They both grew up in the same prairie hamlet. He was a three-letter man on the Yankton Bucks, she was a cheerleader, and they co-starred in the senior play. They wed right after college, and their granitic, 14-year marriage has produced three daughters. She was Miss South Dakota (to her eternal mortification) and later became a schoolmarm. He rose from a $100-per-week TV trainee to a several-hundred-thou news star. It all sounds so goldarned Tarkingtonian that he would have to wind up on ABC’s cornball upstart Good Morning, America. In fact, of course, Tom Brokaw this week became headliner of its established rival, NBC’s Today show.
The question is whether the Brokaws—newscaster Tom and schoolteacher Meredith—can find continued happiness as they face such tune-in-tomorrow problems as the pressures of being a megacelebrity, an uprooting from suburban Washington to Manhattan, an out-of-sync-work schedule, as well as his vulnerability as NBC’s great male hope for raising Today’s sagging ratings. The morning-show biz is, after all, a Darwinian world. Brokaw was elevated only because Jim Hartz was kicked downstairs, and not so many months ago Barbara Walters herself had been in jeopardy. “Some of our friends are worried about us and the new stresses in our lives, but not me,” says Tom. “We’re battle-tested. I think we can handle it.”
Many of those trials came during the past three years when Tom, 36, suffered chronic jet lag as NBC’s White House correspondent. Meredith, 35, who’s done graduate study in linguistics, meanwhile combined a full-time job teaching English to foreign students with raising their girls. “If I felt this were going to be the pattern of our whole life, I might not choose to live this way,” says Meredith of the merciless pace. “At least when Tom gets up in New York at 5 a.m. for the Today show he’ll know where he is.” At the breakfast table alone, actually. “Meredith won’t exactly be up every morning fixing me country ham and grits,” he jokes.
The Brokaws’ biggest concern about the move to New York is the effect on the children. “We have a very, very nice Park Avenue duplex apartment,” says Tom, “but then it doesn’t have an alley out back for the kids to ride their bikes in or all the greenery we had in Washington or the ocean we had in California.” And how will the children adjust to leaving their public school for the private one they’ll attend in the big city? “I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that they are somehow better than the rest of society,” says Meredith. “We’re very much aware of our middle-class roots. We want to maintain those values for the sake of the children.”
Tom spent his early boyhood in Pickstown, S.Dak. “It was a very Tom Sawyer-esque type of life. I lived on the river, camped on the hills, collected Indian arrowheads.” His father was a construction worker building dams. Tom’s mother also worked, first in the post office and then in a shoe store, and “even managed,” he recalls, “to teach three wild young boys to iron our own shirts.” His mother’s dream of becoming a journalist had gone bust along with her family’s farm in the ’30s. “The Depression scarred my parents like so many others in their generation,” says Brokaw. “I remember growing up with this Midwestern feeling that it all could happen again. My father will still drive all the way across town to save two cents on a light bulb.”
When Tom was 15 his family moved to Yankton. And there he met Meredith Auld, the eldest of five children of a general practitioner and a mother she describes affectionately as “one of the great volunteer ladies of all time.” Chimes in Tom: “She was much more than that—she was a wonderful sophisticated voice on the prairie.”
“Tom swept in as a sophomore and right away was the new boy in town,” Meredith remembers. “He was elected to school office and just took over immediately. We were very good friends in that we double-dated with other people but not with each other. I’m so glad now. I would hate to have to tell people we were high school sweethearts.” “Meredith was the class of the class in high school,” says Tom. “She wore horn-rimmed glasses and was a great debater, which meant something then. And she was always able to see through my best routines, which always worked with the other girls. She was appropriately wary. But I wore her down.”
That was during their senior year at the University of South Dakota, where Tom majored in political science and Meredith in speech and English. “The big city for us then was Omaha,” Tom explains. “That was our first stop.” While Meredith taught school, Tom worked at an NBC affiliate “under a hard-nosed guy who taught me the fundamentals of covering everything from fires to political scandals.”
Three years later he was ready for Atlanta’s WSB, just as the civil rights movement gained momentum. NBC had no full-time correspondent in the South, and Tom became the network’s part-time stringer. He did so well that NBC offered to double his salary if he would move to L.A. as a reporter and local news anchorman. “We succumbed to the siren’s call,” says Tom, “and went from that gentle Southern society to the ravages of the West Coast—which we adored. We matured in California in so many ways—culturally, socially, politically—and we didn’t succumb to the outer fringes of California life.” By that he means in part the marital crises of many of their friends. The Brokaws plunged into the Washington swim just as enthusiastically when Tom was promoted to the White House beat. Their friends included columnist Art Buchwald, HUD Secretary Carla Hills and her husband Roderick of the SEC, and Tom’s CBS competitor, Bob Schieffer. Somehow, they also worked in tennis, skiing and backpacking.
When the host slot on the Today show opened up two years ago, Tom was probably first choice—but as a career newsman he refused to do commercials. Also, he notes, “I didn’t want to walk away from the biggest story I will ever cover [the end of the Nixon Presidency].” The job went to Hartz, who now will become a roving “co-host.” This time, under Brokaw’s new arrangement, he won’t have to peddle sponsors’ products. Nor will he, he says, “be a reincarnation of Hugh Downs, or Barbara Walters in drag.”
Tom isn’t fazed by his new regimen (lights out at 11 p.m. for a reveille at 5 a.m.) or tax bracket. “Let’s face it,” he says, “you can only eat three meals a day, wear one suit of clothes at a time. We might buy more art, but we’re not going to buy a fleet of automobiles or lots of fancy toys. TV is a fickle business. I’m only good for the length of my contract.” Meredith Brokaw, sharing her husband’s Midwestern practicality, eventually plans to resume teaching English. As for their trepidations about raising children in New York, she figures, “The girls have moved all over the country, but Tom and I both have strong roots. My hope is that a strong family life is the strongest root of all.”