During his more than 50 years at NBC News, Tom Brokaw has been woven into the lives of all those in the news division. Dozens of his colleagues share their most memorable moments with the TV legend.
NBC's rented transport plane, crammed with tons of television and satellite equipment, pulled up in a corner of the wrong airfield, a single deserted runway fifty miles from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. There was nobody to collect us. Tom Brokaw summed up the sweating, cursing gang of newsmen: “Here we are, NBC’s Dirty Dozen.”
After an hour milling around our piles of equipment, the plane long departed, two truckloads of gunmen drew up to investigate. At gunpoint they led us onto their trucks while more vehicles arrived for the gear, which we assumed was in the process of being stolen, like most things in Somalia in those days. But at least we were on the move, heading towards town, where we needed to get organized before the American military landed to stop warlords stealing the food of starving Somalis.
Long after dark the convoy bumped into a heavily-guarded compound at the end of a dirt road where silent men locked the metal gates behind us. After lengthy and agitated attempts to discover our fate, Tom said, “Martin, have we been kidnapped?”
“Well, I won’t leave you all behind.”
I’ve been lucky enough to have too many favorite Brokaw memories to remember! But from him driving me from Kuwait City to Dharhan at the tail end of the first Gulf War to a terrifying Russian charter flight to Somalia to election night 2016, it has been an honor to be around such a pro in action.
A recent memory stands out, though. As the producer of Sunday’s 50th Anniversary special, I got a chance to be on the sidelines of the Iowa – Michigan football game in November where Tom was being honored for donating his papers to the University of Iowa Library. When Tom and Meredith and the family arrived on the field for the brief ceremony, a roar came from the crowd unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if the video below really captures the intensity of the ovation.
All I can say is that I feel it captures everything about how America feels about Tom Brokaw. That he’s a national treasure.
Superbowl 27, Rose Bowl, Pasadena. The Buffalo Bills were going into their fourth consecutive Super Bowl without a win. They were playing the Dallas Cowboys who had beat them soundly the year before, 30-13. My late husband, Tim Russert, an Irish Catholic, was such a Bills fanatic that he actually begged God on the air on Meet the Press that morning to let the Bills win. Unfortunately, the hated Cowboys whopped the Bills again, 52-17. Later, at an NBC reception, Tom told me, “I guess God’s a Southern Baptist.” Tim of course embellished the story, saying that Tom told him that he should not have prayed on the air and Tom also told him the quote. Maybe he did. Ask Tom!
Tom Brokaw has presided over – and led us through – more stories than anyone can count. Here’s one that comes to mind. In August, 1988, we were in New Orleans for the Republican National Convention. There was no mystery as to who would be the GOP nominee for president that summer. George H. W. Bush had been Ronald Reagan’s loyal vice president for eight years; he was Reagan’s heir apparent. But who would he choose as his running mate? Every journalist in Houston was focused on breaking that story. The competition was fierce. So who got it first? NBC News did. Andrea Mitchell nailed it, and Tom broke into regular programming with a special report:
Good afternoon everyone, I’m Tom Brokaw at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, site of the Republican National Convention, and NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell has been told by a highly reliable source that Senator Dan Quayle, a 41-year old Republican from Indiana will be Vice President Bush’s choice as his running mate for vice president in the fall campaign.
The Quayle story was huge, and we had it first. It would soon grow even bigger when questions arose about whether strings had been pulled to keep Quayle out of Vietnam. But for the moment, we were on top of the world.
Why do I remember that day? Because of what Tom did next. After he wrapped his special report, he came into the NBC work space, gathered us together, and made sure that everyone shared in NBC’s glory. He told us that we had succeeded as a team. And it struck me that he knew every member of that team; who we were, what we did, why we mattered. He didn’t have to do it. He had been Nightly anchor for more than five years at that point. He was a big deal. Yes, Quayle was a big story, but for Tom it was one of many. And yet at that moment, it was the most important story in the world to him. I knew that because I heard real passion in his voice. I heard him choke up when he said how proud he was of us all.
Tom cared, and he has never stopped caring. I’d follow the guy anywhere.
It’s April 2002. Tom wants to go to Baghdad, the Bush administration is beating war drums, and Saddam’s government is not giving visas to journalists.
Tom asked Kofi Annan, the UN Sec’y General, to help him get a visa. Kofi did. One visa, only, for Tom.
The team of producers, camera crews, engineers to accompany Tom and put him on the air were stuck in Amman- they had no visas.
Three of us did- Ron Allen, Brian Prentke and myself. We were, quickly, dispatched to Amman to meet Tom to go to Baghdad.
There were no flights; sanctions were in full force. Loaded down with food and water, we drove 14 hours thru the desert. Tom and I in one car; Ron and Brian in another.
In our gritty office in Baghdad, with only a fax machine that worked sometimes and a phone that worked seldom, the four of us went to work. Tom recorded his pages for NN, and went live for the Today Show, from an uplink manned by Turkish engineers, interviewed Tariq Aziz, did a few feature stories and left. Tom at his best. No frills. No flash. “We were the network version of Outward Bound,” to quote Tom.
Our 47 year friendship started at KNBC. You the anchor, me the newbie. You were always kind, telling me stories about my Dad, asking about Mom. It meant so much to a young woman, a bit nervous every time you spoke to me.
We worked so many different remotes…the first was STS 1 at Edwards AFB. Chuck Yeager, Fitz Fulton, a baby pool in middle of that hot, dry lake bed.
Yellowstone and Continental Divide…1981. A standup for Today Show, with snowballs aimed at your head…and you getting your revenge!
To how many Olympics over the years! Wow…always fun. Here’s Sydney, 2000. Whenever you saw Jeff and I together, you always said “it’s the whole damn family!"
The days spent at Camp OJ….those long, long days…
Many, many more experiences….just don’t have, or can’t find, pictures! It has been my honor knowing you and working with you, Tom.
Thank you for always remembering my family and for this 47 years of friendship. I miss you on the air everyday….but always make it a point to watch and listen when you are!
1989 was a watermark year for journalists. Experiencing much of it as a producer for Tom Brokaw was nothing less than remarkable.
China in Crisis: “Beijing Spring Will Always Be Our Dance” –TB from a note to Linda Ellman
Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping are set to change the course of world history during a scheduled meeting in Beijing, May 15, 1989.
With the lenses of the international press focusing on China, tens of thousands of students and workers take to the streets across the country. They fill Beijing's Tiananmen Square protesting for democracy.
Nightly News with Tom Brokaw reports daily about the building protests and the potential dangers ahead. Every day somebody at NN asks: “How many people are in the square?” Morning pigeons and afternoon pigeons are paid to smuggle videotapes onto planes headed west. This was to be Tom’s story. Whatever it took.
On June 4th, 1989, Swarms of Chinese soldiers parade into the Great Hall of the People. First they surround the square on foot then the tanks roll-in and unleash a deadly massacre. NBC cameraman Tony Wasserman and sound man Maurice Odello flee the carnage and seek refuge with a Chinese family, hiding under a bed.
The new reality is martial law. George Lewis reports for Nightly News that the cover is back on the birdcage. The same people who walked their birds and freely talked to journalists the previous week are silent. Cameraman Tony Wasserman captures the symbolic picture of the man facing down a tank. No words needed.
In a NBC Special, Tom reports; “it’s fair to say the capitol city is still up for grabs. The Chinese government issued a statement saying a “long and complicated struggle was to come.”
After this report, Tom hitchhikes his way to China, to witness first hand what was to come. Hand carrying much needed reinforcements for his exhausted team in the Beijing bureau-- margarita mix and guacamole, his presence re-energizes his “China-tired” troops.
Covering the crisis under martial law with a nationally known reporter could have been an insurmountable challenge. But Tony Wasserman came up with an ingenious plan-- Hide a home video camera in a box on the back of a bicycle. Tony would ride ahead of Tom on a bike recording video of Tom’s impressions. A chase car would record clean audio from Tom’s wireless mike. Another home video camera in the car would capture a second angle of Tom biking through the streets. The rest is history.
