One of the last great radio and television correspondents, Bob Pierpoint, died Saturday.
The following information isn’t all that matters, of course, in the scheme of who a person is or was, but his career statistics are impressive. As CBS White House correspondent Pierpoint covered six Presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, 12 national elections, President Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis. He wrote a book and won a couple of Emmys and continued his CBS career-at the State Department and the Sunday Morning Show with Charles Kuralt. (See the Robert Pierpoint Collection at the University of Redlands.)
But there are other ways to remember Pierpoint. One is his sense of humor. A tough competitor, he was also fierce on the tennis court, playing whenever he could. One day he raced from the courts to the White House to report on whatever was important that day. He looked fine on camera, hair combed, shirt, suit jacket and tie neatly in place. But from the waist down he still had on his tennis shorts, shoes and socks. A photographer shot the Full Pierpoint. He loved the picture so much that it made the back cover of his book “At the White House”. His family followed Pierpoint’s puckish request to be buried in this outfit.
When the producers of M*A*S*H wanted to be authentic in their final show that drew millions of viewers, they found the real announcement that the Korean War was over. But the sound was faint and scratchy and the voice indistinct. That voice was Pierpoint’s, with his historic first, announcing the end of the war for CBS radio. The producers contacted Pierpoint who relived the moment, doing the voice over and joking to friends that he was on the last show of M*A*S*H.
It is somewhat important to note that Pierpoint was no pretty boy, which was not essential in those days and what made early television correspondents so good. They came up through radio or newspapers where brains were valued more than blow-dried perfection. They were used to actually digging, finding real news and reporting it. Pierpoint was featured on the first broadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now in 1951, and became one of the famed cadre of young reporters known as “Murrow’s Boys.” A California kid — born on May 16, 1925 in Redondo Beach, California — Pierpoint was a post grad at the University of Stockholm, where he became a stringer for CBS News and found his life’s work. His reporting on the attempted coup by the Finnish Communist Party impressed management. He was sent to Tokyo as a full time correspondent after war broke out in Korea and served as Far East Bureau Chief for seven years before his long stint at the White House.
It is almost impossible to imagine the working conditions when television was in its infancy. Film shot in Korea sent from Tokyo took a minimum of three days to get on the air in New York. One friend of Pierpoint’s, a wire service correspondent, tried carrier pigeons but gave up on that when the first bird took 11 days to fly from Korea to Tokyo. Pierpoint was a part of all that but he swiftly changed with the times. After he left the business, he peppered friends with his daily opinions about the latest in politics and the media, looking forward, not back. He once said that in no way did he want to stay in D.C. as someone who “used to be Bob Pierpoint.” He knew how quickly they forget in Washington. So he went back home to California, lectured, salmon fished in Alaska and trekked through Montana, returning often to visit the many real friends he had made here. Like everyone in official Washington, he had his “Ego Wall” filled with pictures of him with the presidents and other celebrities, his awards. But he didn’t have an ego. At least not a damaging one. He was as much interested in hearing what others thought as listening to his own voice.
He had a great wife, Pat, four wonderful children, five grandchildren, and enjoyed them in abundance. Pierpoint died in Cottage Hospital, in Santa Barbara, of complications from hip surgery. He was 86.