Behind this picture with Tom Brokaw, taken at the University of Iowa, April 2017, is an amazing, exciting and totally unexpected experience.
During a visit to the campus in October 2016, I took University Librarian John Culshaw up on an invitation to tour the Library. Elaine and I had met John in June 2015 when he sat down next to us at an Iowa Foundation dinner in Chicago.
We were shown large areas where students could plug in a laptop and study -- or whatever. Nearby were whiteboard-equipped conference rooms where students could collaborate on projects. And nearby were librarians to help find relevant material on line or in stacks.
Next stop, the Special Collections area. I had asked about James Van Allen, head of the Physics Department. Beginning in 1958 he was able to put instruments on early satellites that identified what is known today as the Van Allen Radiation Belts. When I arrived at Iowa just after these discoveries, Van Allen was a very big man on campus. We got to see an example of his handwritten notes and pictures of the tiny devices packed into satellites.
When I mentioned that Elaine was a Trekker, they surprised her with a pair of ears worn by Spock in the first Star Trek television series. Very soft and made of latex, they discolored and lost their shape under the intense heat of studio lights. The Library has a large collection donated by Nicholas Meyer, an Iowa graduate, who co-wrote and directed two Star Trek film series and wrote a third. Elaine was delighted.
At the final stop, we entered a locked room where John, a smile on his face, gave us an off the record tip: In three weeks Tom Brokaw would announce on NBC’s Today show that he has given his archives, some 50 boxes, to the Library. But we could get a peak at two unsorted boxes. The first contained the galley proof (when a book is in type but still subject to review before printing) of Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation.
The second box held Tom’s NBC reporter’s notebooks from the 1980s.
I had reporter’s notebooks, too, from the same period when I was a Field Producer in the Chicago Bureau of NBC News. And I had saved maybe 200 scripts, most written by the correspondents I was working with.
As Elaine put it, the eyes of John and two members of the Special Collections staff lit up. I had something they wanted.
What I could help illustrate was how teams of four of us -- four or five in Chicago at any given time -- were necessary to deliver the stories Tom introduced in a timely manner. We often flew on chartered aircraft. And this was before satellites, internet, cellphones or laptops.
In February, John and Mary Rettig, a director of development for the University Foundation – herself a librarian – dropped by our house to pick up my modest three boxes.
The April event was an annual Friends of the Library program. Tom was the guest speaker. The evening started with an invitation to about 30 of us to attend a private, pre-program mixer, including the portrait opportunity.
Tom and I are both Iowa alumni. He spent his freshman year (1958-1959) studying, as he puts it, beer and coeds. He dropped out. In 2010 the University awarded him an Honorary Ph.D. (In 1964 Tom earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota.) I started at Iowa in the fall of 1961, studying journalism, and earned a B.A. with Honors in 1965.
The second day of our Iowa City visit was an amazing behind the scenes visit to the upper floors of the University Library.
Library Conservator Giselle Simon offered proof my boxes had arrived. One was on prominent display (most certainly not by coincidence). She expressed appreciation for the good condition of the notebooks and explained how storage boxes are sized to keep documents stable while in storage.
At the last stop, we listened in as Tom made an oral history recording for the Library. Elaine called it one of her most interesting experiences of the visit.
Tom spins a great yarn, with a capacity to bring it to a humbling moment. Like when he broadcast extended live coverage from Berlin as the Wall was opened to East Germans. In an era before VCRs and DVRs, when he arrived home, he learned his wife had been out with friends for the evening and missed this historic moment.
This session was especially interesting to me. There is talk of my taking a turn at recording an oral history, too. I really look forward to the opportunity.
This journey is not over.