September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Last March, Walter Cronkite underwent quadruple bypass surgery. The year before, the legendary newsman and CBS anchor emeritus had a knee replaced. In April of this year, Betsy, 80, his wife of 57 years, also had a knee replaced. The accumulating medical work set the couple to thinking. “We were beginning to plan to have a new knee between us every year,” says Cronkite. “Four years to get all the tires changed.”

They also realized that it was time to make another change. For nearly 40 years they had lived in the same four—story townhouse in a quiet East Side Manhattan neighborhood where they raised three children—Nancy, now 48, Kathy, 46, and Walter III (known as Chip), 40. Now, with age and medical problems, it was time to find a more manageable residence. “We looked at all the possibilities, anything to stay in the house,” says Cronkite, 80. “Sadly, we realized that nothing would have worked.”

Cronkite talked to acting New York Bureau Chief Maria Eftimiades about what it’s like to say goodbye—physically and emotionally—to a home that holds so many memories.

THE BIG TRAUMA CAME WHEN WE decided, about the time I had my knee problem a year and a half ago, that the home we occupied for 39 years was a bit of a burden for an aging couple. We loved the place but realized it would be a lot smarter to get a one-floor apartment somewhere. We started talking about it over a year ago. We didn’t do anything about it until Betsy hurt her knee. Then we thought, what the devil, we really did have to get into something else.

It was getting tough. We had helpers, but we always seemed to wind up with help that had health problems of their own. Wonderful people, but sometimes they couldn’t go up and down the stairs too much. And that doorbell rang all the time. So many FedEx packages. The mail, grocery deliveries.

We had elevator people in, escalator people in. It was an old-fashioned brownstone on 84th, between York and East End. We realized that, almost no matter what we did, there would be no way to get a wheelchair up and down those stairs if we needed to. So one night last January, we lay in bed and said, “Okay, this is it.”

We hated moving. I don’t know what was worse, all the sentimental stuff—that we had raised a family there, that we loved the neighborhood and the neighbors—or just the thought of cleaning out closets that hadn’t been touched in 40 years. We put the house up for sale in January, and, by God, we sold the house in four days. That proves we weren’t asking enough. Then we had to find a new home. We did. We stumbled on a high-rise apartment with a great view of the river, the skyline of New York.

We had a terrific plan. The scheme was to get everything packed and ready by the end of March, then leave on a trip to the Far East. The new owners weren’t taking possession until June 1. So our interior decorator would come in, move all the stuff and set up the new apartment while we were away on the cruise. We’d come back on May 1, the new apartment would be ready, and we’d move in. We would be spared all the terrible throes of moving and the emotional turmoil of seeing the house closed up.

And then this darn heart thing happens. We canceled the trip. Instead, poor Betsy—with her bad knee—and the kids did it all. Our daughters came into town, and my son. Even now we’re still living out of boxes. You can’t see them, but they’re in every closet.

Sorting stuff out before the move took forever. I lived for years with the happy thought that I was going to get even with my three children for all the mean things they did to me, unknowingly, unthinkingly, as juveniles, particularly as teenagers, by leaving the house to them with all that stuff to go through. And they were going to have to decide what to do with it. Here we got hoist by our own petard—we had to do it. But we did learn one trick. The kids would come and look and say, “Oh, you’re not throwing that away! I used to play with that when I was little!” So we just dumped it in boxes and sent it to them. It’s their problem now.

We also sent them boxes packed with strange artifacts that sat at the bottom of a closet for decades. I had pictured them earlier picking up this piece of broken tile, porcelain, shiny on one side, broken on the other, saying, “Now why in the world would Dad have kept that? It must have meant something. Why would he have kept that?” And they would never know that it was a piece of Hitler’s urinal. I picked it up at his Eastern headquarters in Poland right after the bombing.

We found old photo albums and shoe boxes filled with snapshots. We’re not a very orderly couple, Betsy and I. There were papers, lots of papers, old correspondence going back to World War II. Betsy’s letters home to her family when we were in Moscow, Nuremberg. My letters home to her from the war. We spent a lot of time rereading those. Brought up a lot of memories, of course. A lot of whatever-happened-to’s. People we lost track of. It inspired us to make notes to write people. Which we probably will never do. But we thought about it!

Strangely enough, the kids took the move very hard. They hadn’t lived there in years, any of them. But we spent Christmas there. The Texas bunch [daughter Kathy in Austin and her children] would come back. Chip, my son, lived right around the corner from us. There was a lot of come-and-go between the two families. I don’t know what we’re going to do about Christmas now. There are probably-enough sofa beds to take care of everybody if they want to come, but I have a feeling they’re going to use this as an excuse to get their own family traditions going. I feel terrible about that.

Now that we’re settling in, I’m thinking about writing another book. When I get to writing, I have trouble stopping. Since the most recent book [an autobiography, A Reporter’s Life] has been out, all my friends have been saying, “But you forgot that great story about…” So I’ve been taking notes and putting them in a file called Sequel. Who knows? I might tackle that. I have another book, Sailing America’s Coast, coming out soon.

Enough people stop me on the street to keep me satisfied that I haven’t been forgotten. It’s amazing how quickly a little bit of exposure reminds people. If I haven’t been on the air for three or four weeks, I can walk the street without many people stopping me or without getting the sense that they’re saying, “Hey, that’s Walter Cronkite.” But if a program is on the air—it doesn’t have to be a major program—for a week or so after that the recognition factor goes right up.

When we’re not in New York, Betsy and I spend a lot of time in our home on Martha’s Vineyard. When I’m sailing on my ketch Wyntje, I get a lot of hails from other boats. Or people will wave while we’re moored in the bay. There are tourist boats that go by about three times a day, and I’ve got a deal with one of them. He’ll announce, “That’s Walter Cronkite over on that boat right there.” Cameras go up. If I wave back, I get a dollar. Only problem is, I’ve never collected. It’s a running gag.

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