This is the 11th in a series of articles about recipients of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
I was fortunate to attend every NSNC conference from 1993 to 2002, so I got to see the first ten presentations of the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. That helped me write this monthly series, which began last fall.
Now it’s time for me to do a story about 2003 winner Andy Rooney, but I didn’t attend that year’s conference in Tucson, Arizona, because my older daughter was graduating from middle school. So, how exactly am I going to write this article? What angle can I take? Could be difficult…
Ha — just kidding. The 2003 Pyle “recipiency” has perhaps the best and easiest angle of all: Rooney knew Pyle!
For more details about that, I turned to a 2011 article written by NSNC past president Mike Leonard, a Pyle expert who lives in the same state (Indiana) that was the home of the columnist/World War II correspondent for whom our Lifetime prize is named.
Long before becoming a syndicated newspaper columnist and an iconic TV presence known for his curmudgeonly 60 Minutes commentaries, Rooney (1919-2011) was a young Stars and Stripes reporter covering WWII. Rooney and Pyle (1900-1945) “shared information, food, drink, and even a tent at times,” Leonard wrote in his The Herald-Times of Bloomington, Ind., piece that also appeared on our Columnists.com site.
“I knew Ernie pretty well,” said Rooney, who greatly admired Pyle for being able to “tell big stories through minutiae and small details like no one else” (as quoted by Mike).
Leonard’s article also had Rooney describing “the single worst experience of my life” riding with Pyle in a Jeep that was part of a convoy driving on 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 said. “Ernie said ‘I hope they’re all dead’ but surely they all were not. Ernie never wrote about it.”
It was Leonard who convinced Rooney (also one of the first U.S. journalists to visit and write about the Nazi concentration camps near the end of the war) to come to Tucson to accept the 2003 Pyle award even though he often declined speaking invitations.
Rooney also wasn’t big on signing autographs or posing for photos. In Tucson, two NSNC board members asked him if he minded posing for a picture and Rooney snapped, “Yes!” — as recalled by Leonard. But Walter Cronkite, another TV legend who wrote a syndicated newspaper column, said Rooney had a big heart beneath the curt exterior.
The Albany, NY-born Rooney joined CBS in 1949, and his weekly, end-of-show “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” segment aired on 60 Minutes from 1978 to 2011. His column also ran for roughly three decades.