Home is where Brokaw's heart is

  • Article by: PAMELA HUEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2004 - 6:52 PM

Tom Brokaw, back in his hometown on the banks of the Missouri
River, borrowed a bicycle on a cool, sunny June morning and went
for a spin down the Auld-Brokaw trail.

The NBC anchor had arrived in Yankton the night before, after
addressing graduates of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Just eight days earlier he was among the world's most powerful
people at the funeral of President Reagan at the National Cathedral
in Washington, D.C. Nine days later he would be in Baghdad.

But now he was back to see friends and family in the familiar
surroundings of the South Dakota town where he first broadcast the
news.

Wearing a baseball cap and a blue and red windbreaker, he pedaled
the 3-mile trail past the neighborhoods of his youth.

His wife of nearly 42 years, Meredith, walked their black lab,
Abby. The Brokaws, college sweethearts who met at Yankton High
School, were here to dedicate an outdoor classroom that accompanies
the trail named to honor their parents.

Brokaw has been reporting on major news events for nearly 40
years. He'll leave the NBC anchor chair in December after a
two-decade run, the first of TV's "Big Three" - Brokaw, Peter
Jennings and Dan Rather - to retire.

Although he has lived and worked in Atlanta, Los Angeles,
Washington, D.C., and New York City, Brokaw, 64, still calls South
Dakota home. He comes back every year to hunt pheasant; he gives
money to scholarships and civic projects, and he keeps lifelong
friendships thriving with visits to Yankton and elsewhere in the state.

He says he gets the grounding he needs to do his high-profile job
from his Midwestern roots.

"It helps me do what I do when I sit in that big chair every
night at 6:30 surrounded by all these monumental events that are
going on around the world," he said.

"It really always helps keep the rest of my life in some
perspective to know what's going on in these communities in the
heartland and about the pace of life here and the kind of long view
about what they want to do. They don't get hysterical about the
day-to-day news as those of us who live in New York do. . . . They
kind of reserve their judgment and take in lots of information
before deciding or coming to a conclusion about something."

Tim Russert, a friend and NBC colleague, recognizes the important
role that Brokaw's Midwestern background played in his career.

"I think that Tom has a feel for the country. His toes are in the
dirt," Russert said earlier this year to students at Northwestern's
Medill School of Journalism who were making a TV documentary on
Brokaw. "He remembers driving around those roads of South Dakota,
working at his radio stations in South Dakota and going to Omaha,
meeting Meredith, who was Miss South Dakota. It's who he is."

.

`This is home'

The Brokaws' funding of the Yankton trail fits a pattern of
generosity, said Yankton Mayor Charlie Gross. "It's been something
that he's done all of his adult life. His family has had reunions
in Yankton, and they all come back. This is home for him."

In 2002, the Brokaws invited friends and family - including their
daughters (Jennifer, Andrea and Sarah) - to Yankton for a three-day
celebration of their 40th wedding anniversary.

And Yankton, a town of 13,500 people about 60 miles southwest of
Sioux Falls, has never forgotten its favorite son. In 1999, the
city's newspaper, the Press and Dakotan, named him "Yankton's Local
Personality of the Century." And the main street through town is
called Tom Brokaw Boulevard.

Longtime Yankton sportswriter and former broadcaster Hod Nielsen,
who is featured in Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," worked
with Brokaw, then a high school student, at Yankton's KYNT-AM Radio
in the mid-'50s.

"He was the best announcer we had," Nielsen said. "He had such a
distinctive voice."

The two have stayed in touch over the years, and when Brokaw
prepared to travel to Normandy to broadcast ceremonies marking the
60th anniversary of D-Day, he wanted his old friend to be there,
too. Nielsen, a photo reconnaissance pilot during World War II,
flew P-38s over Normandy before the invasion, taking pictures of
beaches and fields.

"He called and asked me if I had a passport," said Nielsen, who
still writes for the Yankton newspaper. Brokaw then told him he had
made arrangements for him to fly to France. Reluctantly, Nielsen,
83, told him that he couldn't go because of his health.

Another friend from Brokaw's youth credits him with giving his
life direction. In 1969, Lawrence Piersol - then a South Dakota
attorney - was having dinner with the Brokaws in Los Angeles. "He
asked me: `What are you going to do for the state?' " Piersol
recalled. The attorney ended up running for the Legislature and
becoming a Democratic leader in the early '70s.

"He's a really good friend," said Piersol, now a U.S. District
judge in Sioux Falls. "If the chips were down, he's the kind of guy
you would want to be in the foxhole with. He passes that test."

