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Who is David Brinkley?

Ben Steelman

One of the most recognizable American newscasters in television history, David Brinkley (1920-2003) was born in Wilmington and always stayed in close touch with his hometown. In 1974, the University of North Carolina Wilmington awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. In 2001, his name was added to Wilmington’s Walk of Fame.

Born July 10, 1920, David McClure Brinkley was the youngest of five children of William Graham Brinkley, an Atlantic Coast Line railway clerk, and his wife, Mary MacDonald West Brinkley. He grew up in the family home at 801 Princess St., Wilmington [Map this], which was demolished many years ago.

Brinkley’s father died when he was 8 years old, and the whole family had to struggle to make a living, especially during the Depression. Among many other part-time jobs, yound David bagged groceries at a local A&P, changed light bulbs in the huge, illuminated “LUMINA” sign above Lumina Pavilion at Wrightsville Beach and later manned Lumina’s soft-drink stand.

An indifferent student, Brinkley was nevertheless an avid reader, spending plenty of time in the local public library, then located in the upstairs ballroom at Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St., Wilmington [Map this]. “I once took out Oswald Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West,’ ” Brinkley later told an audience at the Historic Wilmington Foundation in 1974. “The librarian said I was the only one in Wilmington that would ever read it, so she gave it to me. I still have it.”

An English teacher at New Hanover High School, Mrs. Burrows Smith, encouraged Brinkley, suggested he try journalism as a career and arranged an internship of sorts at the Star-News newspapers. (At that time, the papers published the Morning Star and the evening News.)

In his 1995 memoir, Brinkley recalled that his first story involved the blooming of a “century plant” at a house on North Fifth Avenue. The bloom did not appear, but reports drew a large, unruly crowd to the neighborhood, and Brinkley wrote it up in amusing fashion. The story even made wire services of the time, and the newspaper’s editor, Lamont Smith, offered him a job.

“It was the best job I ever had, although not the best-paying one,” Brinkley told the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce in 1984. His salary amounted to $11 per week. Young David spent so much time at the newspaper, he eventually withdrew from New Hanover High without graduating.

During this period, Brinkley made his broadcast debut when Star-News publisher Rinaldo B. Page made a deal with local radio station WRBT. Brinkley was assigned to assemble a 5-minute news summary from the Associated Press wire and read it over the air.

In 1940, Brinkley made a stab at entering the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “but changed my mind at the last minute.” Instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to Fort Jackson, S.C. During a routine physical, however, he was misdiagnosed with a kidney ailment and was given a medical discharge. (His old unit, Company I of the 120th Infantry, was later nearly wiped out in a “friendly fire” incident shortly after the Normandy invasion in 1944.)

Brinkley returned to the Star-News for a time — a period photo shows him interviewing Gen. George C. Marshall during an inspection tour of Camp Davis — but he soon joined the United Press as a reporter and later a bureau chief in Atlanta, Montgomery, Ala., Nashville and Charlottte. In 1943, the NBC radio network hired him as a Washington correspondent.

By 1950, Brinkley was delivering regular Washington spots on John Cameron Sawyze’s “Camel News Caravan” and developing a reputation as a wry wit. In 1956, NBC matched him with Montana native Chet Huntley to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. The duo proved so popular, the network hired them as permanent co-anchors, and “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” premiered on Oct. 29, 1956. Their nightly sign-off ritual — “Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David, and good night for NBC News” — became a national catch phrase.

At one point, a survey found that the Huntley-Brinkley team was recognized by more Americans than John Wayne or the Beatles.

One story claimed that an old lady once stopped Brinkley on the street and asked, “Aren’t you Chet Huntley?” “No, ma’am,” Brinkley replied, “he’s the one out West on a horse.”

Lots of fans, however, could tell the two apart. Variety magazine once ran an ad offering $1,500 for someone to impersonate Brinkley in a one-minute commercial.

Huntley retired in 1970, and Brinkley stayed on as co-anchor on the renamed “NBC Nightly News With John Chancellor” through 1979. He remained with NBC for 38 years.

In 1981, ABC News President Roone Arledge hired Brinkley to head up a Sunday-morning news program, “This Week With David Brinkley.” The program quickly revolutionized its format, with multiple interviews with several correspondents, and a lively roundtable discussion over which Brinkley would preside. Brinkley retired from the series on Nov. 10, 1996, but continued to do periodic commentaries until 1997.

During his career, Brinkley won 10 Emmy awards and three George Foster Peabody Awards. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidental Medal of Freedom.

In private life, Brinkley was devoted to the cause of historic preservation, serving on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He also lent his time and voice to supporting preservation efforts in his hometown.

On Oct. 11, 1946, Brinkley married Ann Fischer. The couple later divorced. On June 10, 1972, he married Susan Adolph, who survived him.

Brinkley had three sons from his first marriage: Alan, an historian, professor and provost of Columbia University; Joel, a reporter and editor for The New York Times, who shared the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting; and John, a journalist with the Scripps-Howard chain.

He was the author of four books: “Washington Goes to War” (1988), “David Brinkley: 11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television and 18 Years of Growing Up in North Carolina” (1995), “Everyone is Entitled to My Opinion” (1996) and “Brinkley’s Beat” (2003).

Brinkley died on June 11, 2003, in Houston, Texas, from complications from a fall. He is buried in Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery.

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3 Responses to “ Who is David Brinkley?”

  1. On October 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm Daniel R. wrote:

    That about sums David Brinkley. On other websites and resources people have David’s career all mixed. He was such a great person that his career was full of great information and you put into a neat readable article

  2. On October 22, 2013 at 11:05 am Si Cantwell wrote:

    Thank you. As an aside, David Brinkley visited our newsroom in May 2001. I wrote about how he gathered a crowd of admiring reporters and editors around him as he moved through the room. We’re proud that he was once a member of the StarNews staff.

  3. On November 14, 2013 at 2:32 pm will marlow wrote:

    I lived in Hanby Beach in the early sixties and I heard that his family owned the Brinkley Motel in Kure Beach. Don’t know if it was true or not.

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