Belhaven man remembers Walter Cronkite|Funeral for ‘most trusted man in America’ is today

Published 8:36 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

By Staff
Compiled by KEVIN SCOTT CUTLERLifestyles &Features Editor
When venerable news reporter Walter Cronkite — dubbed “the most trusted man in America” — died last week, many longtime television viewers felt as if they had lost an old friend.
For one Belhaven resident, it meant saying goodbye to a treasured customer and acquaintance.
Axson Smith Jr., owner of River Forest Manor &Marina, fondly recalls visits from Cronkite, who enjoyed cruising on his boat up and down the Intracoastal Waterway.
One such visit — the first time Smith met Cronkite — gave the Belhaven man a brush with a political decision that could have changed the course of history.
In 1980, Cronkite was being wooed by independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson, who hoped the newsman would agree to be his vice presidential running mate.
As a result, Smith was party to a phone conversation he recalls vividly.
“Cronkite came in about 10:30 or 11 that morning,” Smith told the Daily News this week. “I was dockmaster then, and he asked me where the telephone was so he could call his office. I didn’t really recognize him, but I thought he looked familiar.”
Cronkite placed the call and Smith overheard the conversation.
“I heard him talking to his secretary — he told her to go ahead and get in touch with Anderson’s office and tell them he did not want to be vice president,” Smith said. “I heard him say, ‘I do not want to run.’”
In those pre-cell phone days, Smith knew he had a news scoop. He called local media and repeated what he overheard. Smith’s diligence in reporting the news earned him a good-natured reprimand from Cronkite the next time the two met.
“He knew what I had done,” Smith said. “He told me not to tell everything I know.”
But had Cronkite’s decision been different, Smith said he would have been elected.
“I know he would have won,” he said. “Everybody thought of him as ‘Mr. Truthful.’ He was one of the news people everybody believed what he said.”
While making his boat trips, Cronkite visited Belhaven at least once a year, Smith said.
“We were one of his regular stops. He was always very, very friendly, and he talked with a strong voice,” Smith said of his famous visitor. “I saw him in Morehead City one time when I was delivering brochures. He was sitting on the stern of his boat cooking a steak, and I made a comment about how good it smelled. He recognized me from the marina.”
Like many other mariners, Cronkite didn’t like to travel strange waters at night so he would tie up at River Forest Marina.
“He always had one or two other people with him,” Smith said. “I never knew him to travel alone.”
Cronkite, who was 92 years old at the time of his death, was in poor health in recent years. Smith said his last visit to Belhaven was “at least 10 years ago.”
Smith said he was saddened to learn of Cronkite’s death.
“I’m sorry to see a great person like him leave us,” he said. “He enjoyed the Waterway, and he often wrote about it. He shared a lot of his adventures, good and bad.”
A private funeral service for Walter Cronkite is planned for today at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York. He will then be cremated and buried in Missouri next to his late wife, Betsy.