Brokaw has also remained interested in South Dakota's Indian
community. "It's not lost on me that all of my good fortune in life
and my career would have been neutralized at the outset if my skin
had been a few shades darker," Brokaw writes in his 2002
autobiography: "A Long Way from Home."

He contributes to an endowment fund at Oglala Lakota College in
Kyle, to an American Indian scholarship at the University of Iowa -
where he spent his freshman year - and to an Indian studies program
at Yankton High School. In June 2001, he gave the commencement
address at Oglala, urging graduates to make it their mission to see
that a college education becomes something expected of tribal
members and not an exception.

.

College woes

Despite all the accolades he receives these days, there were
times during his college years when some wondered whether he wasn't
headed for failure. Piersol was one: "He had, like a lot of us, an
off year in college. He made you wonder if he would ever amount to
anything."

In his book, Brokaw is much blunter. He tells how he dropped out
of college and spent his time drinking, partying and chasing women.

"If I had pursued my studies with just half the fervor I
dedicated to girls and good times, I would have been Phi Beta
Kappa."

Brokaw got serious about his future after getting some stern
advice from a political science professor at the University of
South Dakota, and after receiving a letter from Meredith Auld, the
pretty and talented young woman whom Brokaw had been pursuing since
high school. Her message: Don't call again; you aren't going anywhere.

On their way to their Montana ranch recently, the Brokaws stopped
in South Dakota to check on the trail's progress. The walkway,
which follows Yankton's gurgling Marne Creek and is bordered by
prairie grasses and wild flowers of purple, yellow, white and gold,
"has exceeded our wildest expectations," Brokaw said at the June 19
classroom dedication. "It means so much for us to come back and see
the names of our parents on a trail that really does pull the
community together."

Before the trail was built, the creek was littered with tires,
beer bottles and other garbage and overgrown with trees.

"Before and after pictures should be posted everywhere because
much of the creek was such an eyesore," Meredith Brokaw said.

.

Dam building

Tom Brokaw was born Feb. 6, 1940, in Webster, in northeast South
Dakota, but his formative years were spent in Pickstown, a
community an hour's drive or so west of Yankton that was developed
during the building of the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri. His
father, Anthony (Red) Brokaw, worked for the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers on the dam and later on the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton.

During their recent visit to Yankton, the Brokaws borrowed an SUV
and took a 90-minute drive through town, traveling down Brokaw
Boulevard and along the country roads nearby. With Abby in the
backseat, they reminisced about school days, their parents, their
courtship and their wedding.

"Here's the little church in which we were married, Christ
Episcopal Church," Brokaw said. "It was a hot day in August in
1962, and Meredith was 21, and I was 22. And we had no idea what we
were doing except that we were in love."

"Yeah, we did," she said, as he continued: "And we wanted to have
a life together."

They honeymooned in Council Bluffs, Iowa, before Brokaw began his
first full-time job at KMTV in Omaha.

Now, after a career that has included covering the White House
during Watergate and hosting the "Today" show, Brokaw will retire
from his anchoring duties on Dec. 1. He will continue to work on
documentaries, analyses and special projects for NBC. He also wants
to write another book.

And retirement may give him more opportunities to return to the
state he still calls home.

"This is a small state with a population of only 750,000," said
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who was at the Yankton festivities. "It's
like belonging to a club to be a South Dakota citizen, and Tom is
respected for what he's done with his life but also for the fact
that he's never forgotten about where he came from. . . . He's not
only a son of South Dakota who's made good, he's a son who's given
back."

.

Pamela Huey is at phuey@startribune.com.

Before the Big Time

The towns and stations where Tom Brokaw began his broadcasting
career.

1. KYNT-AM in Yankton. In 1955, he began working as a teen
volunteer. By 1956, he was on the payroll, covering returns in the
presidential election. Next three years, he worked school nights
and summers there. Reading his first news story, he said, "Good
evening, everyone. South Dakota Governor Joe Foss today addressed a
convention of the Veterans of Foreign Whores."

2. KOTA-AM in Rapid City. The CBS affiliate, in the summer of
1960. It was another one of those episodes in which the guy I
worked for said this guy will never make it,' Brokaw says.

3. KMHL-AM in Marshall. In the fall of 1960, he hitchhiked to
Marshall and was hired as nighttime disc jockey. Fired after a
week. While at the station, Attorney General candidate Walter
Mondale came through. Brokaw suggested interviewing him but the
tape recorder didnt work.

4. KTIV-TV, NBC affiliate in Sioux City. Hired in early '61 as
staff announcer, parttime weatherman and substitute newscaster for
$75 a week.

5. KUSD, Vermillion. Public radio station at the University of
South Dakota where he worked while a student at USD.

.

- Source: Interview with Tom Brokaw His book "A Long Way from Home"
 

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