Eric Sevareid, a radio and television correspondent who became one of the country's most respected reporters and commentators, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 79 years old.
He died of stomach cancer, said a spokesman for CBS.
Mr. Sevareid, who was recruited as a CBS News correspondent by Edward R. Murrow when both men were covering the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, wrote elegant commentaries that he delivered in grave and sonorous tones, even when he was being caustically witty. Like Mr. Murrow, Mr. Sevareid was tall with rugged good looks that served him well during the transition from radio to television.
His writing ability and experience, combined with an ability to project a sense of fairness and sound judgment, brought him the respect of his peers and audiences, allowed Mr. Sevareid the right to introduce analysis and even opinion into his broadcasts. Among his colleagues, he was considered a journalist above the daily battle for news who had a scholarly mien and a knowledge of the American past to his choice of words.
Mr. Sevareid took outspoken positions in favor of civil and constitutional rights on the air and in writing. During the Vietnam War, Mr. Sevareid traveled to South Vietnam in 1966 and, in a special broadcast, clearly indicated that prolonging the war was unwise and that a negotiated peace was desirable.
In his long career, he worked in several European and South American countries and in Washington and New York. He became nationally known for breaking through the strictures of straight-news reporting by pioneering editorial analysis on prime-time television.
Mr. Sevareid defined himself as a cultural conservative and a political liberal. "I find myself politically liberal on domestic affairs and increasingly conservative on foreign affairs," he wrote in 1964 in the introduction to his book "This Is Eric Sevareid." He worried a good deal about America's sense of direction. "The hour may be too late for a high civilization," he said. "We are frightened to think that the very rich grow richer, the very poor poorer, the dark-skinned more violent, our cities simultaneously more crowded and more desolate, our countryside more ugly."
His was an adventurous life, which included a harrowing month among headhunters in the Burmese jungles. That was in 1943, after the plane in which he was riding developed engine trouble as it was flying over the Himalayas from India to China. Mr. Sevareid and 19 others had to bail out on the India-Burma border but made it out of the jungle on foot. Saw Himself as a Writer
Even at the height of his fame as a television correspondent, when his appearance and stature drew movie offers and invitations to do lucrative commercials -- which he declined -- Mr. Sevareid told friends that he always considered himself primarily a writer, not a performer. He wrote dozens of magazine articles, a syndicated newspaper column and half a dozen books.
"This is the age of the journalist more than the age of the artist, the teacher or the pastor," he once said. "It is the age of nonfiction because imagination cannot keep up with the fantastic daily realities."
Mr. Severeid's best-known book, "Not So Wild a Dream," was first published in 1946 after his years of war reporting. The autobiography covered his boyhood in the Dakotas, journey by canoe through Canada to Hudson Bay, wanderings among hoboes, apprenticeship as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis and his adventures in wartime. He never forgot witnessing the terror of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The book went through 11 printings over the next 28 years and became a reference book for historians and other students of the Depression and war years. 'The Concept of Citizen'
"It was a lucky stroke of timing to have been born and to have lived as an American in this last generation," he wrote in 1976 for a new edition of the book. "It was good fortune to be a journalist in Washington, now the greatest single news headquarters in the world since ancient Rome. But we are not Rome; the world is too big, too varied. The 'American Century' concept of Henry Luce was an absurdity, too. We were not born to be imperialists; we never learned the style, and the time for this is gone. We understand the concept of citizen, not that of subject."
As an essayist who used journalism as the springboard for his idealism, he wrote: "Travels in all the continents have not lessened my love and respect for America, but deepened both, in spite of the distressing spread of our vulgarities. There is a civilization of the heart, too, and the goodness in Americans, the evangelical strain, has not disappeared. We have often been innocents abroad and at time have done unintended harm, but no other great power has the confidence and stability to expose and face its own blunders. We are a turbulent society but a stable republic."
Arnold Eric Sevareid was born to parents of Norwegian heritage on Nov. 26, 1912, in Velva, N.D. He spent his first years on the prairie wheatlands, but when drought struck in the 1920's, the family moved to Minneapolis.
After graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in 1930, he and a friend embarked on a 2,200-mile canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, to prove that it was possible to make such a trip through the continent's heartland entirely by water. He used his experiences as the basis for his first book, "Canoeing With the Cree" (1935).
