Monday, July 20, 2009

In Memoriam: Walter Cronkite

The Washington College community mourns the passing of Walter Cronkite, who delivered the Commencement address in 1983. In his familiar staccato tones, the veteran newsman recited a litany of the nation’s problems at the time, including the disarrayed economy, an overburdened welfare system, an overpriced medical system, a lack of social justice, and communications media, “particularly television, that far too often are far too superficial.”

But worse, he said, are pollution, depletion of natural resources, overpopulation and atomic proliferation. “These mega-problems are our modern four horsemen of the apocalypse,” he said. Students and others of their generation will have to get to work right away on solving those problems or face the destruction of our society.

It was a message that, 26 years later, still rings true.

In his first year in office, College President Douglass

Cater welcomed fellow journalist Walter Cronkite to

campus. Photo by Constance Stuart Larrabee

From the Washington College Reporter

Summer 1983

May 15 — It was a picture-perfect day. The sky was nearly cloudless and the morning sun was brilliant above the trimmed campus lawn. At the foot of the Hill, family, friends and the College’s 201st graduating class assembled to face the faculty, Board members, officials and dignitaries as the traditionally magnificent al fresco commencement began. Walter Cronkite, quintessential newsman and one of the most recognized individuals on American television, was on campus as commencement speaker. “Please be seated,” he told those who stood to applaud as he approached the podium to begin his address; “This may be a bit long.”

Photo by J. Tyler Campbell '76

It was a memorable address: Some remarked that it was challenging and, all in all, positive; others noted that it was somber and perhaps a bit gloomy. At one point, breaking away from the flow of his written text, Cronkite raised his eyes and said, “I think you are exceedingly fortunate—this class of 1983—to be graduating from a college the size of Washington. It is most important that this sort of institution prosper and grow in this country of ours. We’ve gotten too much involved in the immediate technical education which can be learned, in most cases, in a trade school, and we’re forgetting the broad liberal arts education that you’ve gotten here at Washington College.”

In his address, Walter Cronkite told the graduates that they are living simultaneously in five eras: “The atomic age, the computer age, the space age, the petro-chemical age and the telecommunications age,” and that “together they comprise a technological revolution perhaps almost certainly greater in its impact than the industrial revolution of the last century.” He predicted, “there is going to be a social and political and economic evolution, coming with such explosive suddenness as to have the character of revolution,” and he admonished them saying, “It is up to us—to you—to get into the leadership of that revolution.”

He charged them to find ways to enable government “to cope with the vast technological changes taking place,” ways to make the legislative branch of government more efficient, ways to make the selective process ensure that the “best man for the job” of the Presidency is elected.

He said that as a nation we must “re-establish our credentials for leadership among the developing nations… by taking the lead… to reorganize the global economy.” He said that aiding the “poor majority of the world is very much in our interest” if we are to advance the cause of freedom in the world. “We are going to need converts to the cause of freedom,” he explained, “if it is to endure. Freedom must be a growth industry. And converts will not come from nations bulging with hungry people … [nor from] countries with illiteracy rates of 70 and 80 and 90 percent.”

“In sum,” he concluded, “your task will be to make America work again, to overhaul the system, discarding defective or outmoded parts and restoring those that still serve. You will be rebuilding, even redesigning America to preserve what it always has been and most remain—a nation of free men, an example to all men; in Lincoln’s phrase, ‘the last best hope of earth.’ … It is in your power to make your revolution a model to live, as did that other revolution, for 200 years.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. I wasn't aware that Cronkite was concerned about overpopulation. He was way ahead of his time.

    The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded "the dismal science" after Malthus' theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues. They believe we'll always find technological solutions that allow more growth.

    But because they are blind to population growth, there's one obstacle they haven't considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like.

    Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about overpopulation without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, "Five Short Blasts"