08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The End of Literacy?

Two prolific and titanic practitioners of the English language passed from our world this week: Walter Cronkite and Frank McCourt. There is little left to be said about the accomplishments of these two...their lives' work defined and explained them both.

To all of us here, and most of the world, Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America". Why else would President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel go on camera and the telephone live with him, leading to the Camp David peace process? The world saw this one man hold a conversation with two political and military enemies, and a dialogue resulted which changed (however slowly) that most dangerous region we call the Middle East.

Words matter, as Pat Moynihan often said. Their meaning is important. Walter Cronkite used words, and pictures, to tell us what was happening, and why. That's the way it was, pure and simple.

It was not a stretch to imagine Cronkite covering any event -- bombing runs in World War II, or talking to former President and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower 20 years later at the beaches in Normandy. Space shots. Moon landings. Assassinations. Riots. Presidential conventions.

No, it was not hard to envision Walter Cronkite covering any great or notorious event in history. I still remember watching You Are There on CBS, in which Cronkite would report on historic events and interview famous people from the past. "The Gunfight at the OK Corral", "the Assasination of Julius Caesar", "Grant and Lee at Appomatox" ... we were there because Walter Cronkite took us there, and told us history's story in words, pure and simple.

Frank McCourt was also a story teller, a user of words, trying to educate us. First, as a job in the public schools of New York, for 30 years, teaching English and writing to the students from Staten Island and then from all over the city at Stuyvesant High School. Perhaps not as grand a title as Anchor of the CBS Evening News, but Frank carried the title of Teacher with pride and grace. He had a grand career as a teacher, and then a second career as a Pulitzer Prize winning author. We know the title Angela's Ashes, his wonderful book about surviving deprivation and poverty of a scale we associate with Dickens' London a century and a half ago.

Frank's writing, and his spoken stories, made us feel the hunger and damp of Depression Era Limerick, and the pain and humiliation visited upon the poor by those who practice Christain charity.

Go back and read his work, including his later books, Tis and Teacher Man. Together they are a tale of stoicism, doubt, perseverance, and eventually triumph. Anyone who teaches and inspires 3 decades of public school students is worthy of our respect. To have a second career, at the age of 65 no less, that captures our attention and makes us think is worthy of our applause.

Walter Cronkite and Frank McCourt lived in the same centuries and died the same week. They taught us the power of words, simple and direct, and a story well told. They showed us personal determination and courage in their time. They left us all an example to follow, pure and simple.

Let us hope that their passing is not the end of such grace and literacy.