Hugh Downs Visits With Barbara Walters

Oct. 4, 2002 -- Its 9 p.m. at QVC headquarters just outside Philadelphia, and our old friend Hugh Downs — now 81 — is about to do what he does best — step in front of the camera.

This time, he's on the air to plug his new book, My America. In less than 10 minutes, Hugh has sold more than 3,000 books, while adding more airtime to his 60-year career in broadcasting.

Hugh joined NBC in 1954, and after a series of assignments he landed on the Today Show, where I was a writer. In 1963, Hugh asked me to join him as co-host.

Then, in 1978, he took over the hosting duties of a brand-new newsmagazine on ABC — 20/20. Six years later, I joined Hugh again.

For more than two decades, Hugh told the stories that he wanted to tell … everything from visiting both the North and South Poles, to conversing with a gorilla, to swimming with sharks, to training for a mission in space.

And so it was a sad day for us when he decided to leave three years ago. In typically elegant — and kind — fashion, he bade us farewell: "To each of you and your family, I send out my warmest wishes for your personal well-being and for the safety and health of our country as well."

No one, certainly not Hugh, could have ever imagined how the health of our country would change after Sept. 11. His 10th book, My America is a collection of essays from a variety of Americans reflecting back on Sept. 11, and celebrating the American spirit.

Everybody still asks me how Hugh is doing, so we invited him to return to the 20/20 set to talk about his new book and his new life.

"I'm doing more than I think I should, but I'm enjoying it," Hugh told me. He's also lecturing at the Arizona State and has a couple more books in progress.

We talked about My America. It's a book in which 150 Americans from all walks of life describe what their country means to them. (I am actually one of the 150!)

Hugh told me he began the project in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. "I had the thoughts that Americans reacted in a way that might be interesting to gather the thoughts of some people of some visibility, and many walks of life."

Hugh found a common thread among their stories. "I think it's the fact that we are not a country of despair. … Some people wrote in rage, some in grief. But the common thing was nobody was despairing. Americans tend to be on the optimistic side and with justification, I think."

In pulling together these stories, Hugh arrived at his own meaning of America. "It means it's constantly reminding me that I should be grateful. I should be thankful that I was born in this country. And that … if anybody hears me complain about it, really deeply, they should kick me, because it really is the best place to live. There's no doubt about that."

Hugh has another blessing to be grateful for coming his way very soon. His grandson Cameron's wife is expecting a little boy in November, which will make Hugh a great-grandfather.

I asked Hugh what he wanted this new little boy to know, and what he wanted to teach his first great-grandchild.

"I suppose … if he wants to remember me, I hope it will be as somebody who was worth emulating in some ways," he said.

Hugh said he and his wife are eagerly volunteering to baby-sit. They're so excited, he said, "I just hope that my wife and I don't get accused of kidnapping the child."

I can imagine Hugh as the male Auntie Mame — taking his great-grandchild scuba diving, hang gliding — all of the adventurous things Hugh himself did.

Hugh and I used to put this question to a lot of the people we interviewed. So, I put him on the spot, asking, "How do you want to be remembered?"

"I hope I'd be remembered as a guy who tried to do some good. And who was, most importantly, honest," he answered. "I don't, I can't see any greatness that I would be remembered for. But if people think kindly of me, I'll be happy at that."

Most of all, Hugh is such a good man. And I loved working with him, and I'm so happy that he popped in for a visit.

It was just like old times, and, as Hugh said, just "a little more time to chat."

I asked him to tell me what he always used to tell me. He graciously obliged: "Try not to do anything dumb while I'm not here."

I will. Thank you, dear Hugh.