At the age of 18, Mr. Sevareid worked as a copy boy and reporter for The Minneapolis Journal while attending the University of Minnesota. After being laid off from his reporting job in 1936, he and his first wife, the former Lois Finger, sailed for Europe. He studied political science at the London School of Economics, then attended the Alliance Francaise in Paris. Europe During World War II
In 1938, he was hired by the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune and soon became its night city editor. At the same time, he worked in the Paris bureau of United Press, the wire service.
In August 1939, only weeks before the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Murrow called him from London and asked if he wanted to try radio reporting. "I don't know very much about your experience," Mr. Murrow said, "but I like the way you write and I like your ideas."
Thus, Mr. Sevareid became one of "Murrow's Boys," who would enable CBS to dominate radio news for many years. He joined a group of former newspapermen turned CBS correspondents that was to include William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Alexander Kendrick, Howard K. Smith, David Schoenbrun, Daniel Schorr and Richard C. Hottelet. Last to Broadcast From Paris
Mr. Sevareid covered the French Army and Air Force in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and he was the last American to broadcast from Paris. He fled the city with his wife and their infant sons just before the Nazis marched in. At Bordeaux, he broadcast the news that France was about to surrender. Then Mr. Sevareid joined Mr. Murrow in London for broadcasts during the Battle of Britain bombing raids.
Assigned to the CBS Washington bureau after his return to the United States in late 1940, Mr. Sevareid covered President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the war effort. Feeling restive at home while the war was still on, however, he headed for the China-Burma-India theater in 1943.
Back in Europe in 1944, Mr. Sevareid covered the campaign in Italy and Marshal Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia, landed with the first wave of Americans in southern France and accompanied them across the Rhine into Germany.
His postwar assignments included Washington, France, Germany and Britain. In 1964, he became a roving correspondent based in Washington; his commentaries were regularly featured on the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite" until 1977, when Mr. Sevareid reached the company's mandatory retirement age of 65. His last appearance on a CBS News program was in "Remember Pearl Harbor," which was broadcast on Dec. 7, 1991. 'Passion and Beauty'
Walter Cronkite recently commented that he regarded Mr. Sevareid as "a master of the extemporaneous essay," citing Mr. Sevareid's performance when he first covered a space flight. "I remember that he was skeptical of manned space flights until he witnessed his first moon launching," Mr. Cronkite said. "Then he turned to the camera as the rocket disappeared into the stratosphere and delivered a totally spontaneous tribute to the astronauts and the technical successes on which they rode, a tribute that was a lovely ode of passion and beauty."
Charles Kuralt, the anchor of "Sunday Morning" on CBS, said: "Eric was the best thinker and writer who ever sat down to a microphone. He was the one giant tree in the forest. He stood alone."
Mr. Sevareid's books included "In One Ear" (1952) and "Small Sounds in the Night" (1956), which are collections of his magazine and newspaper articles and CBS broadcasts. He once wrote of himself: "I am cursed with a somewhat forbidding Scandinavian manner, with a restraint that spells stuffiness to a lot of people. But . . . inside I am mush, full of a lot of almost bathetic sentimentality about this country, the Midwest, Abraham Lincoln and the English language." Article Cited for Its 'Terrific Impact'
He had a long conversation with Adlai E. Stevenson, the United Nations Ambassador, two days before Mr. Stevenson's death in July 1965. An article based on that conversation, which was published in the Nov. 30, 1965, issue of Look magazine, won the New York Newspaper Guild's Page One Award, citing Mr. Sevareid's "excellent writing" and the piece's "terrific impact on the United States and the world."
In retirement, at his home in Washington or at his weekend cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Mr. Sevareid wrote, read and fished.
He is survived by his wife, Suzanne St. Pierre, a former producer for the CBS News broadcast "60 Minutes"; three children from two previous marriages, which ended in divorce, and six grandchildren. His two sons, Peter, of Swarthmore, Pa., and Michael, of Mount Joy, Pa., were born during his first marriage to the former Miss Finger, and his daughter, Cristina Kennedy, of Frederick, Md., was born during his second marriage, to Belen Marshall. Services will be private and a memorial is being planned in September in Washington.