March 09, 2005 02:25 PM

Trite but true: When Dan Rather signs off Wednesday night as the CBS Evening News anchor, he marks the end of an era, harking back as he did to a time when Americans relied on one man to deliver them their news. Few observers back then would have predicted the day of a 24-hours new channel, let alone several of them. Not to mention the Internet.

When Rather started this stint, 24 years ago, he replaced the most trusted man in television: Walter Cronkite. (In fact, Wednesday marks 24 years to the night Rather took over for the avuncular anchor.) Over the years – and, most recently, with Rather’s own discredited report on George W. Bush’s military record – TV journalism has come under question for its accuracy and objectivity.

“Am I leaving under a cloud?” Rather, 73 and ever the newsman, posited recently to the Associated Press. “I recognize that a lot of people see it that way. But I don’t. This is a continuum. I’m not retiring, I’m changing jobs. I see myself as a reporter, moving to what is basically another reporting job.”

And, speaking in soundbites, he went on to say of himself: “Right now, I’m healthy, feel invigorated, have a hunger to do great journalism. … 73 is the new 53.”

That search for a good story has long fueled Rather. In 1999, when he was just set to break Cronkite’s nearly 19-year record in the anchor seat, Rather told PEOPLE: “I’m chasing my dream of trying to be a great reporter. If I can’t be the smartest or the most affable person in television news, I can be the hardest-working.”

Besides loving a good story, Rather’s heart is always in his homestate of Texas – and for good reason. He met his wife Jean, whom he considers his “emotional rudder,” there.

It was in 1956, Dan, the oldest of three children of Houston oil-pipeliner Irvin Rather and his wife, Byrl, a seamstress, was working as news director for KTRH, a Houston CBS radio affiliate. Jean Goebel was a secretary whose sister Jo worked at the station and had touted Rather to her one day as “this really attractive, smart, nice guy,” Jean Rather later told PEOPLE.

Rather asked her out the following day, and in April 1957 they married. Daughter Robin arrived in 1958 and son Danjack some two years later. And even with the children well grown and with careers of their own, for Dan and Jean the bloom remained on the romance. He would send her a dozen red or yellow roses, and she would make him cheese sandwiches when he got home – often around 11 p.m. – to their New York apartment.

And now, comes a new chapter. “I’m not going to be sad,” Rather says about leaving. “I don’t know what I’ll be. And it won’t be just another day’s work. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. It’s not about me. It’s about news. It’s about CBS News. I want to keep that foremost in my mind.”

On Thursday, veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer will begin his role as interim Evening News anchor. And, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “That’s the way it is.”

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