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Time on His Side

July 30, 2008

By Robin Caudell, Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Jul. 30–PLATTSBURGH — Wallace Westfeldt and Miriam Goulding, downsized Marylanders, found what they were looking for: a home with a splendid view of Lake Champlain.

“Last summer, we started casually looking for something,” Westfeldt said. “We drove by and saw the for-sale sign. She loved the house straight away.”

He told his wife to squeeze his forearm twice at the showing if she liked the place.

“She damn near broke it.”

Since their January move, there are still things to be unpacked — but not his four Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award.

Westfeldt majored in political science and international relations at the University of the South, where his studies were interrupted by a stint as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. He graduated in 1947.

An old-school newshound, Westfeldt started as a copyboy at Time Magazine after quitting graduate school at Columbia University.

At Time, he worked in New York and Dallas until he was called back for the Korean War. When he got out, he went back to Time in Atlanta.

“I was fired because of a story. The bureau chief was away on vacation. An assignment came down from (Time publisher) Henry Luce himself. He wanted a story on Democrats for Eisenhower. I knew many of them.

“I wrote a very good piece, but I was really stupid. Time was known to summarize its stories. I wrote, ‘If you want to characterize the Democrats of Eisenhower, you could describe them as rednecks in Brooks Brothers suits.’ I was fired and rightly so.”

Westfeldt landed a job at the Nashville Tennessean, where he was a reporter, editor and editorial writer. There, he fell in love with journalism.

In October 1953, his beat changed. He was assigned to cover the buildup to and fallout from the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation in the United States.

His editor said: “You go out and report this story. When this happens, I want our readers to be thoroughly backgrounded.”

Westfeldt interviewed every chief state school official in the South, along with politicians and even psychologists about the effects of racial segregation on children.

He got hit in the head with rocks, a cross was burned on his lawn and obscene phone calls were fielded by his then-wife, Stacy (Kauffelt) Westfeldt.

“The beauty of the story was it covered everything — sociology, politics, economics. It was an ideal assignment and the best assignment I ever had in my life.”

He received a Pulitzer nomination for his civil-rights coverage.

NBC came courting for a documentary on the civil-rights movement. He gave them some suggestions. But he resisted the lure North.

“I didn’t think television news was that serious.”

After spending several days with the director, Westfeldt was impressed.

When asked again to work for the network, he responded: “Make me an offer.”

At NBC, he worked as a reporter and writer for its documentary series “NBC White Paper.”

Television writing was a different kind of writing from print journalism, so he made some adjustments.

“The best training for writing for television is the wire services. I hit NBC in its glory years in the ’60s and ’70s. We had an audience of 18 million people. They don’t come near that now. If they get 7 million, they’re lucky.”

In 1963, he segued to the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” as a reporter and writer. Subsequently, he was promoted to associate producer and then executive producer in 1969.

Two years later, he developed “NBC Nightly News” and served as executive producer for that as well as “NBC White Paper” and “NBC Reports.”

When the nation was decked out in bicentennial splendor, he left NBC. PBS wanted him to be executive producer of a show, “USA: People & Politics,” anchored by Bill Moyers.

Upon their meeting, Moyers said: “I understand you’re a strong producer.”

“I said, ‘I’m strong enough to let you do what you want to do.’”

Moyers exited to replace CBS’s Eric Sevareid. Westfeldt convinced PBS to hire Lynn Scherr.

After two years, Westfeldt left and temporarily served as executive producer of “ABC Special Reports.”

He eventually returned to NBC News, where he was senior producer of “NBC Magazine.”

“Which was probably a mistake.”

He was promised a Washington gig but when the president of NBC was fired, Westfeldt’s D.C. dreams were dashed.

In 1987, David Frost called and pitched “The Next President,” a series examining the central candidates for the upcoming election.

Westfeldt met with Frost and told him he didn’t want to be executive producer. He didn’t want the budget, expense account and personnel headaches.

“I said, ‘If you want a show producer. I will do that.’ We got good notice. We were picked up in the papers every week.”

Westfeldt went on to produce “Talking With David Frost” and “One on One with David Frost.”

“I was with David for 12 years. After that, I quit everything for good.”

He served as a communications consultant for what he calls “a hard business now.”

At the moment, he’s deep into “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski.

Daily, he reads the New York Times and the Press-Republican.

“For awhile, I was really worried about journalism. It’s something I see undergoing radical change. It’s still fulfilling its primary function: to put out information. It comes in different ways.

“All I’m after is information. I care less about ideas. I don’t need someone to tell me what to think. You can’t be here 84 or 85 years without being able to think for yourself.”

His awards include the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award and a Reid Fellowship for study in Scandinavia.

He is the co-author of two books: “With All Deliberate Speed” (Harper-Row 1958) and “The First Hundred Days of John F. Kennedy” (Simon and Schuster 1961.)

Westfeldt is very proud of his Peabody, received for an interview he arranged between Democratic presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter and Moyers.

“There were two things I knew,” Westfeldt said. “Bill Moyers, an ordained Baptist preacher, always wanted to be president. I also knew Jimmy Carter wanted to be an ordained Baptist preacher.

“They hit it off. It was a wonderful interview. They were just great.”

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