There is certainly nothing I could add of any substance to the public mourning of Walter Cronkite’s passing. However, I would like to say a few words about the man and to recount some of my favorite memories.
It was fall 1998 when Wyntje, Cronkite’s 60′ English built sailing ketch, passed through Deltaville, Virginia on her way south to Tortola, British Virgin Islands. I met the captain of the vessel whose mission it was to deliver the boat safely to the Caribbean. He gave me a tour of the boat at which time I was pleased to find one of my skipjack prints hanging on the bulkhead in the main saloon. I dropped a note to Walter, whom I’d met at an awards dinner in Washington, D.C. a few years earlier, and expressed my pleasure at seeing my art aboard his boat and that if he had interest in having Wyntje painted that I’d be happy to accommodate him.
Shortly thereafter he called and we discussed the painting and what would be the setting- Tortola [the boat’s wintering location] or Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he and wife Betsy had a lovely summer home. During that winter we continued to discuss the project and possible settings. The decision was made to paint his beloved yacht at Martha’s Vineyard the following spring.
Among Walter’s many attributes was his acumen as a sailor. He had a great appreciation for the most minuscule details of a boat’s design and rigging and how they related to the vessel’s performance. He realized that for me to do a proper painting of his boat that I would need to see her under sail- thereby he invited me to sail with him and a few friends with his captain and mate for the final leg of the journey north: from Annapolis, Maryland to Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard.
We departed Annapolis harbor May, 27 at 10:00 AM as Walter had calculated the current in the East River [NY] which can make headway impossible for sailing vessels. Under fair skies we sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake/Delaware canal and down Delaware Bay where nightfall overtook us. I recalled a wonderful dinner of roast pork tenderloin, freshly baked bread and a very nice Cabernet- Walter’s paid captain also had been trained at Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu! First Class! Wine was limited as we were at sea and soon passed Cape May, New Jersey, where we turned north
up the Atlantic coast for New York City.
All aboard, except Walter, stood their turn on watch that night and the sun arose on May 28 to find us north of Atlantic City. That day was a delight as we all took our watch at the helm of Wyntje, including Walter, when he wasn’t on his cell phone trying to convince Donald Trump not to continue the high-rise across the street from the Cronkite’s apartment in Manhattan which would block their view of the Empire State Building! What a day- stories of Henry Kissinger, General Eisenhower, the bombing of London… names and stories flowed like pages of history being turned by the salty sea breezes which propelled us. That afternoon we sailed into New York harbor, the Stature of Liberty off our port side, the East River ahead and our port of City Island Yacht Club at which we arrived about 8:00 PM and picked up a mooring.
Walter left the boat that evening to spend the Memorial Day weekend with wife Betsy at their home in Manhattan. Sunday evening they returned with daughter Nancy and her friend. We all turned in early, had a good night’s sleep in order to head out the following morning for Essex, Connecticut. During that day, sailing eastward through Long Island Sound- I enjoyed getting to know Betsy and hearing her talk about their wonderful life together. Nancy too, a very interesting lady! After docking and showers we all trouped up to the famed Griswold Inn for dinner. Such heady times, traveling with the Cronkites!
The following morning found us heading out for Mystic as we picked our way through a literal sea of lobster pots in a pea-soup fog heading eastward. We moored Wyntje at the dock at the Mystic Seaport Museum to much fanfare as the Cronkites were frequent visitors there. It was amazing to see the public and their response to Walter. It was clear that, without exception, everyone who saw him admired and respected him- and he was so patient and respectful of these people who simply wanted to be in his midst!
June 2, we departed for Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and the fog on Rhode Island Sound persisted- still wonderful to be aboard this magnificent yacht! In the afternoon we spotted the island to starboard and eventually rounded the northern most portion and into Nantucket Sound. We sailed down the eastern side of the island still shrouded in fog and eventually picked up the Edgartown Lighthouse which led us into the harbor. Once inside, just off Walter’s yacht club, the sun broke through and the skies cleared. This would become the scene which I’d replicate in my painting. Just a bit south of the center of town we finally arrived at the Cronkite home, a stately cedar shake clad home standing proudly on the hillside overlooking the harbor.
My wife Kathy arrived on the island the following day and we were treated to an additional five-day stay with Betsy and Walter. We toured the island; shopped, lunched with the family and friends and of course I sketched and photographed Wyntje and the area for my painting. The four of us visited Ray Ellis and his wife for cocktails one evening. Ray is a fine watercolor artist and a close friend of Walter’s. He also illustrated Walter’s sailing books.
After our visit Walter drove us all out to his favorite restaurant in the little town of Menemsha. While having dinner, I asked him to retell the story of his visit to Yellowstone Park for Kathy. “Well Kathy”, Walter related
“Betsy and I were at the park with some of our grandchildren, outside the visitors center, when a lady walked up and said ‘excuse me sir, has anyone ever told you that you look very much like Walter Cronkite… before he died?’ I looked back at her and with what must have been a look of surprise said that I’d heard that from time to time. She then added ‘however he was quite a bit thinner’. The lady then turned and looked quizzically at Betsy and inquired, ‘Mr. Cronkite, he is dead isn’t he?’ Without a second’s hesitation Betsy, with her inimitable wit, answered ‘oh yes his is, quite, I understand he died of ‘thinness’!”
I wonder if that lady now realizes that she was speaking with the Man himself?
Sorry if I’ve been too longwinded. These eleven days were something that I will never forget and I will forever be in the debt of this great man who means so much to so many!
John M. Barber
Betsy and Walter Cronkite, Kathy and John Barber at the Cronkite’s Christmas party 1999. The gathering was held at the Cronkite’s mid-town Manhattan home and was the first public showing of the artist’s painting of their sailing yacht Wyntje , seen to the left.