Yes Tom, the Beijing Spring will always be our first dance. Next stop, drinking wine out of paper cups after the SF earthquake then on to Berlin.
Behind the scenes, Tom is just what you would hope he would be in person. He is not only an exceptional journalist, but a man of rare character, compassion and a mean margarita maker. There is no doubt that working with Tom Brokaw has been the greatest privilege of my career. There is also no doubt, we have had a profound difference of opinion over what we need to carry, as we have chased headlines for Nightly News around the world together.
Tom is a “one-bag-overhead-compartment” kind of guy. I, on the other hand, think you should have as many outfits as possible at the ready, since you just don’t know what may happen or how long you will be there.
Over the years, I managed to stand my ground on the baggage front, even though I felt moments of excruciating tension as we would wait at the luggage carousel for my bags to roll down the ramp. The coup or war would just have to wait.
Tom, of course, would never fail to remind me I travelled with more luggage than the airport porters could handle. Back in New York, Tom would ever so kindly bring me the latest catalogues of “drip-dry wash in your hotel sink ready-to-wear.”
Not a chance.
Even when he would kindly let me know his wonderful wife, Meredith, managed to travel overseas with just an overhead bag, I would not be deterred.
One April night in 2002 in Amman, our baggage standoff finally came to a head. Tom had just finished anchoring our Nightly News program, and was flying back to New York.
I was headed next to Egypt, and he graciously offered to take one of my bags back to New York.
About an hour later, I was in a deep exhausted slumber when the phone rang in my hotel room.
It was 4 a.m.
It was Tom.
His voice was terse.
I thought the world must have come to an end.
“ML, I am at the airport security check point and the Royal Jordanian security agents want to know why I have Israeli bullets in my luggage. Actually, that would be your luggage.”
I felt I was having an out-of-body experience. Was this really Tom on the phone? Was this really happening? Oh, it was really happening.
Long story short. I had forgotten that about three weeks earlier, when I was in Israel covering the Intifada with our correspondent, Kevin Tibbles, we had picked up some Israeli bullets on the battle field as souvenirs. Back at the hotel, I had thrown them in a bag and forgotten all about them.
Tom was not amused by my story, but it was the truth.
Luckily, he managed to use his formidable Brokaw charm to get through security.
My bullets stayed behind.
To this day, Tom tells this story (much better than me) with great relish.
Needless to say, I have cut down on my packing when travelling with Tom.
And I make sure not to pack bullets.
I gave Tom Brokaw the shirt off my back.
On May 13th, 1981, Pope John Paul II was greeting the faithful in St. Peter's Square when an assailant shot him, leaving the Pontiff gravely wounded.
NBC parachuted a bunch of us into Rome. The day following the shooting, Tom arrived from New York barely in time to anchor the Today Show.
We were in an Italian studio that didn't have a view of St. Peter's Square, but it had a little blue screen where a picture from the square was electronically inserted behind the anchor using chroma key, the same technology that TV weather forecasters use to stand in front of their maps.
Unfortunately, Tom's shirt was the same color blue as that screen. On camera, the shirt became invisible and St. Peter's Square was bizarrely plastered all over Tom's chest. Much yelling ensued but Tom kept his cool, calling out to me, "Lewis, give me your shirt!" Mine was yellow.
I don't know what the Italian crew was muttering about the two crazy Americans hurriedly stripping off their shirts and swapping them, but Tom was able to anchor the Today Show without becoming the invisible man.
I am not sure I have any great stories that are truly my own -- but I guess I will pass along the legendary one that has gone down through the years as IndoPak vs. Sinatra. It was May 14, 1998 -- we learned that, at age 82, Sinatra had at last faced his final curtain.
At the 2:30 meeting, there was almost unanimous consent that this was the lede -- it was FRANK SINATRA!! The sole holdout, as I recall, was Tom. Why? Because also on that date, the New York Times had front page stories on what seemed to be an increasingly dangerous cat-and-mouse game with nukes between India and Pakistan.
Tom was adamant: Sinatra did NOT trump a nuclear showdown! To Tom, IndoPak was CLEARLY the lede; and as I recall, Tom could barely disguise the contempt in his voice as he declared to the rest of the room, pressing hard for Sinatra, "If there is one thing that viewers want to know, it's whether the world is a safe place!" and at one point, he turned to Chris Colvin and practically spat "Well, maybe not in YOUR Margarita circle!"
Long story short, after we all sat in the newsroom preparing this boring IndoPak show, sometime after 6pm, Tom relented: "okay, fine, it's Sinatra." And we led with Sinatra.
Shortly thereafter, by way of apology, Tom threw us a margarita party. And the story has lived on in infamy.
Indo-Pak Sinatra is clearly a newsroom story for the ages. Though remembering it is making me wonder what the hell he had against Sinatra in the first place. Somebody ask him!
I'm not sure if this photo goes with that tale or not, but there may be a way to button the 'margarita circle' line with the observation that I in fact considered him to be the Grand Poobah of my margarita circle, and here he is passing the torch to a new generation.. my son Peter, who may have been slightly underage.
My favorite memory of Tom? Latching on to his coattails in 1986…and never letting go. He made my life possible.
Tom and I were in Cairo to interview President Mubarak about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Afterwards, we were to be driven to the pyramids and the sphinx for the Nightly News broadcast. So excited to have Tom in its territory, the Cairo bureau staff ordered a Mercedes and driver rather than have us use the bureau driver in the serviceable-at-best bureau van. The crew was rightly concerned that the fancy pants hired driver wouldn't know the short cuts that the regular driver knew.
But the Mercedes was waiting for us. The crew went on ahead to set up. Sure enough, with a deadline approaching, the driver got us lost in a knot of cars, bicycles, buses, camels and people. The clock was ticking, my heart was racing, Tom’s patience was wearing thin. As our driver examined a map, crowds pushed to get a closer look at us. Tom stepped out of the car to try to see the pyramids and sphinx in the distance. He stepped right into a stinking sewage ditch and sank about a foot into the fetid slosh.
When the crowd realized we were Americans, they excitedly tried to embrace a very flustered Tom, yelling “Welcome to Cairo! Welcome to Cairo!” The sphinx appeared just in time. We had to shoot Tom from the shins up.
That cold night, November 9, 1989, Tom stood at the Berlin Wall. Suddenly East Germans climbed onto it as West Germans on the other side cheered them on. We were broadcasting live, the only American network team there. Neither one of us could believe what we were witnessing—me from the control room in New York, Tom standing at the Brandenburg Gate knowing he had the television scoop of a lifetime. I gave Tom producing directions in his earpiece as best I could on the fly. During breaks he kept shouting back to me as loudly as he could to be heard above the cheers of the crowds. “Cheryl! Cheryl! Can you believe this! They’re coming over the wall! This is unbelievable!” I was caught up in the moment as a producer making sure there were no on-air glitches; as a colleague excited for Tom that he was experiencing the historic moment while trouncing the competition; and as a fellow citizen sharing the moments with Tom, both of us overwhelmed that the greatest symbol of the Cold War was crashing down. I was awed by Tom’s ability to recognize the momentous import of this event while at the same time flawlessly adlibbing a play by play that stunned the world.
It was a long, overseas flight. Was it to the Philippines? Moscow? China? I don’t recall, but what I do remember was knowing that as soon as we landed we would need to hit the ground running. I sat beside Tom on the flight and asked that if I fell asleep and he were still up, please tell the flight attendant not to wake me for a meal. So imagine my surprise-- no, annoyance-- when hours later in mid-sleep, I felt an insistent wake up tap on my shoulder from my seatmate. What could be so important? Tom was always so considerate. Why was he disturbing my badly needed rest? Was I snoring and keeping him up? How embarrassing if that was it. He told me to rub the sleep from my eyes and look out the window into the northern night sky. There it was! Something I’d never seen before, nor since: the aurora borealis in all its glory!
