Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


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OCTOBER 21, 2008 5:38PM

When I Was Walter Cronkite's Favorite Geek

Rate: 28 Flag
Walter Cronkite reviewing an earlier computer way before my time.

To be fair, I'm not actually a true geek, but I do have some unique creds. Eventually they earned me some serious responsibility and some equally serious kudos.

I was at Penn (home of the first computers) when one of the earliest operating systems, FORTRAN was being developed by IBM. My way older boyfriend worked for them and showed me how the thing worked. A computer operator loaded a program into the computer from magnetic tape, paper tape, or punched cards for data input and output.

There were no PC's as we know them today. Those first machines cost millions each. The tiny screen for viewing and entering code was dwarfed by room-sized computer monsters called ENIAC, UNIVAC, SEAC, ILLIAC and MANIAC (yes, really), to name the top five.


This picture only shows about one-third of the UNIVAC machine, definitely Not a PC.

Fast forward to 1976. The Commonwealth of PA undertook a radical experiment -- we became the first state in the country to computerize the electoral filing process. Hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions required from candidates to be placed on the ballot. In a presidential election year. With PA a pivotal primary state.

That's where I came in. I was serving then as PA Commissioner of Elections. Don't ask. An odd twist in my career to be sure. I was filling in for a few months because ... wait for it ... the former Commissioner had a nervous breakdown.

Believe me, I felt his pain.

Dozens of real geeks took over a wing of our building in the state capitol to assemble a giant "computing machine." Programmers created punch cards to feed the monster. Huge cables lined the hallways to my office and hooked into a small monitor next to my desk. Voila! The first PC.

We were under way. The petitions rolled in, the programmers did their thing and before long I had only to type in a few commands and neat lists of candidates and information scrolled down my screen.

Then the primaries began. Pennsylvania was suddenly the focus of national attention. On the national TV news every night. And I was suddenly the main conduit of information on the presidential candidates for local and national news media. I spoke to researchers, editors, news directors and occasionally the Talent.

Walter Cronkite called me "That Gal." If they were reviewing numbers, predictions, statistics, I'm told he'd say, "Get me That Gal in Pennsylvania." And no, my feminist sensabilities weren't offended. Jeez. It was Walter Cronkite. And he appreciated me and what I could give him from my computer.

We all ate, breathed, slept with those computers and their paper-cut generating punch cards. I had a telephone permanently planted on my shoulder, spent countless hours with researchers, reporters and staff primarily from the Big Three networks.

My eyes burned from staring into that tiny monitor. Who knows how much radiation I picked up. (Could explain a lot, come to think of it.) I learned to speak a new language, then translate it into a format non-nerds could understand.

When it was all over, Jimmy Carter had won the PA Primary. And I made plans to spend a week in Jamaica.

What was the best part? Letters I received from NBC, ABC, CBS, UPI and AP and scores of local media applauding our efforts and efficiency in providing the best information of any primary state in the country.

Which was my favorite? Here's the quote:

"Mr. Cronkite was most impressed with you and your staff. He sends his personal thanks for a job very well done."

PS Don't repeat this part, but he told me "That Gal did the best work in the country." If you want a job, call me.

And that's the way it was.

PS Two months later I went to work for CBS.

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Shameless feed gofer.
I would be SUCH a fangirl if Cronkite knew I existed.

(thumbified for That Gal)
Great story, Sally! How was working at CBS? Did you have any odd encounters with a certain Texan anchor? Did he share any hilarious similes?
Great post. Walter Cronkite was the absolute best! I miss his sign-off, "And that’s the way it was." He made American feel like we were connected to the events of the day.

Uncle Walter, we miss your claim wisdom. Thanks Sally for the memories.
Positive words from the most respected man in America--you can't do any better than that!

My wife saw him walk by the restaurant at the docks where she was eating in Nantucket a few years ago and he was carrying a fold-up chair for a yacht. She wondered why someone wasn't carrying it for him.
Sally, you are so cool!! I didn't need to read it to convince me of that, but it's nice to have Cronkite confirm my gut feelings.

