
“We’re never going to see his kind again,” Polster said. “I miss him.”
Michael Socolow of Bangor, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine, knew Cronkite through his father, Sanford Socolow, who was a longtime producer at CBS News. Socolaw said Saturday that he never met up with Cronkite in Maine but that he did occasionally spend time with him as a boy, frequently at the Cronkites’ Christmas parties in Washington and on sailing trips elsewhere on the East Coast.
“He was a fun guy. He had a great sense of humor,” Socolow said. “He’s been ill for quite a while. [It’s] sad, but not unexpected.”
Patricia Schroth, daughter of former Ellsworth American owner and editor Russell Wiggins, recalled Saturday that during Cronkite’s visits to Maine, her late father would go sailing with him. Wiggins and Cronkite had known each other since the 1950s, when Wiggins was editor of The Washington Post and Cronkite had recently begun working for CBS.
Schroth said Saturday that her father would accompany Cronkite on short sailing trips along the Maine coast, where sometimes Cronkite would stay on the boat overnight on the Benjamin River near her father’s home or in a harbor at Mount Desert Island.
“They had wild arguments about politics,” she said, adding that the discussions always ended with smiles. “He was very good company. “
Schroth retold a story about one of Cronkite’s sailing adventures that she attributed to Cronkite’s wife, Betsy. When sailing sometime along Hancock County — Schroth was not sure exactly where — Cronkite was on deck steering Wyntje into a harbor when a man on shore shouted and waved to him.
Cronkite thought the man was greeting him, saying, “Hello, Walter!” and so he waved back, but his wife, who was with him, set him straight. The man was yelling “low water!” she told him. Snapping to his senses, Cronkite quickly turned his boat around and headed to deeper water before the boat hit bottom.
“He was used to people making a fuss over him, of course,” Schroth said. “He was a very nice guy.”
Cronkite often sailed Wyntje into Camden Harbor, recalled Willard Wight of Camden, who became a friend of the famous newsman.
“I have pleasant memories of Walter Cronkite,” Wight, 80, said Saturday. “He was a man who had strong opinions but was also willing to listen to others. … He was always welcome here.”
Wight used to run Willey’s Wharf, where Cronkite would dock his sailboat. On his trips to midcoast Maine, Cronkite always made sure to stop in at the Sail Loft Restaurant in Rockport, Wight said.
Cronkite last came into the harbor a couple of years ago. When he was in Maine, he “enjoyed blending in,” Wight said.
“We enjoyed protecting him a little bit,” he added.
Sometimes the sight of his well-known face around town startled people who were much more used to seeing him on their televisions. Wight recounted the story of a time when Cronkite was reading the newspaper on the dock and a woman stopped by to pay her fuel bill.
“She said, ‘That kind of looks like Walter Cronkite outside.’ I said, ‘It is Walter Cronkite,’” Wight said.
Cronkite graciously talked with her for quite a while, and Wight said that months later the woman came back and told him that meeting Cronkite was one of the “nicest” things that ever happened to her.
“He was nice with people,” Wight said.
Camden historian Barbara Dyer said that Cronkite generated a bit of excitement one day when she was at work at Wayfarer Marine. A co-worker exclaimed that Cronkite was at the harbor. Dyer ran to get a glimpse of him, but only saw his elbow sticking out of a car that was driving away.
“I think he was a great newscaster,” she said. “He was one of the best, and everybody trusted him.”
On Cronkite’s last trip to Camden, he made sure to say hello to Wight’s wife, Janet. The Wights and the Cronkites had gone on a trip together to Greece and Turkey in the 1980s, Wight said.
“My thoughts are that he was a nice person,” Wight said. “I’m sorry to see that he’s gone.”