I met Mike Wallace only once, many years ago, but I’d like to think I actually got to know him in the two hours we spoke.
Our meeting came on Martha’s Vineyard in July of 1999, one day after John F. Kennedy Jr. was buried at sea off that same island. I had met Mike there with his son, Chris Wallace, to interview them for a book I was writing, a collection of my essays and Jim Graham’s photographs about famous and not-so-famous father-son relationships.
They are smiling on the cover of that book, Father's & Sons, looking forever young, even though Mike was 80 at the time.
He died Saturday. He was 93.
I saw Chris Wallace in August at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, and I asked him how his father was doing. “Not good,” he told me and then gave that non-verbal, telltale sign of really not good – shaking his head “no” and pursing his lips.
When putting together the list of people I wanted for the book, I had gone after Mike and Chris Wallace for a few reasons: Chris Wallace was a big name, Mike Wallace was a huge name, I admired them both, and I knew about another son of Mike’s, Peter.
Peter died in 1962. He was 19.
During our interview, with Chris at his side, Mike recounted how he hadn’t heard from Peter, who had been hiking around Europe, so he tracked down the youth hostel where he’d been staying. People there told him Peter had planned to climb a mountain near the Gulf of Corinth.
So, Mike hired a guide and a donkey and found himself riding to the top of a cliff.
I could see pain appearing on Mike Wallace's face as he recounted this story, and I could have interjected something, anything, to ease things for him just a bit, but I didn't. I'm not sorry for that. It helped me get to know him.
“We sat down to catch our breath, and we’re sitting there like this,” Mike Wallace told me, hunched over, forearms on his knees. “I looked down, and about 150 feet down we saw somebody – and there he was.”
That’s when his eyes started to well a bit, which I’m counting as crying, because I know that Mike Wallace will be remembered mostly as the granite-nosed, zero-nonsense, “Give me a break!” tough guy, and by his signature emotion, outrage.
But Mike Wallace had tears in his eyes that day. If not for the well-timed fake cough and thrown-back head – the thing guys do to pull themselves back – he would have pushed those tears down his cheeks rather than blinking them back inside.
And I think people should know that and remember: Mike Wallace could cry.
And people should know that Mike Wallace could laugh a lot, too. He did the day I met him, anyway. He joked with Chris, and with me, and he was funny and pensive and introspective and kind and a braggart about his wife, Mary, and he was all at once regretful about portions of his life, but happy with how he had lived it.
He confessed, and Chris confessed, that it took them too long to develop a relationship that they both could cherish.
Yes, Mike Wallace never shrunk down in an interview, whether it be with scam artists, politicians or those who were one in the same. Yes, Mike Wallace was a tough guy.
He was so much more than that, though.
Toward the end of our interview, I asked him what he was most proud of over his long career. I expected him to bring up one of his toe-to-toe, fist-to-chin, ask-anything-and-everything interviews.
He didn’t. He was proud of his career, clearly. But he changed the subject and nodded toward Chris.
“The fact that I have him and my grandchildren and my daughter and her children and Mary and her kids – I can’t tell you how satisfying that is,” he said.
“It took a long time. There’s a picture in there,” he said, pointing toward his dining room. “It was taken on my eightieth birthday, and there’s a family in that picture, and in this house there’s a family, and the fact that we have this – we really do have this – that’s what’s finally nice for me.”
Todd Richissin is Patch's regional editor for Iowa.