I love this post, the history in it...the you in it. Thanks!


So, what you're saying is, Jimmy Carter and (as a result) Ronald Reagan were your fault.

Thanks guys, I needed this. Just for the record, shoulder surgery sucks, pain-wise and typing-wise and mood-wise.

Jodi: If you sail, hang around (I think) Nantucket, the Cronkites love to sail. You could bond.

Cam: Could you possibly be referring to my encounter with Dan Rather. Written a while back, but anyone who hasn't read it is really missing a few chunks of history. Heh. And I loved working at CBS, got me my most treasured possession, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for Journalism.

Designator, Barry, gmgaston: Thanks for being old enjoy to enjoy my tiny contribution to history (wasn't sure too many would be). I would have scanned and posted the actual letter, but it was long and had info in it that even after all these years I wasn't sure I should publish.

Lonnie: I will only take credit for Carter, Ronnie was NOT my fault!
See, that's the problem with people in this country. No one ever wants to accept responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions.
That is very cool. What do you think will happen with the Pennsylvania election on the technical side of voting? Do you trust touch screen voting machines (forgive my ignorance if PA doesn't use those)?
Sally, you are that awesome gal! :)

Great post.
Don't stop there!!!! Keep going!!!!!! (Oh yeah---you're supposed to leave the reader wanting more. . .) Well, you DID!
I love this post. Nothing new to add, just rated and appreciated.
Wow. I am a huge Walter Cronkite fan. If I'd had a boy, I was going to name him 'Walter.' Really. Well, and it's a family name, but it worked out so perfectly.

I'm so impressed.
My father had the job of integrating the old mainframe computers with the Federal Reserve system in the midwest. The pressures were such that it lead to a heart attack at 52, which totally disabled him, and death a 65. His bosses all watched this from their cubicles around the perimiter of my father's office, and in the end offered him nothing as an acknowledgement. I wonder if the new genertion of Feds is so dumb as to play be the same rules.
Wow Sally..what a great story...what a thrill...what an honor. And it sounds like it was well deserved. I'm so impressed with you. Really great post.
I served Cronkite a drink once. It was a martini of some sort because the wine he wanted '86ed (out of stock). He didn't say "that's the way it is." I have to say, I was disapointed.
Thanks for sharing your story. The most compelling history is personal. And yes, I too am old enough to remember when everyone in the media knew the word "Univac" and none of them knew the word "Botox". ...sigh...
What a wonderful story.
Sally, this is a great story.
This just confirms for me your most amazing awesomeness, Sally.

Take care of that shoulder. We all miss "That Gal". :-D

Rated/appreciated/OMG IT WAS WALTER CRONKITE!!!!!
Nice story, Sal. Boy, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, who next? Nixon?? Oh, wait, he wasn't on CBS. But this sister likes to hear about your past (and compare it with my memories of it).
I've waited 10 years for the opportunity to tell someone that I once spent 5 minutes alone in the mensroom with Walter Cronkite. No, it wasn't a Larry Craig moment. It was at Reagan Airport in DC one evening when we both debarked from a flight from NY. He was in a wheelchair pushed by a chauffeur, and I was walking along to the baggage claim. I headed for a brief mensroom stop, and when I looked up, there was Cronkite by himself, and me, and no one else around. You could hear a pin drop...along with some other gentle sounds. Holy Cow, the man I watched as a teenager announcing JFK's death on CBS News, the only anchorman to ever shed a genuine tear on the air, the man I venerated for 25 years, a few feet away from me in the flesh, dressed in a fine, black suit, shortened by age and perhaps infirmity, but unmistakeable.

