“Good Evening, Everybody”


His firsts—in radio, television news (1939), aviation, exploration, reportage—are, like his honorary academic degrees and other awards, countless. His accomplishments—from his shortwave description of the 1937 coronation of George VI to his report of the final battle between the Germans and Russians from a P-51 over Berlin to the development of the wide-screen process called Cinerama—would swell the résumés of a dozen famous people. He’s known and interviewed three generations of world leaders, and his philanthropies include fund-raising on behalf of the drive to save Abu Simbel on the Nile, the Goddard Space Center, Tibetan Relief, and, in recent months, Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He also financed a handsome six-story meetingplace in New York City for explorers from all over the world.

Years ago, in one of Thomas’s favorite eulogies, columnist Damon Runyon described him as “the beau ideal of the radio fraternity, first for his complete artistry and second for his personality. You never hear a knock for Lowell Thomas among his associates.” Now vigorously enjoying his ninth decade, Thomas, who gave up his nightly newscast four years ago, is by his own estimate as busy as ever. At Hammersley Hill, the rolling estate where he and his second wife, Marianna, are living pending its donation to his alma mater, the University of Denver, Thomas reminisced recently with AMERICAN HERITAGE about one of his least favorite subjects: his own life and career.

 It’s been about four years since you signed off the longest running broadcast in the history of radio. Do you miss it?

That wasn’t my last radio broadcast. However, it was the last of a forty-six-year series, the final one of my news broadcasts. I’ve been just as busy ever since. I still have a daily radio program on some three hundred stations, plus a weekly television show and am working on two more that may keep me busy for many more years—inshallah.

What sort of a radio show are you doing now?

It’s about personalities. People I’ve known and different situations and anecdotes about them. I’ve done more than three hundred so far. Later on, one hundred or so will be included in a book.

So you haven’t retired?

On the contrary. When I gave up my network news program many assumed it meant retirement. Sometimes jokingly I say I do have a time limit, that when I reach a hundred, then maybe I’ll knock off, but I don’t know, it might not work out that way. Who knows? I might still be willing to go on and on.

…when I reach a hundred, then maybe I’ll knock off, but I don’t know, it might not work out that way.

You sound convinced you’ll live past the century mark.

I realize we have no control over such matters. But I don’t think about that. I keep hoping I’ll have the good luck to continue for many more years. In the course of my travels I’ve discovered there are areas where people live to one hundred and beyond. It may have something to do with altitude. I spent my youth in the high Rockies, at ten thousand feet. There are only two other places in the world where people live at such altitudes—the high Andes in Equador, Peru, and Boliva, and in the Himalayas, mainly Tibet.

Do you believe growing up at a high altitude improves a persons physical constitution?

All I know is that when I was in high school we looked forward to having teams come from down below to play us. We thought it gave us an edge because they got out of breath.

Most people tend to view their work as only part of their lives. Is it possible, looking back over your career, that your life was and is your work?

It’s not easy to explain such things. I suppose what we do in later years is governed to a considerable extent by what we do in our youth. Just by chance, when I was younger, I got started doing not one thing, but many, and that’s been the pattern of my life. I wonder if I might have done a lot better had I concentrated on one or two things. That’s why I never advise young people to follow my pattern.

Can you give me an example?

I didn’t have to work my way through college, but, for some reason I’ve never been able to explain, I didn’t want my father to foot the bill. He was always willing, and occasionally when I did get in a financial jam, all I had to do was drop him a note, and he would see me out of it. I worked my way doing part-time jobs and enjoyed it. Then I doubled up my courses, and finished my first two degrees in two years. I’m not sure this was wise, because I neglected my studies. I usually sat in the front row, appearing to be enthralled by what the prof was saying. And I somehow managed to get by.

Appearing to take an interest?