Bob Schieffer, "Face the Nation" and Dick Jones Communications

Bob Schieffer’s retirement from CBS News caused me to think about the time he used one of our stories in 1995 as the close to his show, “Face the Nation.”  He also used it in his 2004 book, likewise titled “Face the Nation.”  He called it, “The Short Life of Angel Wallenda” and here is how it came about.

The phone rang shortly before noon on Friday, May 3, 1995.  On the line was the ever-astonishing Dennis Miller, director of public relations at Mansfield University.

“Angel Wallenda died this morning,” he said. 

“Send me everything you have on her and the funeral home information too,” I replied.  Dennis and I knew that I had to write an obituary about this most remarkable person and to pitch it to AP, The New York Times, Time, and others. 

Like most of the Wallendas, Angel walked the high wire—literally—and often without a net.  That’s what The Flying Wallendas do.  What made Angel unique was that she walked the wire after aggressive cancer caused one leg to be amputated.  She balanced on the wire using a prosthetic leg.

I met in Angel in 1990 at a time when her cancer had returned and she needed additional treatment at a hospital in Chicago.  But she and her husband Steve had little money and no health insurance.  They were living in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, along the state’s sparsely populated northern tier where Mansfield University is located.  Dennis Miller knew them and hatched an amazing plan for a fund raiser to help pay for Angel’s cancer treatment. 

Somehow Dennis convinced the administration at Mansfield University to allow Angel, her husband Steve Wallenda, and their five-year-old son, Steve, Jr. to walk a very high wire from one end of Mansfield University’s Decker Gymnasium to the other.  They did this without a net, of course.  That’s what Wallendas do.   Four thousand breathless people crammed into Decker Gym to see it.  And all proceeds went to fund Angel’s cancer treatment.

As Dick Jones Communications was responsible, then and now, for national media relations for Mansfield University, we handled the publicity.  It received international coverage. 

Angel was a sweet-tempered kid who had overcome a horrific childhood.  I always got the impression from her that she expected something good to come from every experience.  That was how she lived her life.

And now on May 3, 1995 that life had come to an end.  Though Angel was never affiliated with Mansfield University in any official capacity, Dennis and I knew that we had to try to tell the world about her one last time.  I wrote an obituary and began sending it to media outlets.

Shocked I was when Lawrence Van Gelder himself—the obit editor for The New York Times—called me back, checked a few details and then, using additional sources, wrote his own obit for Angel.  And Ted Anthony of The Associated Press, bless him, who had been critically important in arranging for coverage of Angel’s 1990 walk, did the same. 

Reading The New York Times obit on Saturday, May 4 (“Angel Wallenda, 28, a Flyer Despite a Life of Obstacles”) was CBS’s Bob Schieffer.  This was shortly after Bob had introduced personal commentaries to “Face the Nation” and he must have been searching for one to end his show the next day.  Here is what he said on that May 5 broadcast:

“It was crowded off the front pages and the newscasts by what may have seemed to be more important news but deep in the pages of The New York Times there was a wonderful story about a wonderful life that bears repeating.  It was an account of the very short life of Angel Wallenda who had married into the famous circus family at the age of 17 after surviving a nightmare childhood in which she was beaten and starved and finally overcame drugs. 

“When her husband-to-be found her scooping ice cream in a shopping mall and invited her to join the family high-wire act, she accepted without hesitation because she said it sounded like a great adventure. 

“But shortly after she began her training she developed cancer.

“Eventually her right leg was amputated below the knee and parts of her lung were removed, but she continued training and walked the high wire on an artificial limb.  She said she did it ‘because when I’m way up there in the sky walking on a thin line with a fake leg, people look at me and really pay attention.  They see I’m using everything I’ve got to live my life the best way I can.  It makes them think about themselves and some of them see how much better they could live their own lives.’ 

“’Maybe that is my main purpose for being here.’”

“Angel Wallenda was just 28 when the cancer finally got her this week. 

“Go into any bookstore these days and you’ll find shelves filled with books about whether angels really exist. 

“Well we know where there is at least one, don’t we?”

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