Witness to History

updated 03/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sam Donaldson was dashing, on deadline, through a courtyard to ABC News's Washington, D.C., studio one night in 1973, "and there was Howard K. Smith in a shirt and trousers, doing handstands." The courtly network news coanchor, then 59, "was taking time to exercise," says ABC veteran Donaldson. "Knowing Howard, it didn't surprise me."

Smith's vim and vinegar surprised few of his colleagues. As a network correspondent, anchor and commentator for more than two decades beginning in the '50s, Smith—who died of pneumonia at his home in Bethesda, Md., Feb. 15, at age 87—made headlines himself. After seeing civil rights workers brutalized in Alabama in 1961, he warned that America was in danger "of becoming a racial dictatorship, like Nazi Germany." (For refusing to "balance" his views he was fired by CBS soon afterward; he joined ABC in 1962.) A hawk on Vietnam, where his son Jack was wounded in action in 1965, he labeled antiwar protesters "self-centered." In 1973 he advocated Richard Nixon's impeachment, calling him a "Dr. Jekyll." Smith could also be hard on himself: "I think I feared unemployment," he wrote in his 1996 memoirs, "more than death in war or physical pain."

The Louisiana-born son of a railroad conductor and his homemaker wife, Smith had been a Rhodes scholar before vaulting to prominence as a protégé of CBS News radio reporter Edward R. Murrow in World War II Europe. There he met his wife of 59 years, Benedicte, 80, a Danish journalist (with whom he also had a daughter, Catherine, 48). After retiring in 1979, he lectured at colleges until sidelined by ill health last year. He could be acerbic till the end. "His one tip to me about journalism," says Jack, 56, himself a former ABC News reporter, "was, 'Don't get into it.'"

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