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Howard K. Smith dead at 87

By United Press International   |   Feb. 18, 2002 at 1:50 PM
Howard K. Smith, a pioneering television news commentator, anchor and reporter who started his career as a wire-service reporter and moved into radio during World War II, has died at the age of 87.

Smith died at his home in Bethesda, Md., Friday night.

Following a journalism career that spanned more than five decades, Smith spent the last years of his life preparing projects for public television, lecturing at colleges and to business groups and writing. His autobiography "Events Leading Up to My Death, The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter," was published in 1996.

He married Benedicte (Bennie) Traberg, a Danish journalist, in March 1942 and had two children, Jack Prescott Smith, and Catherine Hamilton Smith. The couple lived at High Acres, an estate on the Potomac River in Bethesda, Md., near Washington.

Smith went to work for United Press in London in 1939, with war looming over Europe.

Stationed in Berlin with United Press and later CBS radio at the start of World War II, Smith was the last American reporter to leave Berlin on Dec. 6, 1941, only hours before the United States declared war on Germany. His final days and his narrow escape was retold in a best-selling book he wrote in only a few weeks, "Last Train from Berlin," published in 1942, said to be one of the best commentaries written on the period.

Smith remained in Europe as a radio reporter and war correspondent with the 9th Army in France, Holland and Germany throughout the war and covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Following the war, he became CBS's chief European correspondent, taking over for Edward R. Murrow in 1946.

He returned to the United States in 1957 to become Washington correspondent for CBS, but resigned and moved to ABC in 1961 after a dispute over editorial policy concerning a civil rights documentary.

While in Washington, Smith knew every president from Eisenhower to Johnson.

At ABC, Smith in 1969 became television evening news co-anchor with Frank Reynolds.

Although Smith was the first broadcast journalist to have an exclusive interview with President Richard Nixon, he was also the first to call for Nixon's resignation or impeachment, declaring that Nixon needed to handle the matter "on his own time."

In 1960, Smith was the first broadcaster to moderate a presidential debate between candidates John F. Kennedy and Nixon. He repeated the effort for the League of Women Voters in the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on May 12, 1914, to night watchman Howard K. and Minnie Cates Smith, Smith's early years were spent in Depression poverty. He was an excellent student and an outstanding high school athlete.

He was encouraged by his teachers to try for a scholarship to Tulane University offered by the city of New Orleans to the city's best student. When he won, Smith entered college knowing he wanted to be a writer, and soon discovered that journalists were the only writers who got paid regularly. Smith enrolled in journalism and studied German in college, then was chosen for a tuition-free summer to study at Heidelberg University after his graduation in 1936.

Working his way to Germany as a deckhand on a freighter, Smith used his German language training to tour Germany and much of Europe and then returned to the United States to take reporting job with the New Orleans Item-Tribune. There, Smith worked his way from rewrite into writing analytical pieces on the changes he had seen taking place in Nazi Germany.

Friends and teachers urged Smith to apply for a Rhodes scholarship, and Smith was astonished when he was selected and found himself at Merton College of Oxford University in May 1937.

Following his studies, Smith decided to remain in Europe and took a reporting job in London with United Press (now United Press International) which in 1940 sent him to Berlin as its junior reporter earning $25 per week. When CBS offered him five times his UP salary to fill a radio assignment a year later, Smith leaped at the opportunity although he had never considered becoming a broadcast journalist.

"I was alarmed at suddenly having top responsibility in a warring capital for a great network," Smith wrote in 1996. "When we knew one another better, I asked Paul White (head of CBS News in New York) how he came to have faith in an unknown. He said, 'I knew you were well brought up, from a top school.' I said, 'Oxford?' He said, 'No. United Press.'"

By December 1941, events began to take place quickly that Smith would later recount in his hastily written but well-received commentary "Last Train from Berlin."

Smith had attracted the wrath of high Nazi officials by refusing to read radio scripts the Berlin government had prepared for accredited foreign reporters. When Smith refused, his accreditation was recalled and he was denied use of facilities in which to work.

With no exit visa, Smith was at the mercy of the Berlin government which could arrest him at any moment. When his network learned that the Nazi government had withdrawn Smith's accreditation and not the network's, the network informed the German Foreign Office it was recalling Smith and requested the Foreign Office to accredit a stringer, who never arrived, who would replace Smith. Smith wrote "Satisfied that it would have a hostage against my misbehavior, it had an official notify me that I would receive an exit visa when he got around to it. It would stipulate, I was told, that I must be out of the country within 48 hours after receiving it.

"But five days later, I was called to the Foreign Office, and the liberating document was stamped in my passport," Smith wrote in "Events Leading Up to My Death." "I immediately reserved a berth on the night train to Basel, Switzerland ... That was Dec. 6. I was so pleased ... at the favorable turn my life had taken that I considered partying on for a day longer and leaving Berlin on the second night of my 48 hours, which would be Dec. 7, 1941. I shudder to think how events might have transpired, had I done so."

Smith, who had moved out of the ABC co-anchor spot to concentrate on commentary in 1975, left ABC in 1979 at age 65, saying that as the network restructured the news broadcasts in an attempt to improve ratings his job "had no real function anymore."

He also was critical of the network's four-anchor format that included Reynolds, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Max Robinson, which he termed a "Punch and Judy Show."

Smith was a much-honored newsman and recipient of a dozen honorary degrees. He won a Peabody award in 1960, an Emmy in 1961 and was winner three times of the Overseas Press Club's award for reporting.

He won high honors for his documentary "The Population Explosion," and in 1971 the University of Missouri gave him its Journalism Medal and later the Lowell Thomas citation.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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