I never thought much about growing old. Most of us in journalism are too obsessed with the here and now to think about the past or future tense of our lives. Growing old happened only at the end of the trip, like arriving at the depot after a long train ride.
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At 60, I had open heart surgery. Four months later I was reporting in the field again.
I turned 65 and kept working.
I retired on my 70th birthday, and came to back to work a year later.
I retired again on the eve of my 76th birthday, and a year later was back at work.
In each case “work” is a weekly television series with implacable deadlines, constant reading, relentless preparation, intense sessions in the studio and long hours in editing rooms. Once you finish one broadcast, you begin crafting the next. Television is insatiable. There’s creative tension in the perpetual tug of a looming deadline.
My wife, Judith, a journalist in her own right and my creative partner in all our productions, says we have no retirement skills. Maybe in three years, on our 60th anniversary, we’ll try to learn some. On the other hand, I’m not so sure. Retirement, I’ve heard, can be the enemy of longevity.
Walter Cronkite retired at 65. He later told me it had been a serious mistake. “I’ve missed the work every minute,” he said. And then he added: “You’ve had 10 more years at it than I have. Keep going!”
Like Walter, I love the work. Especially the teamwork. Pull back the camera and you see I am standing on scores of shoulders: producers, directors, researchers, camera operators, lighting and sound engineers, the writing team and editors. There’s adrenalin in camaraderie. The next time you watch one of our broadcasts, check out the credit list at the end. “A cast of thousands,” one of our grandchildren said after watching us tape a broadcast. Not exactly, but it’s easy to lose count.
Genes help. My father almost made it to 90. My mother did — plus two. Her mother — my grandmother — almost became the first centenarian in the family.
But I’m confident it’s the nature of the work that keeps me getting up every day. I’ve been at it a long time now — since I was a cub reporter at age l6 on my hometown newspaper. I worked my way through the University of Texas as a reporter for the local television station. We were the first station in the state to buy a station wagon, paint it red, and christen it — what else? — “Red Rover.” I wheeled around Austin in style, broadcasting from crime scenes and accidents and the state legislature, which some people said was the biggest crime scene in town.