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Commentary: KERA's Lee Cullum Remembers Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer around 2016.
Jim Lehrer around 2016.

Editor's note: An outpouring of tributes has followed the death of journalist and longtime PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer last week. Remembrances continued Friday at a memorial service in Washington, D.C.

Commentator and host of KERA's CEO Lee Cullum worked with Lehrer over the years, beginning with the KERA TV show Newsroom. Here she reflects on his life and legacy.

The thing about Jim Lehrer is that he was such a genuinely nice guy in a way that went beyond niceness to a temperament that was kind, considerate and always appreciative of anything that was done for him or his program.

Call him in the morning with your story idea for that night and he would be thrilled, as if you had offered him tickets to the Super Bowl. He made you feel wonderful about the work you had done for him, so you wanted to do more work. No doubt, as a former Marine, he also could be a tough taskmaster, or so I suppose. Otherwise however could he have achieved as much as he did?

And yet, there was something else at work in him, and it became more and more apparent as the years went on and success built to more success. Disciplined though not driven, ambitious though never vicious, gifted without guile — he seemingly glided from strength to strength, a golden boy with no goose to lay golden eggs for him. He was self-made, but never self-conscious.

I know of no one who expended more energy on people he met than Jim. The Zen Buddhist idea of not too much, not too little, was as foreign to him as the art of the rock garden however much he might admire it. Jim always gave 25 times more of himself than was necessary.

Newsroom staff
Credit KERA
Jim Lehrer (center), Lee Cullum (front left) and the staff of KERA's "Newsroom."

That could be one reason his heart rebelled from time to time, landing him in hospitals for surgeries, where rest was required. Jim’s heart was big and carried more than sometimes even a mighty organ like his could bear. The wonder is that it lasted as long as it did.

Sometimes, when he was on the air, the NewsHour director would whisper in his ear piece from the control room, “Don’t look at this tape. It might be too much.” It didn’t take much to be too much for Jim Lehrer.  Those reports of wars that shouldn’t happen, peace that wasn’t possible and the suffering in times both good and bad were not to him mere grist for his show. He felt them all keenly and never shrank from their appalling implications.

That might be one reason he loved literature, a place of retreat and assimilation. He read the novels of Georges Simenon for pleasure and the work of Eudora Welty for life. He met her finally and had to miss an important program on the federal budget to do it. He and his NewsHour partner, Robin MacNeil, considered the budget the invisible basis of government — too seldom covered in the media, much less understood by the voters. But Robin assured Jim there would be many chances to deal with the budget but only one opportunity to see Eudora Welty.

It cannot be said enough how critical Jim’s wife Kate was to him. More than a muse, she was an ally, a compatriot, and together they created an attitude toward journalism that elevated the American spirit for two generations of Americans. Texas has made some remarkable contributions to the nation — and Jim Lehrer is among those at the top of the list.

Lee Cullum was the host of CEO, KERA’s original monthly series of interviews with North Texas business leaders that previously aired on KERA television and radio. She is a commentator for Morning Edition on KERA-FM and contributes columns to The Dallas Morning News. A veteran journalist, Lee was previously a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered on NPR. In addition, she was editor of the editorial page of the Dallas Times Herald and host of Conversations, a series on KERA with major newsmakers. Lee also worked as a reporter, on-air moderator and executive producer of Newsroom on KERA.