I get chills remembering us with our noses pressed against the window before this most exhilarating of celestial phenomena. I don’t remember our assignment once we landed, but I will never forget the Northern Lights thanks to Tom’s thoughtfulness in ignoring my do-not-disturb request.
Here is one of mine from Managua, Nicaragua in 1984. In the photo Tom Brokaw with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry official Alejandro Bendaña and myself.
We were going over the details of the coverage of the situation in Nicaragua where the U.S backed Contras where waging war against the Sandinista government. Ortega had been reluctant to give interviews so I parked myself in the waiting room of his press man. ABC also was asking for access but when I explained to the press guy that we were bringing in our anchor, Tom Brokaw, to do the story they gave us the exclusive and plenty of access.
As you may know, Tom and I met at KNBC in 1966, but you may not know that Merrily’s keen eye for talent (she married me after all) played a role in his first anchor position in Los Angeles.
Merrily’s first job at KNBC was a position working for Bob Howard, who at the time was the General Manager at KNBC. When asked by him what she thought of Tom, there was no hesitation when she said, “He’s going to go far at this network”. That was 51 years ago…who knew?
Tom is a very generous person. I can remember coming back from the memorial services in Houston for our astronauts lost in that tragic accident at Cape Kennedy…Tom and one of Nightly’s producers, and myself, were at the airport waiting to board our plane back to New York. Given Tom’s celebrity, the boarding gate agent called Tom to board first. From the surprised look on his face, I assumed he was slightly embarrassed at this kind of attention. But when I boarded the plane a few minutes later, there was Tom helping other passengers lift their carry-on bags into the overhead bins. Another job well done by Duncan the Wonder Horse!
In the fall of 1994, our son Scott applied to Stanford University. He was a nationally known gymnast who had already turned down four athletic scholarships, hoping his first choice, Stanford, would come through. Unbeknownst to my family, Tom wrote a beautiful letter introducing Scott to the president of Stanford. With over 15 thousand applications, the gist of Tom’s letter was the hope that Scott’s application ‘not get lost’. Whether or not that letter helped Scott gain admission to Stanford we’ll never know. Months later, while I was in the newsroom preparing for that evenings broadcast, I got a call from the gymnastics coach confirming his admission and his place on the team.
You can imaging how excited I was, but when I told Tom of my just completed conversation, this wonderful smile lit up his face and he gave me two thumbs up. He really liked Scott and to this day they still stay in touch.
It was 1988, and Tom was headed to Hickory Hill, (McLean, Virginia) for a rare interview with Ethel Kennedy about that awful June night twenty years before. Somebody thought Tom needed a producer. Somehow, I got the assignment.
It was a vintage Brokaw interview, probing questions… thoughtful answers. I took copious notes. Every response contained multiple soundbites.
As we left the house, we saw a couple of young Kennedys throwing a football around on that famous, sprawling lawn. One of them tossed it to Tom, who threw it to one of the others a bit further away…tight spiral, chest high.
Then, as if to demonstrate that the first throw wasn’t a fluke, he got the ball back and threw another bullet.
Nervous about what might happen next, I slipped my hands into my pockets and eased on over to the car.
I had the privilege of meeting Tom the first time I worked for NBC News in 1987 in Beijing. Tom and a large contingent from NBC News descended on The People’s Republic of China for a week of broadcasts aptly named CHANGING CHINA. Word got out from the American Embassy that NBC News was looking for runners. My Mandarin was respectable at the time, and I was hired.
Tom had just returned from Tibet, where NBC News had been given approval to shoot a story on Tibet Tourism. He and Meredith did have a unique visit to a rarely seen land and the images the cameraman captured were almost surreal. But it was another image that stirred the strongest emotions from all sides. Tom showed a picture of the Dalai Lama to Tibetans, who fell prostrate to the ground at the sight of their beloved exiled leader. The Chinese officials had an opposite reaction, none too pleased at what had transpired. Tom’s piece on Tibet was something else. No one reported from Tibet. It was like opening a door to a past time and was both beautiful and heartbreaking. I was in awe of Tom and his whole team and wanted to follow in their footsteps. Those of us who lived in Beijing were sure there would be serious repercussions and thought the project might even be cancelled. But as far as we knew, nothing happened and this lowly runner didn’t personally hear anything. Until a decade later.
I joined NBC News full-time in 1989 in New York. In 1997 I became NBC News Bureau Chief in Hong Kong, and was invited to a lunch hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After a very nice, very long meal, as we were leaving, one of our hosts pulled me aside and asked “Do you know Mr. Tom Brokaw?” I answered yes, to which he replied: “He showed a picture of the Dalai Lama to people in Tibet. That was not good. He should not have done that”. I waited for him to say something else, and when he didn’t, I thanked him for a good meeting and lovely meal, shook his hand and left. I didn’t have the heart to tell him good luck telling Tom Brokaw he can’t do something.
I have had the privilege over the years of shooting D-Day pieces with Tom Brokaw, in beautiful and gastronomically blessed Normandy.
The team for the 40th anniversary special in 1984, when I was based in Paris, included Tom, Mark Kusnetz, Paul Greenberg, Tony Wasserman/Roy Meyer and Brian Prentke/Andre Morize, along with several remarkable Normandy veterans. Andre and I accompanied Tom to the beach below Pointe du Hoq, the famous Rangers’ cliff, in a Zodiac dinghy. I set up on the beach with the camera kit while Andre went back to get Tom and Mark from the Zodiac. As the dinghy reached the beach, I stepped out to grab the bow and, oops, slipped and fell into deeper water (not with the camera, thank goodness). Tom didn’t miss a beat and stepped out of the boat onto my shoulder as I went under the waves. I emerged, soaking wet, and carried on shooting the standups and b-roll. Andre was none too impressed with my lack of chic but we got the job done.
I was lucky enough to work with Tom again in Normandy in 1994, 2004, 2009 and finally the 70th anniversary in 2014, when we shot a very moving interview on the beach with one of the last surviving veterans. We were all a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser, but no less in awe of the courage and determination on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Working with Tom and the veterans has been a highlight of my career and the interviews themselves were life affirming. The icing on the cake was shooting Tom receiving the Legion d’honneur in Paris last year, an honour well deserved by the chronicler of The Greatest Generation.
The first time I saw Tom Brokaw work was on the morning of August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned the presidency. I wasn’t working for NBC News at the time. I was a reporter for a small newspaper in Central New Jersey who, with two friends, had driven all night to get a glimpse of history. After walking around the White House, we crossed into Lafayette Park where network crews were preparing for morning show live shots. I had never seen something like this so I watched intently the preparation, the production and ultimately the live shot.
Tom stood out. Here, in this swirl, this historical event, he was calm and measured. Not oblivious to what was happening, but more at the center. He interviewed a White House official, previewed the days events, including Nixon’s departure, Ford’s swearing in and the fact –the essential fact—that the republic would go on. The Constitution had worked. We were safe. I was deeply impressed not just by his professionalism, but by something else: his patriotism. He understood his role in the nation, his responsibility as an American.
I saw that many times as big events unfolded during my 23 years working with him on Nightly News. No matter how bad things looked, the republic was safe, it would work out. Of course, that was never more true than on 9-11. He, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather held the country together as the President criss-crossed the country. Years later, we had a conversation about “Band of Brothers,” the HBO series that was running during the aftermath of 9-11. I told him that I couldn’t watch, that no matter how great it was, it was too much coming after the attacks. Tom replied that he had watched it avidly because, he said, it helped him understand we as a nation had been through worse and would survive.
Covering the Olympics is always an amazing experience and Atlanta was unique for both the thrill of the games themselves and the seriousness of the Centennial Bombing. Working with Tom has been one of the highlights of my life and along with the hard work there is always a bit of fun too!
At the 1996 Olympics, Tom interviewed Carl Lewis on the streets of Atlanta and a huge crowd began to converge on the walking interview (imagine scene from Rocky).
