For 20 years Tom Brokaw was at the helm of “NBC Nightly News” delivering the news of the day, and sometimes the news of a lifetime. In 1989, Brokaw was at the Berlin Wall – the only one of the “Big Three” (Brokaw, CBS’ Dan Rather and ABC’s Peter Jennings) who was there.
Colleagues still call him “Duncan,” short for Duncan the Wonder-Horse, for his vaunted capacity for work. And his latest book, titled “Never Give Up,” could explain where that comes from.
Brokaw’s book is a hybrid of memoir and history, a kind of love letter to his parents and to the hardworking people of the Plains who shared a “never give up” outlook.
Pauley asked Brokaw, “Is this the story of your success compared to your parents, or because of your parents?”
“Oh, it’s because of my parents,” he replied.
Including his dad, “town tough” Red Brokaw. “He was the toughest kid in town,” said Tom.
If a character had been invented by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, it would’ve been Red Brokaw.
The youngest of ten, Red had a learning disability. He quit school in second grade, and went to work at the age of eight, doing horrifyingly dangerous jobs. “One of ’em was digging a deep well,” said Brokaw. “And they would put a rope around my dad’s legs, and drop him down head-first into the well.”
Or working with farm machinery. Pauley said, “In those times, nobody batted an eye when your father is on some kind of agricultural contraption and if he had fallen off his perch, he would’ve been shredded.”
“There were no rules in those days,” said Brokaw. “And if there were federal regulations, they didn’t get all the way to Bristol, South Dakota, I got to tell ya’.”
After the Civil War, like other ambitious young men, Tom’s great-grandfather, Richard P. Brokaw, went West, and got off the train in Bristol.
Pauley asked, “What opportunity did he think he would find in the middle of nowhere?”
“It was completely barren at that point,” Brokaw said. “And he decided what it really needed was a place where people could find food and find a place to stay.”
Over the years, the Brokaw House became a local landmark. A family business, everyone worked. Their menu, from 1902, with Tom’s grandmother in the kitchen preparing it all, included Oyster Stew, Roast Turkey, Duck, Roast Beef, Boiled Lamb, Mashed Potatoes, Peas, Squash, Steamed Suet Pudding with Brandy Sauce, Mince Pie, Apple Pie, Custard Pie, Blueberry Pie, Orange Pudding, and Assorted Cake. “My grandmother, unfortunately, died at an early age,” Brokaw said. “She was only 42. ‘Cause she just worked full time.”
Throughout his life, it seems, Red Brokaw worked all the time. “He wanted to be respected. He wanted people to think well of him,” said Tom.
Tom’s interest in news gathering may have come from his mother, Jean. A working mother, she was the local postmistress. “It was like being the head of a newspaper in town,” said Brokaw. “Everything went through the post office.”
Red Brokaw was as self-made as a working man could be – a genius with heavy machinery who could build anything.
He worked on helping construct the Fort Randall Dam. A muscular monument to a confident post-war America, the dam stands astride the Missouri River, built in nine years by the Army Corps of Engineers and an army of working men like Red. “It was a hugely important dam for flood control and other things, and for creating power,” said Brokaw.
And jobs. The Brokaw family packed up and headed for Pickstown. “Pickstown was a magical place. And it had everything you can imagine. It had great schools. It had great hospitals. And everybody came from all over America, mostly working class.”
Pickstown was a manufactured town for the people who would build the dam, who found neat houses with state-of-the-art amenities, like heat and running water. “And at the end of the nine years, they folded it up, and shipped it away,” Brokaw said.
The story of Tom Brokaw’s success begins in Pickstown. “When there was a school play, I had a lead,” he said. “When there was an event that was going on in town in which they needed an emcee, guess who they called?”
Yankton, South Dakota, is what Tom calls home. His high school resume includes governor of South Dakota Boys State, and class president. Meredith Auld was vice president, a cheerleader, the doctor’s daughter – and his future wife. They’ve been married for sixty years. When she was about to marry Tom, Meredith told a friend, “Well, I don’t know if we’ll make any money, but life will be interesting.”
Beyond their dreams. In 1976 Brokaw’s career was taking off, as a new host of NBC’s “Today,” with a really new newcomer by his side.
And Meredith was a matchmaker. Tom told Pauley, “I knew Garry before he met you. Then, he was showing up at my office a lot. And Meredith said, ‘It’s not about you, he wants to meet Jane.’ Oh!”
“Well, on behalf of my children, thank you!” Pauley laughed.
The Brokaws dote on their three daughters and five grandchildren. “It’s a commentary on where we’ve come in life,” he said. “You know, we now have a grandson who’s going away to a soccer camp in Europe.”
“It seems unimaginable from our early life, right?” said Meredith.
Ten years ago, life took a hard turn. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, Tom Brokaw wasn’t supposed to live to be 83. But “Duncan” is still the Wonder-Horse.
“I’ve had a bad experience,” he said. “I kept thinking bad things wouldn’t happen to me. But as I grew older, I began to develop this condition. And what you try to do is control it as much as you can. And I’ve had to change my life in some way. I really had to give up my daily activity with NBC. I had to walk away from them, as they were walking away from me. I just wasn’t the same person. And so, for the first time in my life, I was kind of out there, you know, in a place I had never been in my life.”
But what a life it’s been.
Pauley asked, “You were deeply formed by your South Dakota roots. You left. But what did you take with you?”
“That you get things done by getting ’em done. As my family and my friends will all tell you, I never run out of gas!” he laughed.
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- “Never Give Up: A Prairie Family’s Story” by Tom Brokaw (Random House), in Hardcover, Large Print, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Ed Givnish.
- From 2019: