I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a reporter. I was born in Houston, on the wrong side of the tracks, and one of my earliest memories is of my parents talking about the newspapers and their admiration for reporters. In our home, newspapers were "the poor man's university." We subscribed to Houston papers, the Chronicle, the Post, and the Press – but never at the same time. My father lost patience with each of them, one after the other, then turned to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and even the Christian Science Monitor.
In my early teens I came down with rheumatic fever. At the time, the only treatment was protracted bed rest. To guard against permanent and perhaps fatal heart damage, I was literally bedridden for several years. The radio was my constant companion. I listened daily to the "Murrow Boys:" Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and the rest of his excellent eyewitness reporters. These journalists brought the battles of World War II vividly to life for a boy who couldn't do anything more strenuous than look out his window. It was my first understanding of "boots on the ground" reporting. You had to go with where the news was made.
When they finally let me out of bed, I was pale and frail. I had absolutely no self-confidence. I'm not sure how, but my father knew this was a critical time for me. He arranged a summer job for me on a brush cutting crew. I was only 14, but it was expected that I would keep up with the grown men who worked along side me. I had to pull my own weight; no excuses. I must have been quite a sight: this scrawny toothpick with a red bandana tied around my head, railroad engineer's cap perched on top, khaki work shirt buttoned to the neck, and a yard-long machete swinging in its holster from my belt. We worked through forests and snake-infested swamps all summer long. The work was all Indiana Jones and Paul Bunyan and no Edward R. Murrow, but I survived and eventually thrived. It was a lifesaving, life-changing experience for me, and a true turning point. As I got my strength back, my self-confidence returned as well.
I played football, graduated from high school and became the first member of the family to go to college. At Sam Houston State Teacher's College, I studied journalism under Professor Hugh Cunningham. He got me a job at a local radio station, KSAM, where I was pretty much everything from news reporter to D.J. Perhaps most important, I did play-by-play of local athletic events. The skill of ad-libbing that I developed while calling those games became invaluable later on, both on the radio and TV.
My career as a full-time reporter begin when I joined Houston radio station KTRH. I was certainly rough around the edges, but station manager Bill Bryan took on the job of sanding them down. He was a snappy dresser who came to work each day in a suit, tie, and long-sleeved shirt. His sartorial first aid helped me woo and win Jean Goebel, our secretary, who became my wife.
At KTRH I covered city hall and the police beat. The pay was not enough to make ends meet, so I did football, basketball, and baseball play-by-play as well. It really helped sharpen my ad-libbing skills, but Jean and I were still struggling to pay the bills.
We were expecting our second child when a friend told me about an opening at TV station KHOU. I wasn't sure about television, but the pay raise was enough to make me audition. I was hired on the spot after I ad-libbed a 15-minute newscast without taking my eyes off the camera.
The man who hired me was a guy named Cal Jones, who had come to KHOU from KDKA. Cal had come from one of the best broadcast news outfits in the country, but KDKA was in Pittsburgh. He knew a lot about television, and nothing about hurricanes. When a large storm system started forming in the Gulf of Mexico in September 1961, I had to convince Cal to send me to the National Weather Bureau station in Galveston. As the storm, now named Carla, neared the Gulf Coast, I suggested that we superimpose an area map over the radar image so we could show where it might hit. This is common practice today, but it had never been done before. We all gasped when we first saw it. By now Carla was huge, and the combined image slammed home the enormity of the threat to the Texas coast. As a result, evacuations were ordered for Galveston and the surrounding communities. Many lives were saved. I broadcast from the weather bureau throughout the storm, earning myself the nickname "Hurricane Dan."
After that, I was offered a job at CBS News. I started there in February 1962, and continued to March of 2005, covering everything from the Kennedy Assassination, to the space race, to political conventions, to wars in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the horrific attack on New York City on September 11.
After leaving CBS, I signed on with Mark Cuban and HDNet in 2006. Putting on an hour of Dan Rather Reports every week means I am constantly scrambling. Nevertheless, I believe that not only are we doing some of the best investigative reporting today, but also that it's some of the best work of my career. There are 22 highly dedicated people who work on the show full time, and I am the leader of this small but mighty band of investigative journalists. For me personally, the sense of freedom and exhilaration and accomplishment I get from coming to work every day is unimaginable. Professionally, I've never been happier. Who would have guessed that the second act would be the best of all!