I first met Mike Wallace 23 years ago, when I became a regional screener for the Livingston Awards, the biggest-deal prize there is for young journalists. Naturally, like every other baby boomer, I didn’t remember a time when Mike Wallace was not part of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Back in the 1980s, the top judges for those awards were journalism gods like Wallace and John Chancellor of NBC. As our reward for slogging through lots of entries, we regional judges got to go to New York for a weekend and hang out and have dinner with them. Wallace in person was just like he was on television: Witty, sarcastic, incisive, and perceptive. But he was less full of himself than many other famous people I’ve met. He told me that he had worked briefly as a radio announcer in Detroit, which I knew. But he also mentioned that his very first job was with WOOD radio in Grand Rapids, which I hadn’t known.
He was also a loyal alum of the University of Michigan. Wallace and his wife Mary donated hundreds of thousands to the U of M’s mid-career journalism fellowship program, as well as the wonderful house in which it is located. Not surprisingly, it is now deservedly named the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program.
Partly through his efforts, it now may just be the best program of its kind in the country. But I really came to know Mike Wallace 14 years ago, when Jack Kevorkian came to see me one day.
Kevorkian, the famous apostle of assisted suicide, had committed euthanasia and videotaped it. He wanted my advice on how to get a nationwide audience for what he had done. I told him the program with the highest ratings was 60 Minutes, and the journalist with the most credibility was Mike Wallace. With the help of Charles Eisendrath, who runs the Michigan fellows, I got Mike on the phone.
He told Kevorkian to send him the tape. That night, Wallace called me. He wanted to know if I thought he was sane. I told him I wasn’t competent to render a psychological diagnosis, but that Kevorkian was certainly rational. Wallace did a sensational story on 60 Minutes, and Kevorkian ended up going to jail. Wallace on several occasions gave me credit for the scoop, though he didn’t need to do that. And as tough as Wallace was, he felt bad about helping send Kevorkian to prison.
The last time I think I saw Mike was five and half years ago, when I had lunch with him in Ann Arbor. He spoke movingly about the depression he’d battled, and stopped to call and wish Happy Birthday to another fellow sufferer, the famous humor columnist Art Buchwald.
I felt as if I had wandered into a movie, sitting there while two huge figures of my childhood reminisced. Buchwald died just months later. I used to think Wallace, who would have been 94 next month, would drop dead chasing a story. He didn’t, but I think he would have preferred to have. Mike Wallace spent his life finding out about interesting and important things and people, and sharing them with America.
I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted to live any other way.