We tend to think of teachers as those dedicated folks who labor in the classroom, trying to drum facts and figures into our brains.
But the very best teachers are the ones who practice their craft almost by accident, whose delight in sharing what they know is so irresistible that suddenly those around them have absorbed some priceless bit of wisdom as if by inhaling it. Such a teacher was William Crawford, CBS News producer extraordinaire, who died last week at age 71.
You may never have heard of him, but you might have recognized a lot of the journalists who gathered for his memorial service earlier this week. There were CBS stalwarts like Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Bill Plante, Eric Engberg, Jim Stewart and Phil Jones. There were lots of former CBS-ers too, Barry Serafin of ABC, Bruce Morton of CNN and Roger Mudd, who went on to NBC and PBS. There were current and former network news presidents and executive producers, writers and cameramen.
And as I looked around the Bethlehem Chapel in the National Cathedral, I suddenly realized that what we all had in common was that Crawford (as everyone called him) had been our teacher.
There was something solid and steady about Crawford. He had perfect pitch. He could listen to a presidential news conference or a congressional hearing and instinctively know what the lead was. When I was a fledgling producer on the old CBS Morning News, Crawford was my first boss.
In those days it was tough to get some of our crustier correspondents to do stories for our little-watched broadcast. Watch this, Crawford would wink at me, as he phoned up to the Hill or the Pentagon or the State Department. "I understand, I understand," heÂ'd say as he listened to the excuses of how many hours theyÂ'd already worked. Then firmly, but kindly heÂ'd end the conversation, "Just do it for me." They always would.
If you had an idea about a story, heÂ'd let you go after it. When he looked at a script, he never tried to rewrite it, but would suggest adding a line here, a change in phrasing there. He was a stickler for grammar, but for writing in an informal, friendly style.
He claimed never to do any work. Payroll retirement, he called it. But heÂ'd let you traipse after him to the edit room, the control room, the newsroom as he made the rounds to see what stories he should commission for the next morningÂ's broadcast.
When you watched the news with him, heÂ'd comment on which pieces were well written and which werenÂ't. It never got personal, it was always about the craft. If yowere working for Crawford, he wanted you to understand excellence. He knew the name of everyone in the bureau and something about their background.
He treated people with simple, straightforward respect. He was not a flatterer. "Good job," was about as flowery as he got. He made you want him to say it to you.
During Watergate, the first transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes came out on our showÂ's shift. How to handle that kind of material in the days before special effects could make almost anything happen on screen?
Crawford organized The Watergate Players, having CBS correspondents read from the transcripts, seated in front of large blowup pictures of the principals: Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell. The technique was dramatic and effective and was immediately adopted by broadcasts on our own and other networks.
To Crawford, the only thing more important than the news was his family. He never succumbed to the notion that in order to be a professional success, he had to put his wife and children on hold. We heard about her pottery and their driver's licenses and first loves and first jobs.
And at that memorial service, with all those television news stars in attendance, it was Bill CrawfordÂ's children, now young adults, who did the speaking. They talked about what a great father he was and what a great guy. If Crawford had been there, he would have grinned his famous grin.
So if you are lucky, you will meet someone like Bill Crawford. He will teach you about work. He will teach you about life. You wonÂ't even realize itÂ's happening. All you have to do is watch and listen.