by Ellen Klausner
While Mike Wallace’s legacy will be of a tough, hard-hitting newsman, one brief incident in my life will always make me think of him as a mensch.
In 1968, I was a college junior spending a year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I’d begun intensive language classes in August and communicated with my Brooklyn family via mail (snail) and biweekly phone calls, whose quality, at best, could be described as an underwater-echo chamber.
One December afternoon, after leaving class, I heard the wail of sirens. As I turned a corner towards the campus square, I saw clusters of agitated students, faculty and staff congregating, most of whom appeared dazed and immobilized. Some were weeping.
It would be hours later that I would learn from the Israel news service that terrorists had claimed responsibility for the lunchtime bombing of the largest cafeteria on campus. While the Israeli news service is quick to inform its residents of what is happening in a country the size of New Jersey, as I walked through the large, open campus, nobody seemed sure at the time about the identity of the bombers nor the severity of the situation. Details were scarce, but it was clear that the always-volatile Middle East “situation” had just ratcheted up a notch.
As I approached the modern University building that housed the cafeteria, I smelled smoke and saw the shards of glass and the twisted skeletons of dining tables and chairs propelled onto the plaza from the force of the explosion. While I worried about the safety and status of my classmates, friends, and professors, I was also concerned as to when and how this catastrophic event would be reported overseas. Information moved much more slowly in 1968 than it does today. I didn’t know how best to communicate with my family that I was, indeed, safe?
Suddenly, as if scripted from a Hollywood set, a figure appeared on campus and small groups of people moved towards him and his crew.
Curious, I joined the crowds and soon recognized a khaki-clad Mike Wallace. Mike was seizing the moment to interview those at the scene to report back to “60 Minutes.” He was taking the “emotional temperature” of those who’d been witness to and traumatized by this tragedy for his later analysis of the impact this event would have on Israel’s future.
I didn’t know Mike, but we soon made eye contact, and he found his way over to me to ask where I was from and how I was doing. I told him I was a native New Yorker, had been in Israel for almost five months and, while I hadn’t been physically injured from the blast, I was concerned about how my family and my friends would react when they heard the news, most likely a few days from now.
Mike smiled, reassuringly, and took out his pencil and pad, and asked for my home phone number and contact information. He promised to call my family on his return to New York to tell them that I was fine. He then directed his crew to include me in the slow pan of students, so that in this week’s edition of “60 Minutes,” my parents could see me and know I was okay.
They panned; I smiled for the CBS camera. Mike kept his word and called my parents in the next few days. To this day, my 93-year-old mother is a “60 Minutes” and Mike Wallace fan.
Ellen Klausner is a Clinical Psychologist in New York City and Julie Klausner’s mother.