Amid the many well-deserved tributes to the late Andy Rooney, it looks as though one of the things of which he was most proud is being greatly overlooked — his friendship with the famous columnist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
Rooney was by his own account a young and inexperienced reporter for the Stars & Stripes newspaper when sent to Europe to cover World War II. Pyle was both famous and famously humble and accepted Rooney as a colleague and friend as reporters labored to cover the war from as close to the battle lines as they could get.
The journalists shared information, food, drink and even a tent at times, Rooney recalled on various occasions.
“I knew Ernie pretty well,” he said in a speech at Indiana State University in 2003. “As well as anyone still alive, I’m sure of that.”
Pyle was, of course, the Indiana University alumnus who established himself as one of the country’s best-read and best-liked columnists, covering the aviation industry in its infancy and then, traveling the country as a columnist-at-large before taking on the role of war correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.
Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, Rooney often spoke admiringly of Pyle’s “genius” in seeing the relevance of observations that others found unimportant. “He could tell big stories through minutiae and small details like no one else,” Rooney said.
Pyle also was prone to depression, occasional bouts of heavy drinking and quips that could make a soldier blush. When Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1944 and citizens and soldiers danced in the streets, Pyle turned to Rooney and wisecracked, “Any G.I. who doesn’t get laid tonight is a sissy.”
Rooney said he endured “the single worst experience of my life” riding in a Jeep with Pyle in a convoy moving through, and sometimes over, stacks of bodies filling the narrow roads through the French countryside. “There were dead bodies just piled up between the hedgerows — our own guys — and there was nothing to do but for the tanks to just roll over them,” Rooney recalled. “There were bodies and pieces of bodies and torsos … Ernie said, ‘I hope they’re all dead’ but surely they all were not. Ernie never wrote about it.”
Rooney came to Indiana on at least two occasions to commemorate his World War II colleague. He was among several to travel to Pyle’s hometown of Dana in April 1995 for events recognizing the 50th anniversary of Pyle’s death in a combat situation. He spoke at the invitation of Indiana State at the Hulman Center in March 2003 and spent a lot of his time talking about Pyle.
I attended that March 2003 speech because I was president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists at the time and I wanted to land Rooney to be our Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award winner that summer.
I got an opportunity to speak with him and told him, briefly, why we wanted to honor him. The reasons ranged from his close association with Pyle, our patron saint, to his own role in what newspaper folks were calling “convergence” at the time. Rooney was the first to effectively adapt the style of a newspaper column to the broadcast medium.
Notorious for saying no to everything, Rooney considered my request thoughtfully and gave me his personal secretary’s name and number. At her advice I wrote a formal request to Rooney and he wrote back, accepting my invitation on a hand-typed sheet that explained, “Accepting awards is nothing I do well. I’m better appearing three or four times a month at dinners where (Walter) Cronkite is getting something.”
But he did get in a humorous jab at the title of lifetime achievement award. “I don’t care for the suggestion I’ve had my lifetime,” he wrote.
When Rooney accepted the NSNC award in Tucson that summer he mentioned during dinner conversation that he never got paid for that speech he gave in Terre Haute. I asked if he would mind if I looked into it — I couldn’t fathom that ISU would stiff Andy Rooney — and school officials quickly produced proof that they’d promptly cut a check immediately after the speech for nearly $30,000 to a speakers bureau called Program Corporation of America. Rooney had been promised $20,000 for the speech.
Like Rooney, I filed to get a response from the speakers bureau and wrote a column about it, questioning the wisdom of jerking around America’s favorite curmudgeon, a guy who worked for “60 Minutes,” no less.
The next morning I fielded an unexpected call. “Hi, Mike. This is Linda Greenhouse at the New York Times.” Greenhouse is a bit of a legend in the newspaper world for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work covering the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly three decades.
The call got a little more surprising right after that. “Frank Rich read your column this morning and drew it to my attention,” Greenhouse said. Rich is revered for his theater criticism and op-ed columns on contemporary issues for the Times and now, New York magazine.
How Rich stumbled across my column I’ve never learned. But he knew that Greenhouse had the same complaint of nonpayment from the same speaker’s bureau and I wound up connecting her with Rooney’s personal secretary.
I had another Forrest Gump moment weeks later when Rooney proceeded to write about the experience of getting stiffed and cited me and my effort to see that he got paid.
Rooney filmed an episode of his “60 Minutes” segment about his efforts to get paid and the film crew captured him at the owner of the firm’s doorstep, pounding on the door and announcing he was there to get paid.
Eventually both Greenhouse and Rooney reached financial settlements with the speakers bureau.
People who knew Rooney and even his children have all remarked that as much as they loved and admired him, he could be prickly at times. It’s been well-documented that he never saw the point in signing autographs and said anyone who wanted his name on a piece of paper was an idiot. While having dinner that night in Tucson in 2003, two officers on my group’s board of directors asked if he’d mind posing for a photograph and he snapped, “Yes!” sending them scurrying away.
He was in a good mood, too. In the months before the conference, I happened to be talking to a staff member at “60 Minutes” and he told me a story about how Rooney showed up at a party for an associate, looked at the offerings at the bar, harrumphed, and left the party. He returned 15 minutes later with a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey.
When I called Rooney’s room in Tucson to make sure he’d arrived, he wanted to know where he needed to be and when — and declined my offer to come to his room to escort him to the reception before the dinner. “I can find it,” he said.
I told him that a lot of people liked to stop by the hospitality suite beforehand. He declined and I said, “We have a nice spread. Beer, wine, some liquor. Maker’s Mark.”
There was a short silence on the other end of the phone. “Eh,” Rooney said. “Somebody got to you.”
He arrived at the reception a little bit late, in an elevator filled with laughing newspaper columnists, a golden glass of fine Kentucky bourbon in-hand.
“Don’t let this guy, Rooney, fool you,” Cronkite wrote when I asked if he cared to contribute remarks when we presented the lifetime achievement award. “This business of being a curmudgeon is just a pose, undoubtedly assumed as a means of acquiring a fortune. But it is a delusion, a fraud,”
Cronkite wrote. “He is one of my closest friends, and I’ve observed him in many varied social, professional and political situations. I reveal, possibly to his chagrin, that he has as big a heart as anybody I’ve ever known.
“He is deeply concerned about all those who suffer unfortunate fate and goes out of his way to comfort and assist them. But I won’t embarrass him with further examples,” Cronkite offered. “Just take it from one who knows. He’s only a curmudgeon during working hours.”
Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, the late Andy Rooney enjoys a drink and socializing back in 2003 while his host, H-T columnist Mike Leonard, keeps watch. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists honored Rooney with its Ernie Pyle Lifetime AchievementAward at its 2003 conference in Tucson, Ariz. Courtesy photo