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Remembering Frank Stanton

It was the most profound eulogy any of us had ever heard.  One morning in 1993, Dr. Frank Stanton stood in the well of the auditorium of the Museum of Broadcasting in New York, having lost his best friend, former CBS News President Dick Salant.  Dr. Stanton was, at age 85, lean and stout, impeccably dressed, his white hair slicked back as it always was.  The weathered and carved features of his face were contorted in sadness as he looked up from his text and explained to the gathered mourners, with a single phrase, the impact of Dick's death on his life: "In my sadness, I yield to no one."

It was, in a way that was painful to watch, classic Stanton: sincere, austere, terse, and quite perfect. It could not be challenged.

Frank Stanton boarded a shuttle flight back to his home in Boston that day, and erased another number from the dwindling list of friends, contemporaries and contacts in his address book.

When I first went to work for CBS in New York, I opened a fresh box of letterhead stationery for my desk, and discovered what I was sure was a flaw: a single dot, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, had been printed onto every sheet of paper. I remember noting that the dots, when stacked upon each other, sheet upon sheet in the box, had formed a mound of their own, as large as that of the luxurious raised lettering that adorned the top of the page. I showed it to our newsroom secretary and was immediately corrected.  "Oh, that's Dr. Stanton's dot," she said.  She went on to explain that Dr. Stanton, who had commissioned the design of the iconic CBS eye logo, was so fastidious about how all outgoing correspondence should look...that he had the dot printed on each piece of letterhead so that CBS secretaries would know exactly where to place the first letter of the first word of each and every piece of outgoing CBS correspondence.  Dr. Stanton, who once taught a high school class in typography, wanted every piece of paper that flowed from his company to adhere to an exact standard.  That dot was its own spot-on depiction of Frank Stanton.

By now, readers of the standard Stanton obituary know the story of how he came to be hired by Mr. Paley's then-fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System.  Using a combination of a small motor, wax paper and a needle, Stanton had created a "black box" in the early days of radio, that scratched out a record of each participating listener's habits, based on the travels of the tuning knob during a given period of days. It was simple, brilliant...and the first measurement device ever invented in an industry that is today dominated by ratings.

He left Ohio for New York the day after he completed his doctoral dissertation. He arrived in New York to begin a $55-a-week job in the two-man research department at CBS.

My own association with Frank Stanton began late in his life, some time after that day at the Museum of Television and Radio.  I started writing him, mostly about my memories of Dick Salant, and he kindly wrote me back with his.  A few years ago, while engaged in my own rather strange hobby -- listening to the hundreds of hours of recorded telephone conversations of President Lyndon Johnson -- I discovered Stanton's voice on many of them.  I arranged for the Johnson Presidential Library to ship a box of tapes and accompanying transcripts to Dr. Stanton's home in Boston.  He loved reliving the old conversations, even those that involved a lot of listening on Stanton's part -- when Johnson would launch into a rant about how he'd been wronged by CBS News. In return, Stanton sent me his entire file of correspondence with Johnson, beginning back when LBJ was a freshman Congressman from Texas. During my first visit to the LBJ ranch in Texas, I paused to notice a unique hand-made coffee table in the living room, inscribed as a gift to the President and First Lady from "Frank and Ruth" Stanton.

Along with its founder Bill Paley, Frank Stanton shaped the broadcasting industry by building CBS into a giant.  While his public image was one of strict order and tight control, the small circle of people he allowed "inside" knew better.  Frank Stanton, the precise Midwesterner in the gray flannel suit, proudly hung a Jackson Pollock on his office wall.  He drove around New York in a black 1952 Porsche, and later, a customized 1959 Thunderbird.  William Paley's biographer, Sally Bedell Smith, writes that Stanton often allowed himself the luxury of having his personal car sent ahead of him on various business trips, to allow him the chance to drive on the open road far from the New York City streets.  He even made sure the CBS Corporate Headquarters made a bold statement in itself: he commissioned architect Eero Saarinen, famous for the swooping, futuristic TWA Terminal at JFK, to create Black Rock, the gleaming landmark tower that today reminds passersby on New York's Sixth Avenue of the time when the networks reached toward a limitless sky.  Frank Stanton kept his private life private -- perhaps because that's where he kept all his paradoxes.

I had the chance to visit his empty Black Rock office just after his retirement from CBS.  It was a sad sight -- the depressions in the pile carpet where his desk and chairs once sat, the Dictaphone still mounted to the wall, the dust outlines where his art once hung.  His departure from the empire he helped to build was not a happy one.  He later famously said that CBS had become "just another company with dirty carpets."  Many of those who worked at CBS back then knew Frank Stanton was right...without having to look down at the carpets.  Today, we owe it to Dr. Stanton to look back with profound respect at all he created.

The man who came to New York with a PhD in psychology seemed to innately know what Americans wanted to watch on television.  He understood how people lived, and how government worked.  He defended the integrity of CBS News and built a monolith of the electronic age. Frank Stanton died on Christmas Day at the age of 98, leaving behind characteristically explicit instructions: no donations in his memory, and no memorial service.  The latter robs many of us of the opportunity to say that in our sadness, we yield to no one.