Hardworking Midwesterner: On Tom Brokaw’s “Never Give Up”
By Michele WillensJune 29, 2023
Never Give Up: A Prairie Family’s Story by Tom Brokaw
What Brokaw is doing now is revealing the stories behind his story. Is his new memoir Never Give Up: A Prairie Family’s Story a must-read tome? Probably not. Is it a name-dropping “I was there” tell-all? Surely not. Will it have special meaning for Los Angeles readers who may remember his years on the air there? I think it might. In the end, Never Give Up is a tribute to those who helped Brokaw along his way, and it motivates us to look back on key places and people in our own lives who did the right things for the right reasons.
I confess that I have known Brokaw for a long time. (He credits me with having done the first article about him when he was anchoring KNBC news.) But I can’t say I truly knew him until reading this very personal book. I recently asked him how he looks back on his Los Angeles years. “When I arrived in ’68, it was a folksy place where Hope, Crosby, and others shared the lot with the newspeople,” he told me. “Bob Hope would give us grief for not supporting the Vietnam War or Reagan more enthusiastically. Dinner out for four was less than a hundred bucks.”
In Never Give Up, while we follow younger Tom from his childhood to his perch at the top of his field—as he reports weather in South Dakota, anchors local news in Los Angeles, covers Richard Nixon’s presidency from the nation’s capital, and eventually hosts The Today Show and NBC Nightly News in New York—we mostly hear about his parents, Anthony “Red” and Eugenia “Jean” Brokaw. Like so many hardworking Midwesterners, they struggled through the Great Depression, World War II, and much more. They moved constantly, with Red—who dropped out of school in the second grade—constantly finding ways to make ends meet. He never gave up. Red “began life with everyone writing him off,” Brokaw writes. “He was the emblematic, prized blue-collar success in this modern miracle on the prairie.”
The story begins inside the Brokaw House Hotel in Bristol, South Dakota, where Tom’s grandparents set up shop and started a long life in the state. It was, Brokaw writes, a “smoky, noisy place, popular with itinerant railroad men and traveling salesmen.” One tenant named Oscar, a Swedish immigrant, stayed 50 years, and when he needed help with his drilling and repairing business, he hired Red, who was eight at the time. “They were the ‘go-to-pair’ on the prairie,” Brokaw reports, “on call to solve the toughest problems.” Tom’s mother Jean, even while raising three sons, always found ways to contribute, often working in post offices. Many years later, the author discovered tape recordings—every writer’s dream—in which his dad made clear that things had been tougher than he later shared. “The inner Red who emerged in the recordings surprised even those of us in the family who knew his early life had been difficult,” says Brokaw. “We had no idea just how difficult it had been, and how much it had shaped him personally.”
The Brokaw family lived in multiple places in South Dakota—basically wherever “jack-of-all-trades” Red could find work. They settled for a while in a place called Fort Randall. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took a bold step,” Brokaw recalls. “It decided to build from scratch a postmodern town to handle the expected three thousand newcomers. […] There was nothing quite like it on the Great Plains. […] When Life magazine did a photo spread on the town and the dam, we knew we were in the promised land.” This prairie son, who would go on to live among the rich and famous in West Los Angeles, Georgetown, and Park Avenue, vividly details what life was like growing up with windmills, drought, and fickle water supplies. Brokaw even has “memories of walking to school backward against the unrelenting wind.”
The moves followed the jobs, and the times. During World War II, the family landed in a place called Igloo, officially titled the Black Hills Ordnance Depot. It “was initially a pop-up base with no luxuries,” writes Brokaw, though “the Army had managed to construct a movie theater, a dance hall […] and a general store open to civilians as well as uniform personnel.” Tom was four at the time, but it is clear that the experience had an impact on even such a young boy—one who would, many decades later, write a seminal book about neighbors who chose to leave home for a higher cause.
Brokaw’s strong beliefs in civil rights and the rights of Native Americans were built on early experiences, as well as the values he inherited. “Mother and Dad raised us to be colorblind,” he writes. In his early life, Tom befriended members of several tribes and remained sympathetic and loyal to them. “Later,” he writes. “when [Pickstown] wanted to name a street for me, I suggested instead that a prominent Lakota Sioux should have the honor.”
Other hints of his future life show up periodically. One of his dad’s (and his own) heroes was Jackie Robinson. Tom later interviewed the legendary athlete: “I all but knocked over [Nelson] Rockefeller [for whom Robinson was campaigning] to shake hands with my hero.” Likewise, his mother loved to listen to then local celebrity Lawrence Welk on the radio in their home in Yankton, South Dakota. “Many years later, I met Welk in California and told him of our common connection to Yankton,” Brokaw writes. “He got excited and wanted to give me something. It was a tiny wooden bowling pin from his Palm Springs bowling alley. His reputation for tightfisted money management was secure.”
The first hint of whom Tom Brokaw would become professionally started with a grandfather who “would stay up late listening through earphones to far-off news and sporting events,” he writes. But it was the house in Yankton that gave the family their “first exposure to household television. […] I was riveted by the opportunity to see the changing world piped into our home,” Brokaw recalls. “I watched every night, never dreaming that within ten years I would be part of the NBC team.” There was a period when Tom was “seriously adrift,” particularly during his college years, but those who loved and believed in him got him back on track.
I don’t know if nonfans will run out to buy this book, and Brokaw is not doing tours or readings (though former Today co-host Jane Pauley did recently interview him at his home for her Sunday show). But Never Give Up is a short and easily digestible book, and what comes through most from it is this man’s deep appreciation for family—for those who raised him and the children he raised with longtime wife Meredith. Sure, sometimes it’s a sappy tale, but it’s well deserved in what is likely the author’s last act. (Brokaw has been suffering for years from a well-publicized cancer diagnosis.) The writing is deeply felt, and others will likely relate to the spirit of those who “met the challenge without whining or whimpering” and “gave us, their successors, the will to go on.” To never give up.
The man does have memories. One of my favorites, which I once heard him recall, was Brokaw making fun of his own underwhelming education. Over a loudspeaker, this very young man was asked to introduce a prominent person in attendance, as an emeritus. Brokaw had never heard the word before and proceeded to guess its pronunciation. Later, the man found him and said, “Well, Brokaw, I’ve had tonsillitis and hepatitis, but I’ve never had emer-itis.” Tom Brokaw can now laugh when he looks back. In this new book, he looks back even further, and you too will laugh at times, maybe cry, but certainly enjoy the journey.
Michele Willens’s last piece for LARB was “Footloose in America: A Conversation with Neil King Jr.” She is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause (2021).
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