What to do? Even though it was a mensroom, I waited until we both moved to the sinks, and we were even closer. I summoned the guts to speak to him and intrude on his space. I chose an attempt at humor, "In my wildest fantasy, I could never have imagined myself sharing an airport mensroom with Walter Cronkite". To his wonderful credit, he asked me my name--when I heard his voice, that inimitable timber, the hair on the back of my neck stood up-- and then repeated the same comment back to me, "In my wildest dreams, I could never..." He asked me where I was from, and when I told him NY, we chatted a bit about the city, some landmarks, and my history growing up and watching him. I impulsively mentioned the JFK broadcast on Nov 22nd, and although I sensed he'd reacted to this comment 1000 times, he graciously said it was "one of the hardest moments" in his career to speak that news on air. He allowed me to shake his hand, and we departed the space and the moment, for him to be forgotten very soon but for me, to be remembered for a lifetime.

I never thought to try and get a job at CBS, but what I accomplished in the mensroom was likely not enough to impress Mr. Cronkite in any event. Meeting him was my reward.
What a fabulous story! I would have loved to have been That Gal for Walter Cronkite.

My husband’s grandfather worked at AT&T back in the day, with a computer that took up 2 floors of Manhattan real estate. When they requested permission to add memory and upgrade from 8K to 16K, the top brass said, “Well, now you guys are just playing around down there.”
Wonderful! I loved Walter as well. Very jealous of stonecutter here as well!

Dorinda: something's always "wrong" with voting in PA, especially Phila, one of those places, like Illinois, where the dead vote, so anything is possible. We used the new touch screen machines for last Nov's Mayoral election and they worked fine, very few legitimate complaints.

Big stakes then, bigger ones now, and a toss-up, really. Our big cities are populated heavily Black and student. Rural PA is White, gun-totin bible-belt territory. Yet the state tends to go Blue, so let's hope.

Umbrella: my mother was envious, although she was more a Chet Huntley gal. Thanks for the healing thoughts, always welcome, especially from one who knows how not fun this is.

Liz: Praise from you is high indeed and sincerely appreciated.

Roger: Okay, one more tidbit. We did meet a few times at CBS. He's larger than life in person (though stonecutter would know that better than I ;) and one of the most genuine people I ever met.

Bill: As always, you make me feel appreciated. If you want, I can be Your Gal at OS...

Judy: Nixon's in there... oh wait, I never met him but I did do a killer post about his first debate with Kennedy. Does that count?

Stonecutter: Your story beats mine by a country mile, as Walter would say, and a unique experience I could never have. ;) I wish you'd post it on your blog. Wow.

Denise: Maybe you'd have loved being Cronkite's That Gal, but then you'd be as old as I am! (Just kidding). (Sorta ;)

O'Stephanie: Thanks, I'd just like to know why are you jealous of stonecutter?.... (Hmmm Walter is a loveable guy, but I never thought of him as a sex symbol).
I can't believe I missed so many kind comments!! Walter would Not be pleased.

Artsfish and Karin: You're on the money. His voice is so special, a treasured memory of my childhood.

lpsrocks: Thank you. Appreciation is always appreciated.

odetteroulette: Wow, I'm glad I hit such a nice family connection. But I just gotta know, it you had a boy now, would you name him Barack? :)

Ben: I am SO sorry about your father. How brutally unfair. And I bet they're no different today, especially under the GWB admin.

Mary: Thank you for giving me the props for the incredibly hard work I did. From you, it means a lot.

alexzola: Love your comment, you made me laugh!

punterjoe: You make the perfect point.

Eric and Procopious: Again, appreciation
If you want, I can be Your Gal at OS...


Aw.....well then, where are the latest numbers from the polls? ;-D
Sorry I missed this story -- was off OS most of last week. Wow -- I am not sure I knew you went to work for CBS. I do remember doing a simple programming problem my senior year in HS with Fortran. After I had it running with as few steps as possible, we took it to the junior college to run. I still remember how BIG those computers were -- compared to now -- WOW!

Great post -- thumbed up!
poorsinner, I'm hoping there are still some things left to do. But the world's not the same.
Thanks for sharing! Wonderful. RRRRR
Oh well, it's only been a year and a half since you had your last comment on this post. I came to it through the link on your new post. Loved it.

I never met Uncle Walter (as my ex roomate used to call him). My son did, as one of the kids at Camp Jabberwocky on Martha's Vineyard. Those kids met everybody.