Cronkite Cooke and Griffin

Stories by Eric Shackle

Life Begins at 80 salutes three famous writers and broadcasters who led or are still leading active lives long after becoming octogenarians.

Veteran U.S. broadcaster Walter Cronkite, 87, was once voted “the most trusted man in America” in a magazine poll. “Twenty-three years after leaving his CBS Evening News anchor chair, broadcast journalism’s closest approximation to a national treasure is enjoying a ripe senior citizenship,” Steven Winn wrote last month in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Freed from his TV persona as the orotund voice of reliability, Cronkite has forged a nimble, multifaceted identity. Part public affairs Brahmin, part syndicated pundit and part country-boy imp, he travels the country giving speeches, supporting favorite causes and cracking wise; writes a weekly opinion column that appears in 173 newspapers; produces documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and other networks; and remains on the CBS payroll as a special correspondent.”

Another radio and TV icon, British-born Alistair Cooke, 95, who died on March 30, 2004, delivered a weekly broadcast, Letter from America, to a worldwide audience for 58 years – a world record for a spoken program. His commentaries on American culture and politics, spiced with witty remarks and personal reminiscences, have delighted listeners around the world.

Addressing the Royal Television Society in New York in 1997, he said “a wise old talks producer came to me and said, ‘Cooke, a word in your ear. Could I give you a bit of advice?’ I said, ‘of course.’ He said, ‘don’t get too popular . . . or they’ll drop you.’ Well, I’ve been working on that for 51 years!”

Discussing Cooke’s decision to retire after making nearly 3000 broadcasts, Australian ABC presenter Mark Colvin said “At the age of 95, he’s now too frail to continue with the weekly program that has become the longest-running series of broadcast talks in history.

“For his listeners outside the US, Alistair Cooke’s weekly broadcasts were a window into America that only an outsider could open, even though he’s been a US citizen since the 1940s. But Americans will miss his insights too.”

In the United Kingdom, A. Harry Griffin, who died at 93 on July 12, 2004, wrote a fortnightly column, Country Diary, in the London Guardian, describing rural life in England’s scenic Lake District.

Celebrating his column’s 50th anniversary, he wrote:

There have been 1,300 [columns] altogether, one every other Monday for 50 years. Little love letters, I suppose you could call them – my Country Diary pieces from the Lake District. They started when King George VI was on the throne, Clem Attlee the prime minister, and Tony Blair not even a glint in his father’s eye.

The Korean war had just started, with British troops in action: only five years earlier I had still been serving with the “forgotten” 14th Army in Burma.

Then, one day towards the end of 1950, right out of the blue, the late AP Wadsworth, editor of what was then the Manchester Guardian, wrote to me – I think he also telephoned – and asked whether I would like to contribute to the paper’s Country Diary once a fortnight…

Wadsworth’s instructions were simple and to the point. “Write about anything you like,” he ordered, “but for God’s sake, keep off birds. We get all we want about them from the others,” meaning the other diarists.

I had to send off my first piece in time for the first Monday in January 1951, and have continued, without a break, ever since – nearly half a million words about hills, snow, tarns, stone walls, red deer, golden eagles, breathtaking scenery and a host of other important things…

I had to give up climbing at 78 years of age and skiing at 80. But, after nearly 80 years of wandering about on the Lakeland fells, I can always find something new, or a little different or, at least, interesting.