The Anchorman Who Came to Dinner – Peter Jennings, 1938-2005

peter jennings
It’s been just over a week now that I heard the news about Peter Jennings’s passing. I knew he had developed lung cancer, but still it was shocking to lose him so soon after the announcement of his diagnosis only a few months ago. When I heard about the cancer back in spring, I wept at my desk and couldn’t keep my eyes dry all day, not with doom and despair, because I was confident that he’d fight it, but more because cancer is tough. I certainly cried last week when I found out that he had passed on to whatever glorious afterlife is in store for him. I’ve been getting many kind words from friends and family. Thank you to everyone for your concern. It was sad.

I debated about whether to even make mention of it here in this place where I wax on and on and on about food, because the subject of death is rather depressing and this is supposed to be about leading a delicious life. But after I thought about it for a few days, I realized that Peter’s passing is really a time to remember and celebrate the amazing, though too short, life that he led.

Do I sound like I’m talking about a dearly departed close friend? A family member even? No, I didn’t know Peter Jennings personally. I’ve never met him face-to-face, never even saw him from the nosebleed seats of a stadium in which he might have given a lecture. I doubt that Peter and I were ever physically within 1000 miles of each other. But how else do I write of the man who basically joined my family via a tiny glowing box every night at or around dinner time for almost all of my childhood? Peter Jennings on ABC World News Tonight was there with conservative white shirt and tie, perfectly combed and sprayed hair that stayed in the same style from decade to decade, and the deep voice that I could recognize as his even when I had my back turned to the television. He relayed to us the good, the bad, and the ugly of the world as the five of us sat safely around our beige formica-topped dinner table with a lazy Susan, slurping down linguine with white clam sauce out of a can. And kimchee.

As we listened to this, that, and the other news about the world from Peter Jennings, the anchorman himself served as example in a few of Dad’s dinner-time lectures. Subjects of these lectures were varied, and were repeated so many times through the course of my childhood (even now) that I can give them titles: The Rule of 72; Everything Comes from China; Idioms that no Child Would Ever Use but Will be Taught to us Anyway; and my favorite, the one that has many many sub-lectures that I might go into another day, You are in America.

It is this last one in which Peter Jennings came up a lot. When the focus was on speaking, Dad would reference Peter Jennings, saying that national newscasters speak perfect grammatical and structural English, and more importantly, without any accent, foreign, regional, or otherwise. Listen, you should sound just like Peter Jennings. Dad didn’t want his little Korean children to be thought of as third world immigrant kids (even though we were all born in the States). That is why our dog’s name was Buffy, so we could practice “f,” a sound that doesn’t exist in the Korean language. Neither does the “th” sound, so Dad’s insistence on saying thank you was not so much training in politeness rather than speech practice.

Peter was also an example of how we should present ourselves, which was really a hybrid lecture of You are in America and Dad T. Molloy’s Dress for Success. Classic and conservative, in a style-less style that was neither vintage nor too fashion forward, and would not hint, again, at any sort of ethnic or regional influences. No cowboy boots (we were living in San Antonio, Texas at the time). I didn’t get it – I ran around in izod shirts and OP shorts all the time. Sometimes a Gloria Vanderbilt skirt.

You are in America would often turn into a discussion of food, and Dad would caution us about eating weird foods, even as we sat there happily popping dduk bok-ki or gim-bahp (the Japanese call it futomaki) with our chopsticks. Aside from the usual weird foods that included berries from bushes and other poisonous things that could possibly be out on the streets, he warned us that Korean food, especially kimchee, stinks. We are Korean, so we like kimchee and don’t notice the smell at all, but non-Koreans would sense that stinky stench from a mile away. He never told us not to eat it, but he discouraged us from liking it so much. When we are old enough to have jobs, we should never ever take kimchee to the office for lunch or we would be fired! He told us to just eat like normal Americans. Not too stinky, not too spicy. Not sitting on the floor, not with the bowl or plate shoved right up under our chins, and certainly not with chopsticks. He would take us to Denny’s to make sure we knew how to sit up straight at the table, and bring small bites of spaghetti to our mouths with forks and knives. I don’t think Peter Jennings ever came up in these lectures, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if my Dad had told us that Peter Jennings ate steak with A-1 every night.