When the interview was finished, everyone got in their respective cars and said their goodbyes. On our way back to our workspace though we found a box in the car, opened it and realized Carl Lewis left one of his Gold Medals behind. Of course we did the right thing and returned it but not before having a little fun ourselves. To me Tom Brokaw is the epitome of a gold medal guy.
Berlin: November 9, 1989.
“Tom, I think he just said the Berlin wall has come down, " I whispered, trying to grasp what was unravelling during a rambling, smoke-filled news conference, hosted by the ill prepared East German spokesman, Gunther Schabowski .
Moments later, while the world’s media scrambled to make sense of Schabowski’s statements, Tom slid elegantly into action. It was to Mr. Brokaw that he exclusively confirmed the news.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I'd call that the Brokaw effect.
It’s a magical thing when you work alongside someone and things just seem to gel, to flow. And for the occasions I had the privilege of working with Tom, he was certainly that person for me, big time.
With Tom, it just seemed so effortless. And in Berlin, we were on a roll.
Tom’s Schabowski interview ricocheted around the world. He was the only American anchor broadcasting live from the wall throughout that tumultuous, ecstatic night. We moved on to another first, scoring an interview with former East German Stasi spy master, Markus Wolf: a probe conducted with the minimum fuss and signature, self-assured grace of Mr. Brokaw.
When Tom returned to witness the German unification the following year, he had his sights set on a notoriously elusive get: another spy, Wolf’s top agent, Gunter Guillaume. This Stasi mole had been working in the West German Chancellor’s office, and his unmasking in 1974 caused a scandal that forced Chancellor Willy Brandt's resignation. Following a prison spell, Guillaume had been exchanged back to East Germany as part of a spy swap.
After a few heart sinking moments in fear of failure, I thought ‘why not’? This was for Tom.
So, after jumping through a few hoops (or to be more precise, over a few garden walls) and slipping carefully crafted notes under his door, we got it! Of course we did.
Things happen when Tom’s around.
How lucky am I to have been there for any of it.
I met Tom Brokaw for the first time on April 19, 1975. He was then NBC’s White House correspondent and the anchor of the Saturday edition of NBC Nightly News. I was on my first producing assignment for the network.
What brought the two of us together that day was NBC’s coverage of the 200th anniversary of the Battles of Concord and Lexington - the beginning of the American Revolution.
Tom had arrived in Concord feeling under the weather. But he went right to work with the rest of us, covering the elaborate ceremonies, President Ford’s subsequent remarks and a large demonstration by Vietnam War protestors.
By mid-afternoon, after filming Tom’s introductions, we boarded a charter flight for New York, where we were to edit our work. Tom took a seat, closed his eyes and tried to get some rest.
But a big problem had developed. Our pilot was told that he couldn’t take off because President Ford had extended his stay and the airspace in the area remained closed. We would have to wait him out.
Eventually, Ford left. But the delay meant that we weren't able to arrive at NBC until less than an hour before airtime. When our film came out of the processor, all of us, including a still-ailing Tom, worked furiously to make the top of the show.
As Nightly News opened, our edited material was still being loaded on the playback projector. Then, it rolled. Momentarily, Tom appeared on the screen, followed by some of the sweetest words I had ever heard: "Good evening…from Concord, Massachusetts." It had been THIS close, but we had made air!
I learned plenty that day, not the least of which is that when the going gets tough, professionals like Tom Brokaw get the job done. Even when they aren’t feeling well.
I’ve been Tom’s executive assistant for 10 years. For a man who’s going to be 77 in about a week, it’s almost impossible to keep up with him – or keep track of him! Every day, I have a little favorite memory of him --- a little cloud of dust in his path --- as I run after with his NBC I.D., his glasses, or his boarding passes. But just this Christmas, we had a little surprise, when Tom decided he was going to take care of me and our nearby office colleagues nearby at 30 Rock.
He got us a cappuccino maker…and we had a contest to name our little appliance “The Brew-kaw”!
Anchorman Tom Brokaw REALLY enjoyed getting away from the studio and reporting “in the field.” I was privileged to work with Tom and camera crews as one of his field producers, literally spanning the globe. We did the war on drugs in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the war on drugs in in Bogota, Columbia. From the roof of the world – Tibet – the story of China’s cultural war on The Dalai Lama’s Buddhist homeland. From a frigid outpost in Afghanistan, reporting in the early years when the success of the U.S. mission seemed tantalizingly close.
My fondest memory was in 1989 when NBC News was the only network reporting live the night the Berlin Wall fell. Near the end of one of several broadcasts, celebrating Germans chipped away at the wall with pick axes. During a commercial, I grabbed a shard from the wall and handed it to Tom. Not, a minute later he held it up to the camera and used it as a metaphor, deftly woven through his analysis of Soviet communism’s long attempt to dominate post World War II Eastern Europe, an attempt which ended in failure that night. The commentary was so insightful and delivered so smoothly, viewers might have thought it was carefully crafted in advance and delivered with the aid of a teleprompter. But it wasn’t. It was spontaneous. In my eyes, this was Tom’s finest hour.
Tom Brokaw may be America’s anchorman and the author of America’s Greatest Generation but he is also my friend. Tom knows my kids names, where they went to college and what sports they played.
He knows these things because he cares about the people he asks to go to places that people shouldn’t have to go to and see things they shouldn’t have to see.
It is said that soldiers don’t go to war for god or country but for their buddies. We go with Tom not because the company told us to but because Tom asked. If Tom asked, it’s important and that is enough for us. And on these trips, you will be regaled with stories about world leaders and celebrities not in an attempt to impress but rather to inform and entertain. In any environment, a tent, tank or plane, he told stories and we loved them. You always felt privileged to be part of this inner circle, to be the recipient of this knowledge.
Yes, Tom Brokaw is our moral compass in the news business. But most importantly he is my friend, and the Scotch and two glasses are always at the ready for my friend.
Tom, grieving himself, held us together when he took the helm at Meet the Press after Tim Russert died. We were all in shock. Tom anchored "Meet" for a year, steadying all of us in the bureau and our viewers alike. But perhaps the "Tom" memory I cherish most of all is being with him at Normandy, covering the commemoration that first inspired him to undertake writing "The Greatest Generation," and then when he returned for the 70th anniversary in 2014. Tom was weak from chemotherapy, and uncomplaining but understandably tired. Yet he spun his glorious tales of valor and courage from the predawn special coverage to the end of Nightly News at 1am. Writing the lead for Nightly, he painted stunning word pictures that perfectly captured the poignancy of this last great commemoration for an aging generation of veterans. And he was a magnet for the frail onetime warriors, unfailingly attentive, standing tall as they rushed to shake his hand and share their stories, each seemingly strengthened in the retelling. At the end of the day, we sat on the Nightly set on the edge of the American cemetery, the white crosses lit by moonlight behind us. It was a hallowed place, made even more significant by Tom's presence. A storyteller for all time, and all places.
Always a voice for inclusion, one of Tom's most memorable Nightly News reports was in December, 2015 after Donald Trump announced his original Muslim ban. After spending three hours getting chemo in New York, Tom set out to show that the ban would, in his words, "override history, the law, and the foundation of America itself." Flying to Washington, Brokaw sketched out a simple, yet profound, thesis that began with the internment of law-abiding Japanese-Americans during World War II, continued through Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt in the 1950's, and went on to point out that the jihadists are a radical minority in a world of a billion and a half Muslims. He chose to tell the story at Arlington Cemetery, ending it at the grave of Kareem Khan, a Muslim who responded to 9/11 by joining the Army to prove that not all Muslims are fanatics. Just 20 years old, Khan was killed in Iraq in 2007. Tom's closing admonition: "Mister Trump cannot exclude him from America. He has a permanent home here in Section 60, at Arlington National Cemetery."
