He wasn't famous. But if you're over the age of 40, you'd probably know Richard Threlkeld's face if you saw it.
Threlkeld spent more than 30 years as a correspondent and anchor for CBS and ABC News, reporting from all over the world -- from the foxholes of Vietnam to the villages of post-Soviet Russia.
But Threlkeld was well-known to his colleague and competitors, not only for being a first-rate reporter, but for being one of the best writers to ever grace a television screen. He was also a gracious and well-balanced person in a business known for its egomaniacs.
And that's why those who knew him are mourning his loss. Dick was killed in a traffic accident on Long Island on January 13th. He was 74.
I had the good fortune to work as Threlkeld's producer for a year at CBS News in Moscow. It was Dick's last assignment before retiring, and my first job in network television.
I lucked out. Dick was gracious about teaching me about the news business... and about life. Here's just some of what he taught me:
Lesson one: Reporters shouldn't be highfalutin. Dick realized you could tell any story, even a complicated one, by just keeping the story line simple. The words he chose weren't ever fancy, but he strung them together like no one else in the business. I still use Threlkeld's stories as examples in the journalism courses I teach at Fordham University. His writing remains superior.
The CBS News website has just one of Dick's stories online, which you can see here, and it's well worth a look. I hope they'll add more.
Lesson two: TV reports should always end with a punch line. Not only are Threlkeld's stories structurally perfect, but Dick always ended with a brilliant and memorable line -- powerful like the last line of a joke. More than a decade after we worked together, I can still remember the last lines of his reports, which shows how good they were.
For instance, Dick did a story in 1997 about the arrival of high fashion in Russia, with runway video from Moscow's first Fashion Week. But Dick noted that even people who could afford designer duds wouldn't have a place to put them, as Soviets apartments were built with wardrobes instead of walk-ins. "Today, clothes. Tomorrow, closets," Dick predicted at the end. What a hoot!
And he used the same technique in some of his stand-ups, too. For instance, we did a story in 1998 about St. Basil's Cathedral, the onion domed church on Red Square, and how it was aching for a paint job. Dick had a piece to camera in the middle of the piece about Czar Ivan the Terrible, who commissioned the cathedral to commemorate his army's victory over the Tatars. "Legend has it that onion domes represent the heads of the Tatar chieftains, and that Ivan blinded his architects so they'd never again build anything so beautiful," explained Threlkeld. "No wonder they called him Ivan the Terrible!" The only thing missing was the rim shot.
Lesson three: Reporters, it's not about you. Dick succeeded as a journalist because he never let it go to his head. He understood that news is really about the people involved in the story -- NOT the journalist.
Lesson four: Journalists should never be lazy. I remember my first press conference with Dick -- covering maverick businessman Steve Fossett, who was trying to circle the globe by balloon and crash-landed in southern Russia. When Fossett met the press, Dick got there early, took the middle seat in the front row, planted his cameraman next to him so that he'd have the exact perfect angle, and made it almost impossible for Fossett to call on anyone else first. Dick got exactly what he needed before some people had even arrived.
Lesson five: Journalists need to make sure they're right. Dick would never report something without being damned sure that it was correct. I'm sure he was appalled by the rumor, gossip and opinion that passes for reporting these days. And he'd do just about anything to make sure his reporting was accurate. I remember late one night, some news broke, making a report we'd just finished out-of-date. When I called Dick to ask him to come back to the bureau to re-do the piece, I expected him to act like a prima donna and complain about having to return to work at 1 in the morning. Instead, Dick said he was happy that I called, because he would have hated having something go out on the air that was wrong.
Lesson six: Everyone should know when to quit. Dick was in his early 60s when he retired, though people at CBS News urged him to stay on. After all, Dick's CBS colleague Mike Wallace worked until he was 89, and Andy Rooney worked into his 90s. But Threlkeld said he wanted to get out of the business while he still had time to enjoy his life. Looking back now, that looks like an incredibly wise decision.
Beth Knobel is co-author with her former CBS News colleague Mike Wallace of 'Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists' (Three Rivers Press, 2010).