After I flew the home coop and landed here and there all over the West Coast in my post-college days, my evenings with Peter Jennings became few and far between. School and work life didn’t allow for sit-down dinners anymore, if dinner at all. It just became that bowl of Special K or scrambled egg whites with sriracha at 11 pm standing over the kitchen sink. And with the massive invasion of cable tv on my life, 0+2, 0+4 and 0+7 were rare combinations on the remote control. I became enamored of the FoodNetwork back when it actually had good shows, and CNN. All food, and all news, all the time.

But on a somewhat dewy morning in that seasonal limbo between vacation and Indian summers in L.A., the digitized ring tone of my cell phone twinkled. I almost ignored it, almost shoved it under my pillow to “snooze” for nine more minutes. It rang again, and when I realized that it was a phone call, I answered. It was my sister Jess, and within minutes, I was wrapped in my binkie sitting on the edge of the couch in her apartment up the street, my glasses with a three year old prescription because I had no time for contact lenses, watching the t
v screen in scary silence, the events of September 11.

It was Peter Jennings whom we watched. CNN, Fox News, every channel was broadcasting, but with such horrifying things unfolding before us, we chose to watch the man we trusted the most, the face that was most familiar to us. His steady voice, broken with emotion a few times. In such a frightening moment, it reminded me of the childhood when I felt safe and comfortable in the dining room with my own family. Peter Jennings was there on the tv, hours upon hours, slowly the mousse and spray fading, hair becoming ruffled, sleeves rolled up higher and higher with each hour, his tie loosened, and finally removed, he was there in my living room, dedicated to keeping us informed. I had no appetite that day. I didn’t eat. All I did was watch Peter Jennings and the news explode in bits and pieces all over the media. He was there for almost two days straight reporting the news, just as dedicated to his job, his work, the news, and to us, as he had been his whole life.

I’ll never forget the Rule of 72. I’ll never forget that even though Everything Comes from China, I am in America. I’ll never forget my family dinners with Peter Jennings there on the tv, and how much we trusted him to bring us the world in one hour.

Good Night, Peter Jennings. Rest in Peace.

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  • Anonymous

    Wow, Sarah, that was a really nice way to incorporate your childhood food memories with remembering Peter Jennings.

  • augustusgloop

    What a tribute.

    PS. Your dad sounds loveably hilarious. I’m sure there’s a movie in there somewhere!

  • sarah j. gim

    yeah, he was quite a news reporter. i actually had quite a silly crush on peter jennings. *chuckle* i think it was that voice, which i sure am going to miss.

    ag: my dad is hilarious, but when we were little, and even now when he leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head, the tell-tale sign that a lecture is about to begin, it most definitely is NOT lovable! lol!

  • Anonymous

    We’ll miss Peter Jennings, too. May he rest in peace, and may God comfort and bless his family.

  • Daily Gluttony

    Beautiful post Sarah.

    BTW, I bring kimchee to work even though it stinks, that’s cause I don’t give a rats ass if people end up hating me. But whenever I start a new job, no way! =)

  • Daily Gluttony

    Beautiful post Sarah.

    BTW, I bring kimchee to work even though it stinks, that’s cause I don’t give a rats ass if people end up hating me. But whenever I start a new job, no way! =)

  • Fatemeh

    Sarah, this is an incredibly touching post in tribute to an amazing man.

    I was a journalism major in college in DC, and was lucky enough to be on President Clinton’s first transition team (would you believe they staged it in our student union?).

    I got to meet Mssrs Jennings, Rather & Brokaw at one point during that amazing 2 weeks, and it was the moment of a lifetime.