Later that night I was at the German Embassy in Washington as the Ambassador honored Tom with that country's highest civilian honor. It was for his entire career, but most memorably, for an extraordinary Nightly News broadcast in November 1989. Tom was the only American anchoring an evening newscast in front of the Brandenburg Gate as the Berlin Wall was coming down just behind him. At the time, the Ambassador was a young diplomat at the German UN mission in NY, watching with his countrymen as the Communist East finally crumbled under the weight of tyranny. They learned of it from Tom, as did the rest of the world, just as Tom has always been our narrator of the first draft of history, our touchstone, our guardian of the sounds of freedom against the forces of totalitarianism.
From the shores of Normandy to streets of Beijing one of my fondest memories of Tom happened in London while covering the 2012 Summer Olympics. Phelps was the buzzword and many were wondering whether he could win another gold in the Men’s 100m Butterfly.
We got a break in the morning -Tom was handed two tickets to Men's Swimming where Phelps would be performing. Come on Steph - let's go!
The hike from the International Broadcast Center to the Aquatics venue was long - an hour through the Olympic village but we were thrilled to be seeing “the flying fish” in action. When we finally reached the entrance, Tom proudly presented the tickets to the teller who said - "Mr. Brokaw... I'm afraid these are the right tickets but the wrong time. They’re for tonight's event at 7 pm! The expression on his face was priceless!
We laughed our way out but it was the journey back that was most memorable. I had the privilege to listen to one of the greatest & prolific storytellers …a man who has lived life to the fullest - from the battlefields to the homeland. We talked about our families, life and the amazing job we have as journalists.
Congratulations, Tom! It's been an honor to work for you - a man with such integrity, compassion and humanity! Your voice - steady, firm & reassuring will always find a place in the public domain and in our hearts.
The saddest day of my life was in 2004 when Tom left “Nightly”. Tom and I have both shared 50 years at NBC this year. YIKES!!
This picture is from 2004 when Tom left “Nightly”. Tom is and will always be smart, funny, charming and gracious.
Thanks Tom for sharing half a century at the “ole Peacock” with me.
The Berlin Wall
It is so hard to choose which TB story to share. I have worked on the show for a while and have many fond memories of the stories we have covered in this country and around the world, but my favorite story was the night the Berlin Wall came down.
We went to Germany in November 1989 to cover political changes in the air. When we arrived the night before to set up our location, the area was desolate, a ghost town except for a few guards on the Wall and a man playing an instrument. The next night, November 9, 1989, was historic.
Tom and producer Marc Kusnetz had found out earlier in the day, that as of midnight, the Wall was in essence down. We were set up at the Wall for our broadcast and as we approached air time, the crowds gathered and people were climbing on top of the Wall. The sound and cheering were deafening. I wasn’t sure if Tom could hear the NY control room talking to him. I wasn’t sure if they were going to rush our platform.
Once we had a moment to reflect the historic nature of what happened I took some photos on the wall with some co-workers.
I was so proud to be a witness to this history with Tom, our entire team on the ground and our entire News organization for being the first on the scene that night.
My khaki-panted-epaulette-salad days as a foreign correspondent and how TB came to the rescue.
My first posting with NBC News was in the London bureau, which essentially meant spending your life riding the range trying to dodge trouble in, well, far flung trouble spots where all you are doing is asking for is trouble by showing up in the first place.
This place was Iraq.
In the fabled ‘Ministry of Information’ building in Baghdad, sometime late in the evening, we got word the cruise missiles had been launched. Flak jacket and helmet in hand I raced to the roof where the ‘oily rags’ (the crew) had erected a satellite dish and a tent to house the gear. They pretty much lived in the tent.
They’d also erected an impressive castle out of empty Heineken cans.
Just imagine how skunky a beer would taste after baking for months in the 130 degree heat. In any case, much energy and moolah was spent acquiring it!
As the air strikes aimed at the heart of the mustachioed one’s regime approached; I stood at the ready.
Now, everyone knew, Nightly News came on at 6.30. Apparently Saddam was a viewer too!
At precisely 6.30 pm every anti-aircraft gun on the roof blasted away. White with fear I decided to take a deafened stab at it.
Heck, it was only my career. If Brokaw can do this stuff, so can Tibbles.
“Tom! Tom!” I cried. “This is Kevin Tibbles in Baghdad and everything has just lit up!” I was scared to death. Mr. Brokaw calmly and instructively asked me to take a breath and describe the chaos. His voice and demeanor saved me. He listened. He guided me through it.
It was only after he had politely moved on to the next report that the control room screamed into my ear, “Tibbles! You’ve got your helmet on backwards! And get those damned beer cans out of the shot!"
Tango Bravo (Tom Brokaw) just sent a little note after the show saying ‘nice one’. From that moment I would have walked on hot coals for him (and I did!).
When we arrived in Mogadishu in 1991 it was a city broken by civil war, divided by warlords, where there was no electricity or running water, in a country overwhelmed by a drought and famine.
There was a total sense of chaos. One afternoon was particularly dangerous: teenage gunmen were terrorizing the city, there had been rock throwings and shootings all day. We covered a major attack on a truck full of peasants coming in from the country. Later that night Tom and I headed out to the anchor location at the airport, about a half hour from where we were staying. It was midnight and almost time for Nightly News.
As the driver headed towards the location in the eerily quiet, dark city, we were stopped by French Gendarmes who had checkpoints throughout the capitol. The Gendarmes told us that we shouldn’t go any further, it was too dangerous. But of course, we had to get to the anchor location.
When I was beginning to travel to areas in crisis around the world, it was so comforting to be with Tom. After all, he had been to so many places gripped by anarchy and terror, he knew how to carefully navigate bleak and dangerous situations.
As we passed the Gendarmes who warned us and continued on to the airport, Tom and I sat in the back seat, wearing our flak jackets, in silence.
Tom—my mentor, the person who guided me and so many others, who gave us confidence and comfort through these kinds of situations—turned to me with an odd smile on his face, and said an unexpected thing: “Philly, what the f****** are we doing here?”
On a muggy June night in 1985, Tom and I waited for Hezbollah gunmen on a sandbagged West Beirut street corner. It was long past 8pm, the time the Shi’a militants had promised to lead us - blindfolded - to where they held 39 Americans hostage. This would be their third no-show in as many nights. ABC News, meanwhile, was flaunting exclusive access to the TWA 847 hijackers and their victims. Tom was livid. ‘I’m beginning to feel like the f****** Thomas Hearns of network news,’ he half-joked on the walk back to the Commodore bar. Later came the knock-out blow…news of an imminent release, confirmed by some hostages to ABC at Beirut’s Summerland Hotel.
Never has anyone morphed from a Baileys Blur to his A-Game faster than Brokaw that night. Within the hour, he’d thrown himself in front of the last Hezbollah minibus leaving the Summerland with hostages - enough for a quick Q & A through an open window and a network special. On a tip they were heading to the Damascus Sheraton and a flight to Germany, Tom sped across the Bekaa Valley and, for ‘Today’, dominated the first press conference by the freed hostages - even finessing it into a conversation with NBC’s anchor.
Unlike Thomas Hearns, Tango Bravo got HIS rematch. And - typically - nailed it.
Susan La Salla
“Do you know where Edward Bennett Wiiliams box is at Kennedy Stadium”?
Those were the first words that Tom Brokaw spoke to me right after he arrived in Washington to be the White House correspondent in 1973.
My immediate thought: “Who is this guy” who asks me - David Brinkley’s PA and probably earning $1.00 an hour how to get to an owners box at a football stadium.
From that meeting, our relationship grew..personally and professionally. I’ll always remember my first invitation to the
Brokaw home for dinner. I showed up with flowers, wine and candy…none of which I could afford. Meredith answered the door with her usual graciousness and I could immediately tell that that Tom had not told her of the invitation..Despite that, the friendship continued to grow and I have the great honor of being Sarah Brokaw’s godmother.
I have often told Tom that had he not married Meredith Auld he would be on his fourth wife.
Over the years Tom always watched over me with his advice and guidance. Two that stand out: “Get a financial adviser”
I responded that i have no $$$ to invest and he said “Find it” ..Also, wherever you travel internationally “Buy ONE nice thing." Wonderful advice on both fronts.
