Sure Hand, Brave Heart
IN DECEMBER 1994, EIGHT MONTHS after having been diagnosed with the terminal illness that had weakened his body but not his will, John Chancellor sat in the living room of his house in Princeton, N.J., and spoke with the poise and candor he had displayed during four decades as a TV journalist. “With stomach cancer, you and the disease are left to fight it out by yourselves,” mused the former NBC News anchorman and commentator who retired in 1993. “I’ve had wonderful support from my wife, Barbara, and from my doctors, but in the end the relationship is you and the disease.” He paused. “This is the single most frightening thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Chancellor, who died last week two days before his 69th birthday, was not by nature a fearful man. Indeed, throughout his career he had repeatedly displayed grace under fire—literally, while covering a civil war in Lebanon in 1958, and figuratively, a year earlier during the school-integration crisis in Little Rock, Ark., where he was jeered on-camera by an angry mob. Yet the moment for which he is best remembered, perhaps, came during the 1964 Republican Convention, when the bemused Chancellor, a convenient representative of the detested national media, was escorted by burly security guards from the floor at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, allegedly for blocking the aisles.
“This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody,” he announced as he disappeared from view into the bowels of the auditorium.
Among his admirers was Tom Brokaw, who in 1982, with Roger Mudd, would succeed Chancellor as NBC Nightly News anchor. “We will all miss him, but we are his legacy,” says Brokaw.
Reporting was always Chancellor’s first love. The only child of Chicago hotel owner Estil Chancellor and his wife, Mollie, he was 14 when he landed a job as a copyboy on the Chicago Daily News. After two years in the Army, he entered the University of Illinois in 1947, dropping out a year later to join the Chicago Sun-Times.
“The high point of my career,” he recalled, “was riding with photographers to fires.”
A local TV reporter for Chicago’s NBC-owned WNBQ in the early ’50s, he impressed the network news brass sufficiently to be sent south to cover the civil rights movement. Beginning in 1958, Chancellor was dispatched to NBC’s Vienna, London and Moscow bureaus.
It was in New York City, where he replaced original host Dave Garroway on the Today show in 1961, that Chancellor began to emerge as a star in his own right. But “the art of performing,” he complained, was not his forte, and after only 14 months he quit Today to don his trench coat again.
Twice more Chancellor would be lured in from the cold. He was NBC’s White House correspondent in 1965, when President Johnson persuaded him to become director of the Voice of America. Two years later, though, Chancellor decided he’d rather cover the government than work for it. Finally, in 1970, he agreed to share the NBC Nightly News anchor desk with David Brinkley and Frank McGee. By 1971 the job had become Chancellor’s alone. “Those of us who came out of newspapers tried to set standards that attempted to divorce us from television’s entertainment aspects,” says former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. “John was a principal fighter in that battle, leading the charge and keeping the pressure on NBC in that regard.”
Chancellor was twice wed. His six-year marriage to Constance Herbert, which produced a daughter, Mary, ended in divorce in 1956. In 1958 he married Barbara Upshaw, a graphic designer, with whom he had two children, Laura and Barnaby. In his final months, Chancellor waxed philosophical about his cancer. “I thought I would live a happy life after NBC, and then fate ambushed me,” he told PEOPLE. “But I’m alert now to some of the very simple pleasures of life: a good meal, a satisfying book, a soft breeze. And Barbara and I have never been closer.”