NBC news anchor John Chancellor dies at 68 His 40-year career at network ended in 1993

July 13, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- John Chancellor, whose urbane style graced the NBC network news for more than 40 years as reporter, foreign correspondent, anchorman and commentator, died yesterday at his home in Princeton, N.J., two days before his 69th birthday.

His passing marked the end of a long bout with stomach cancer that began after his retirement from the "NBC Nightly News" show in 1993 and continued as he was embarking on a new and ambitious career as a television commentator and writer.

Among his most prominent post-retirement achievements was as narrator of the popular public television series "Baseball," produced by Ken Burns. He also wrote, with Walter Mears of the Associated Press, a revision of their earlier primer on television and print journalism, retitled "The New News Business."

Mr. Chancellor, who started in journalism in the late 1940s as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, was best known for old-style objectivity flavored with a dry humor and a relaxed manner before the camera.

He never forgot his beginnings in print journalism and always wrote his broadcast scripts when there was time. More often, he spoke over the air extemporaneously with a few notes, a throwback to his days of dictating stories to his newspaper.

His first breakthrough as a nationally recognized television reporter came in 1957, when he covered the integration of Little Rock Central High School with federal troops dispatched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mr. Chancellor scooped the competition repeatedly, with help from a young student inside the school whom he befriended.

In December, that student, now a successful businessman, announced the creation of a journalism award in Mr. Chancellor's name, providing a prize of $25,000 annually starting this year to a journalist in television or print whose work best exemplifies the Chancellor mark of excellence.

Perhaps Mr. Chancellor's most memorable on-air moment came in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, when security-conscious police rushed him off the convention floor as he was broadcasting over a walkie-talkie. His mischievous parting line became television news lore: "Here we go down the middle aisle. I've been promised bail, ladies and gentlemen, by my office. This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody."

After nearly a decade of reporting from domestic hot spots, Mr. Chancellor took on foreign assignments based in Vienna, Austria; London; Moscow; and Brussels, Belgium, with a two-year stint on the network's early morning "Today" show.

In 1966, when Mr. Chancellor was a White House correspondent for NBC, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose a news conference Mr. Chancellor was covering to announce that he had "drafted" the NBC reporter to be his next director of the Voice of America, a job Mr. Chancellor held into 1967, before returning to NBC.

Three years later, Mr. Chancellor took over the anchor's chair on "NBC Nightly News" and held it until 1982. Thereafter, he delivered a regular commentary on the news.

As anchorman and commentator, he continued his lifelong routine of going to the story whenever he could, rather than remain in a studio. He covered presidential campaigns at home and summit meetings abroad as a reporter, whatever elevated position or title he held.

Mr. Chancellor also was a successful author whose books include "Peril and Promise: a Commentary on America," published in 1990 and read for audio books by the author. He had a number of prospective writing and television projects as his illness progressed.

John William Chancellor was born in Chicago on July 14, 1927, the son of Estil Marion and Mollie Barrett. He attended DePaul Academy in Chicago and the University of Illinois.

A brief marriage to Constance Herbert ended in divorce. In 1958, he married Barbara Upshaw, who survives him along with his daughters, Mary and Laura; a son, Barnaby; and three grandsons.

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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