Over the decades we covered politics, primaries, debates, conventions, wars, hurricanes. It was Tom who helped the techs schlepp wet sand bags from the shore in Kuwait City during Liberation up ten stories to secure the satellite dish on a rooftop. It was Tom who always asked about colleagues parents, a sick child and/or remembered a special occasion.
Along the way, there were many practical jokes. I subscribe to the ML Flynn theory of not traveling light..why should you? especially when you can throw a shoe duffel in with the gear.
Tom exemplifies everything that is right and honorable about NBC News and how lucky we all are to have been part of his team to eyewitness history.
Tom and I share Omaha roots. We both stumbled into television at the same NBC (now CBS) affiliate, KMTV. Years later, while on assignment in Saudi Arabia, we were in an opulent, diamond encrusted room, setting up for an interview with the Saudi Foreign Minister. I was on my knees looking for an outlet when Brokaw says to me, Œthis is a long way from Omaha, isn¹t it?¹ I¹m thankful that he never forgot his roots. My daughter went to school at the University of Iowa which still claims him as a favorite son.
We¹ve gone back to Yankton several times to interview his school mates and relatives. What amazed me most was his recall ability. While interviewing Warren Buffet at his Omaha office, Tom stopped to ask Buffet about a picture of former St. Louis Cardinal Bob Gibson. Before Buffet could answer, he turned to me and said, Œhey, didn¹t your dad play basketball with Gibson?¹ Keep in mind, the conversation about my family with Tom had occurred more than three years prior. I was really bowled over that he¹d remember and even more shocked when Buffet could recite the entire starting line-up from that year¹s Creighton BlueJays. I guess that¹s what makes those guys so special is their ability to remember, put things in context for us and assure us that everything will be okay. It¹s been many years since I first heard Tom¹s voice come through my headphones. But, it¹s always a point of honor to be with him and to contribute to his greatness.
1982 war-torn Beirut and producing for Tom Brokaw. I quickly learn; "you are only as good as your driver."
The city had been under siege for weeks, an assortment of militias control the streets.
Driver Joseph gets us past Phalangist checkpoints in the East. Armenian driver Tony speeds across the green line into Palestinian controlled West Beirut.
There driver Omar knows many of the young bearded men with AK-47's who stop our car. Windows roll down and we say "saahaafi, saahaafi"... Arabic for "I'm a journalist".
The legendary Commodore Hotel is our destination , there manager Fouad welcomes us. "Ah, Tom Brokaw , NBC Nightly News, Nice to have you in Beirut. "
On the Commodore rooftop Tom records the anchor headlines.
TONIGHT THE PLO IS TRAPPED IN BEIRUT BY THE ISRAELI ARMY.
ISRAELI JETS RAIN BOMBS ON CITY TARGETS .
The explosions close enough that we frequently dive for cover.
Tom insists we balance our coverage, We must include the Israeli perspective.
"Can we get to Jerusalem tonight? " he asks. "
From Beirut it's 147 miles south to 'Dixie." In Lebanon, Dixie is the code name for Israel.
NBC's Tel Aviv bureau is sending their best driver Amikum. He'll come up to East Beirut where Israelis forces are dug in.
A few hours later , Amikum arrives not in East Beirut but in West Beirut. He has driven to the Commodore. He's in the van outside with Israeli plates. Israeli plates in West Beirut! This is definitely a first.
We load up our gear trying to be quick and discreet. Amikum drives as we all question: "Amikum, How will we get past the crazy checkpoints? "
Amikum turns sharply left, then right, the speed increases , our heads bump the roof of the van. "Don't worry", he says the Israeli soldiers told me a safe road! " and we are on it, we are speeding down the runway of Beirut International Airport.
The tarmac ends and we off-road over a ditch. We shout "Go Amikum!" We're on the road south.
The road to Jerusalem turns calm and uneventful. We arrive and set-up our camera for an 11:30 pm broadcast. The ancient city walls are our backdrop. New York will love it.
Then at 11:00 pm as we are rehearsing there is a crisis. The lights go off, the city is dark. What do we do now? Our eyes turn toward our driver Amikum.
He is shouting, he's on the phone and now he's talking to the mayor and within moments the wall is lit. The lights are back on. Just in time for the broadcast.
We learn later the lights shut off each night at 11:00 pm .
There were many road trips with Brokaw in Kuwait during the Gulf War, Somalia and Kosovo during the Balkan conflict, Teheran, Cairo, Manila, Beijing, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The same rule applied each trip: "you are only as good as your driver" and for NBC road trips the best driver of all is Tom Brokaw.
In spring 2002, I was asked to be part of the team going to Lebanon with Tom to cover the Arab Summit. While there, a series of suicide bombings rocked Israel, with one of the deadliest killing over a dozen people at a Passover dinner in Netanya. Tom, ML Flynn, Eric Wishnie, Megan Rady, David Jackson and I were dispatched to Israel right away.
On the second day, while shooting in Jerusalem at the West Wall, a group began throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, prompting the soldiers to fire their weapons while the large crowd scrambled in fear. Under a veil of complete calmness, we shot Tom’s stand-up as the chaos was unraveling all around him…truly the stuff that legends are made of. Tom then said, “Boys, we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we need to get out of here right now.”
Suicide bombers continued to hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv while we gathered elements each day for Nightly News. On our third or fourth day in the ancient city of Jaffa, just minutes after our live broadcast of Nightly News, we were ready to do the west coast update when a low yet powerful thud sounded. This bomb was closer. Tom, known for his unwavering concern for his entire crew, told the control room without a moment of hesitation that we would not be doing an update this night, saying, “I need to get my guys off the streets.” We would have stayed. We would have gone LIVE as many times as requested—but Tom put us first. We remained in Israel for several more weeks with sporadic bombings (now further in the distance), but our team felt safe and confident in our daily pursuits, knowing that Tom had our backs.
In the 18+ years that I directed Nightly News, TV technology changed unbelievably. We went from a time when our entire audience had to watch our broadcast at a specific time on a stationary, heavy, clunky TV set with a cathode ray picture tube, to being able to reach audiences who could see us at any time on the phone in their pocket.
One technology change that made an indelible memory for me was when "plasma screens," the first flat screen TVs, became light enough and cheap enough that we could hang them right on the front of our studio cameras. This was the early 2000s and it was a fairly big deal as it would allow Tom to see what was going on almost directly in his line of sight. Previously he'd had to look off camera to a large, heavy monitor mounted on a rolling cart.
I will never forget the first day we put them in to use. Tom and I agreed that it was a major upgrade that would help us be able to do the broadcast better. Where we disagreed was what should be seen in them. I felt that the monitors should show the program output of the control room so Tom could always see what was going on TV without needing to avert his eyes. Tom felt they should be used as a "vanity" monitor, showing the direct output of the camera. (Vanity monitors are a very common practice in the TV business and even though the name would suggest that it is an egotistical choice, they are very practical and help anchors know how they're being framed and how they appear on camera at any time)
Tom mostly trusted us with the operational details of the broadcast and disagreements were rare. That and the fact that his name was on the logo, and mine was not, meant that Tom would get his way.
Most of the broadcast went fine that day. It was only when we hit the last commercial block that something began to go wrong. You see broadcasting, and Nightly in particular, was as natural as breathing for Tom. He was involved in every editorial decision and wrote or edited nearly every word. Because he was so relaxed, Tom usually spent commercial breaks rewriting or editing copy or communicating with colleagues about all manner of things. Paying attention to his stage manager “Vito” or me the director was reserved for the last moment when the urgency in Vito’s voice changed to indicate it was time to pay attention. It was not unusual for Tom to ignore us all until the very last second. Only then would he look up, deliver the script perfectly, then, as soon as the “tally” light indicated he was off, immediately turn away to resume whatever he'd been involved in.