    I, too, associate him with “How to be American 101″, and I too cried when I heard of his passing.

    Thanks again for a beautiful tribute.

  • NS

    This is both extremely touching and beautifully written. A truly outstanding piece. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • sarah

    pam: i think nowadays, especially since you and i live in l.a., bringing stuff like kimchee is totally “normal.” it’s a veritable global kitchen in our break room here in the office from noon to 1 pm – people heating up all sorts of stuff in the microwave oven like indian curry, mexican food, every sort of asian food…and of course thai food from all the restaurants in this area. it was just that back in texas, almost 20 years ago, anything excepts tex mex was weird and exotic. lol!

    fatemah: wow. i am pea green with envy that your got to meet them – that must have been such an awesome moment! tom brokaw is kinda cute, too ;)

    ns: thanks for stopping by and reading, and also for the sweet complimentary words. :)

  • sarah

    oh, and fatemah, one more thing, isn’t it strange how “American” Peter Jennings was to us, but i only found out while watching some of the specials about him in the last week, that he was CANADIAN and only became a U.S. citizen in the last few years! i don’t know why, but for some reason, that’s so cool to me. i am sure i will be able to put thoughts together about the significance in that in the next few days. :)

  • Fatemeh

    Yes, it is amazing. And you know, the reason he got his citizenship was for his family — it wasn’t even anything he had strong feelings about.

    The “trinity” was talking about how they (and Ted Koppel) used to have an occasional poker game. One of them said that there were very few people in the world who could understand what it was like to be one of them.

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall in THAT room. Can you even imagine?

  • biffbruin

    beg to differ regarding jennings’ citizenship, he definitely felt he was american and that was the reason for the change (so i’ve read in recent tributes and also heard in an interview)

    that was a touching memoir, my folks have a similar relationship with mr brokaw. what an age we live in, i’m amazed how surfing the net you can come upon blogs with really excellent writing, a most appreciative thanks for that . .

  • sarah

    fatemah: i would just love it if i found out that they got together to play poker, told stupid dirty jokes, watched ESPN and the simpsons and talked about monster trucks.

    LOL!

    biffbruin: glad you stopped by! and a fellow bruin, too ;)

  • biffbruin

    here’s link regarding mr jennings’ becoming a naturalized u.s. citizen, while retaining his canadian citizenship

    http://www.friends.ca/News/Friends_News/
    archives/articles07080303.asp

    thought i should support the charge i made above. no wonder you’re competent blogger, you’ve got UC education =D

  • sarah

    that’s double dose of uc…berkeley AND ucla ;)
    and thanks for the link!

  • biffbruin

    oh, i am impressed, you went to cal too (was that for grad school). i love berkeley, two of my best friends went there, so i used to visit often. do you have a review of chez panisse? that’s one of my favorite restaurants

  • sarah

    hi biff bruin! cal undergrad, ucla for b-school, but i’m not giving out any graduation years ;)

    i went to chez panisse a long time ago, but funny, it was after i graduated from college. i remember most of it, simply because the person i was with was so enthusaiatics about everything, but for me, i wasn’t at the point yet where i cared about food beyond “yeah, that tastes good.”

    i will say, it was the first time i ever had poached halibut and i was like, uh, what the heck? why is it so tiny and swimming in soup?!?! lol!

  • biffbruin

    oh dear, you mean you weren’t ms. delicious back then =D i can’t recommend it highly enough (after all, alice waters is considered the mother of cali cuisine, and deservedly so), check out their website, they post a weekly menu. berkeley’s a special place, that liberal vibe still lives and breathes up there, warms me cockles . . always see great bumper stickers in berzerkeley, last one i saw said: “one nation . . under serveillance” =D

  • hermz

    That voice would always take me back. I have similar evening time / family / news memories myself. (Except I was never warned about eating sauerkraut.)

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