So it didn’t strike us as unusual when Tom showed no response to the time cues. “Ten seconds!” Judy Farinet (the best associate director in the history of television) counted down, “5 - 4 - 3 – 2 – 1!” “Fade up on (camera) two…cue Tom!” I said. But Tom did not look up. He continued looking down at whatever had been occupying him during the break. “Cue him!” I never shout, but made an exception as I implored to Vito. But Vito’s headset had stopped working in the break. He didn’t hear us and neither did Tom. It took nearly three seconds to recognize this but in live TV time that feels like three weeks.
“Go!” I said in an urgent whisper into Tom’s earpiece. His head snapped up immediately, as he realized that ten million people were probably looking at the top of his head. He looked up at camera one, it was directly in his line of sight and his image was clearly visible on our new vanity monitors. So he began to deliver the introduction to that night’s closing piece. The only problem was, I had called for camera two and now millions of Americans were watching their favorite anchor’s right ear as he read the news in perfect profile. “Get him to two!” I demanded of Vito, who wasn’t really hearing me. But about this time, a sentence or two into the introduction (a short eternity) it sank in to both Tom and Vito that the red, tally light that indicates which camera is on air was not illuminated on the camera he was facing. Meanwhile in the control room, I was now sure that Tom was never going to turn to camera two.
“Take one!” I shouted. Just as Tom, with comedic timing that the Marx Brothers would be proud of, turned his head to camera two. Now America was being treated to Tom’s left ear as he tried to focus on the copy and the story he was introducing, while aware that something was still amiss.
He realized what had happened and once again, with split second precision, just as he decided to remedy the problem by facing to the other camera, I called, “take two!” Back to Tom’s right ear beaming into millions of homes.
Now both Tom and I realized this had to be fixed so once again, men of action that we both were, we changed to the other camera at the exact same time! In 15 eternal seconds, America had a full tour of Tom Brokaw’s head, all except the front of his face.
Fortunately it was a feature piece and not a serious tale of death and destruction because by the time we got in sync and Tom was facing the right camera, there were only a few words left in his copy. And good-natured as he is, he couldn’t keep a straight face.
Most of all, we walked away with a good laugh, a funny memory and a tale to tell.
My friend the late Eric Wishnie, Tom Brokaw's producer for many years, tried out a handful of nicknames for Tom, but the only one that stuck was "TBone." To Team Brokaw, “TBone" was the South Dakota wanderer; he was the adventurer who emerged from each field shoot, no matter how challenging, and insisted on tracking down the best local fare—from Memphis ribs to East Jerusalem falafel. TBone huddled the team as we traveled to the Iowa Caucuses and shared that we had to make a quick "reporting" pitstop—complete with beer and brats at Lambeau Field. TBone made sure we got ahold of a gruff South Dakota cattle rancher to talk midterm politics and plotted a little pheasant-scouting on the side. And he always made sure that any forest fire coverage was capped with a trip to the Pacific in a bright yellow mustang convertible.
My tagalong adventures with Tom began in 2000 when he hired me as his researcher. Over five subsequent rollercoaster news years, I came to know Tom as the most natural journalist and mentor I'll ever know, and perhaps equally admirably, the most avid adventure-seeker to boot. He left soldiers, waiters, flight attendants, taxi drivers and gas station attendants agog as he enjoyed the world like the rest of us. I learned that for TBone, the point of the adventure was very simply to enjoy the quietest reporting—listening without the camera and boom hovering. TBone, we’ve all been so very fortunate to be along for the ride.
There was never any doubt in my mind that I had the best job in the world when I was lucky enough to work for America's News Anchor, Tom Brokaw. For more than two decades, I had a front seat to history... the exclusive Gorbachev interview in the Kremlin... the fall of the Berlin wall... Mandela's release when I brought Tom's scripts at midnight to our anchor position in a garage in the then crime-ridden Soweto... to a miscalculated landing in a C.O.D. on a US carrier with the Navy staff below anxiously awaiting Tom's arrival (the second landing worked)... or getting to share Normandy with him for the 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries.
I never minded when I was ready and dressed for a date in my home and instead got a call from that wonderful baritone voice saying, "Pack your bags, I think there may be a coup in Moscow," or "Can you find a house in Normandy where Hanks, Spielberg, and the Brokaws can stay and each have their own quarters." He was always grateful for all that I did and that meant more to me than anything because I felt honored to do whatever it took to get him on the air.
I could always get him from A to B. He never complained about working conditions, delayed flights, wrong airports, or hotels. Except for the time in South Africa at 4AM when he had been up for more than 36 hours and the hotel manager in a seemingly sold out hotel took Tom to a room and all the furniture inside including the bed and mattress were propped up against the wall. Instead, he wound up sharing a room with the NBC engineers, happy to have a place to sleep.
Even when Tom was getting ready to interview a great statesman or famous personality, he always had time for your interests. For example, Harrison Ford was at Tom's first book party and I was apparently swooning. That night at 2am I got an email from Tom saying Harrison had asked for my phone number. Very funny, Tom.
I got to see the world through the eyes of the man I have the greatest admiration and respect for. There is no day that I had greater respect or needed his strength and wisdom more than 9/11, when he led NBC and his TV audience with calm assurances.
Those of us who work with Tom know what a special person he is. We are all better people for having shared any part of the journey with this amazing man ... and very good friend.
My most striking memories of working with Tom involved of our stories covering inner city violence.
In 1989, in the midst of horrific gang violence driven by crack cocaine, we were in the streets of South Central LA shooting ‘Gangs, Cops & Drugs’. The fear & danger on the streets were tangible. I was impressed with how Tom was able to gain the trust of Bitter Child, a Crip & drug dealer. Tom was remarkable in the way in which he challenged & delved into the life of the gang member.
In 1991 we were in East LA where gun violence had erupted & we were witness to the carnage. We saw the community through the eyes of Father Greg Boyle, a street smart priest set on offering real answers to the poverty while having to bury the dead. Tom brought out Father Greg’s passion & shined a light on a world few outside the inner city knew.
Then in 1993 we focused on a single mother desperately trying to keep her 13-year-old son alive in a gang-infested Chicago neighborhood. Tom’s kind, caring way of interviewing them evoked heart-wrenching insights into life at the center of the carnage.
Tom was intent on telling these stories from the ground up, giving a voice & humanity to those caught in the crossfire. I am a better journalist because of Tom.
From Russia with Love
Tom's long and important relationship with Russia kicked off in 1987 with his much heralded interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the first American journalist to interview this game-changing Soviet president. It was two years in the making by NBC's secret weapon Gordon Manning and was arguably one of the biggest "gets" in the network news world. Tom continued to own the Russian story during the years of glasnost and perestroika and looked for every opportunity to return to Russia.
Five years later, I arrived in Moscow and watched from Red Square as the hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the final time and the Russian flag was hoisted above the Kremlin. What an exciting and turbulent time was to come for the Russian people. Tom returned to Moscow six weeks later to anchor Nightly News for nearly a week! Gorbachev, now out of power, met with Tom for an interview and I could see immediately there was a deep respect and friendship between the two.
Tom was kind and generous with his support as I navigated the new Russia, making sure I got to know his dear old friend Bob Strauss, a legend in American politics and current US Ambassador of Russia. Strauss told me that Tom gave him special orders to take good care of the new bureau chief in Moscow. Tom's visits to Moscow always ended with a gracious toast from Tom thanking every single member of the team that supported his visit. The toast was delivered with a special lemon vodka made by our Polish crew member Maciej. These goodbye lemon vodka toasts became a tradition. Later, Tom told the story about Maciej offering Gorbachev his lemon vodka during the 10th anniversary events of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev told Tom his doctor said to give up drinking... except for lemon vodka.
Tom, TB, Brokaw, Big Guy, Duncan the Wonder Horse, Rain Man; so many ways to address our main man Tom Brokaw, but I like to call him my friend.
I started traveling with Tom in the 80’s and spent the next two decades on just about every live NN & Special Broadcast with him, I was the Technical Manager.
What I loved about being on the road with Tom is how easy he was to work with and how he would always just go with the flow. I would like to say we never had technical issues but of course that would not be true.
I remember at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 during a commercial break we lost all power. Everyone was running around trying to correct the problem, panicked and sweating profusely. Tom just stood there and said “Brady are we ok?”
I responded as I always do “yes Tom we are good”. Three seconds before air the power was restored.
During the Hong Kong Handover Tom was just about to start his broadcast when the amazing skyline behind him went black. The infamous “black rain” came through taking out any backdrop whatsoever. Once again Tom just went with it- no problem!
Many of us are so fortunate to have grown up at NBC with Tom. He taught us true journalism, and the wonderful feeling of passion for your job. He taught us honesty, integrity and respect. He taught us compassion and how important family is, inside and outside of work.
Tom continues to be the model of fairness and objectivity in journalism today.
Working side by side with Tom was a true gift that I have always treasured and I always will. I am so proud to know him, to have worked with him and to always have him as a friend and mentor.
Thank you Tom! Love you always,
Stacy Brady aka EF Hutton
This goes back a long way.
In 1973, Tom Brokaw joined the NBC News Washington Bureau as White House correspondent and the Saturday anchor for Nightly News. I was a rookie field producer who had the good fortune of getting assigned to work with him on White House trips, chasing Richard Nixon and then, after Watergate, Gerald Ford.
Watching Tom in action in those days was a revelation. Almost on arrival from Los Angeles, he absorbed the culture of Washington coverage. He soaked up information and connected with the right sources in the White House and out. He balanced the demands of reporting, anchoring, and raising his young family. He made it look easy, but it wasn’t.
On our travels, we ran into local and national big shots and, as his celebrity grew, lots of people who simply wanted to come up and shake his hand. Tom treated them all with the same warmth and good humor. His colleagues love him because of his principles and the support he gives them.
The rest, as they say, is history. Working with Tom on the road and then in New York on Nightly News was an education. He made me a better producer and, every once in a while, a better person.
I've spent half my life working at NBC News ... and I can honestly say some of the best times, and proudest as a journalist, were the 14 years I spent working and traveling the globe for Nightly News.
In the winter of 2003 just before the beginning of the Second Gulf War, Tom and his producing team came through Kuwait, from where the war would be launched.
One of my personal favorite moments in my career was sitting next to Tom and writing a script for Nightly News that evening and him whacking me in the leg, when one of my lines was good enough to be included in the script. (This was the day before we would fly over the border of Kuwait and Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter)
Tom has had a career few have EVER had, or will. He has done it all with unwavering integrity and a sense of humor.
In his career of countless "moments", I will forever treasure the few I shared with him.
As a kid, I spent a few years in the Soviet Union when my parents were stationed at the U.S. Embassy there. In 1988 I was working as a PA for NBC News Specials and, because I still spoke Russian, was lucky enough to be sent to Moscow to help set up the office for the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit.
Other than the massive red welts from the bed bugs in one hotel room after the other (in the end, I slept in the bathtub for 4 weeks) the trip went off without a hitch. I was even adopted by one of the hotel cleaning ladies “dejournayas” who would regularly pull me out of meetings to make me drink homemade chicken soup, something everyone in our workspace encouraged with gales of laughter every time she came to the door an pointed at me.
The only problem was the trip home. Everyone couldn’t wait to get out of there. Trouble was, there was one flight out and every western journalist was on it: Brokaw, Rather, Jennings and all their staffs. We were all in our seats and ready to go. And then the rear doors opened and the crew started loading in TV equipment -- Canadian TV equipment no less. Seems the cargo hold was full.
And people started freaking out. This plane was going to be too heavy to fly. Pacing and yelling ensued. Tom never blinked. This kind of thing was old hat for him.
Overloaded, the plane started taxiing. But never took off. Just as we ran out of runway, up it went. Barely. It seemed like half an hour we were flying low and slow, maybe 150 feet over the countryside never getting any higher. My boss elbowed me, pointed at the big three in front of us: Tom, Dan and Peter. He laughed and said, “You know, when this plane goes down, we aren’t even going to be a footnote in the article.” And I looked over at Tom – cool as a cucumber -- and just like that, the altitude started to climb. No way that plane was going down. Tom Brokaw was on board.
Tom always had a passion for politics.
It was 1971 and there was a major earthquake that morning. I had just had a baby. But Tom wanted to drive 2 billion miles east of Los Angeles (the earthquake was north) to see Jesse Unruh, the powerful speaker of the California Assembly and well-known for his quip,"Money is the mother's milk of politics." So we went.
That summer we went hiking in Yosemite with another NBCer, the great Sandy Schaffel, and our spouses. We were starved out of our minds when we hit Fresno on the way home and stopped for what Tom called a Basque banquet. The waitress brought us some hors doeuvres, cheese I remember.
Tom was ecstatic. "What kind of cheese is this," he asked. She replied, "Velveeta American".
I knew then Tom was a man of the people.
Tom has had many nick names over the years and when he arrived in war torn Beirut in the early 80’s the hardened war correspondents covering the civil war there announced that the 800 pound Gorilla was coming.
Not everyone was happy that the star anchor of NBC was arriving to take the story. There he was fresh faced and eager to get into the story. We expected some hesitation as the bang bang was relentless. Not Tom. He jumped in with both feet working every angle and showing no hesitation to go to the front lines in the vicious sectarian warfare.
After a week Tom headed back to New York and we were exhausted. Tom went everywhere, met everyone and produced polished reports day after grueling day. There he goes we said, “Duncan the wonder horse.”
Our admiration for Tom never faltered decade after decade.
My fondest memory of Tom was the smile on his face when he saw all of his dear family, friends and colleagues at the unveiling of the Brokaw News Center.
Like everyone who's ever had the privilege of working with Tom, it's extremely hard to pick just one moment or experience, when asked for a highlight. This past year alone, I can think of many. Seeing him continue to live with multiple myeloma and enjoy his life and work despite that burden is right up there.
The joy he still takes in making television - we were at the Indianapolis 500 for an interview with David Letterman and he had never been before. "It's on my bucket list!", he said. I didn't realize he still had a bucket list. But being in Paris in May of 2016 to watch him receive the Legion of Honor, along with Tom Hanks and Dr. Nick Mueller, was truly marvelous. He was chuffed, as the Brits say. The kid from South Dakota had made it all the way to a gilded room in Paris where a French general pinned the medal on him in grand style and kissed him on both cheeks, granting him the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. Not all knights wear shining armor - he's our hero now and forever.
Wow! 50 years of Brokaw! I’m so proud to say that I’ve been along for almost 30 years of that ride. Working as a video editor for NBC Nightly News, I’ve been lucky enough to be included on many memorable Tom projects. Besides being one of the editors on the “50” project, I’ve collaborated on hundreds of spots for Nightly, including some amazing stories (think Greatest Generation, etc.) and helped Tom with most of his outside projects, narrations, on-camera greetings and tribute videos for many of the awards he has received.
There also was a time when video editors traveled! We were on location for Presidential politics - primaries, conventions, debates, election nights and inaugurations. Several Olympic games. High profile funerals (Diana in London & Mother Teresa in Calcutta). The handover in Hong Kong. And I can’t forget covering the 1st Gulf War in 1991 either, that took me to Tel Aviv, Amman, Dhahran & Kuwait City (remember the “Scud Stud?).
During that trip and while in Saudi Arabia, we really couldn’t get far from the hotel because of security concerns and the air base next door. To blow off steam and get a little exercise, a few of us played basketball on a court behind the hotel. Two on two. Phil Griffin & Brad Willis vs. Tom & me. Now I’m relatively tall - 6’2”, and as some know - Brokaw was an excellent athlete in high school, earning a letter for basketball. I’m sure Tom thought we’d definitely hold our own. But as it turns out… I’m not a very good basketball player. They killed us. Brokaw has reminded me of that game several times over the years.
Luckily, he knows I’m a much better editor.