IOWA CITY — Even though famed American journalist Tom Brokaw only spent one year at the University of Iowa in the late 1950s, he’s donating his historic papers and artifacts to the UI Libraries.
Brokaw, 76, made the announcement Thursday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. On Friday, he spent hours on the UI campus, meeting with officials about the memorabilia and hammering out “nuts and bolts.”
At one point, with some of his materials laid out in a UI special collections room, Brokaw took questions from UI library staff and shared stories.
“It was a really great gathering,” said Greg Prickman, head of Special Collections at UI Libraries. “He’s just an instant, natural storyteller. Whatever the subject or question, he just has a real lifetime of experiences. And that was really fun to be a part of.”
Although Brokaw — who spent 22 years as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, authored “The Greatest Generation” and other books, and currently serves as a special correspondent for NBC News — didn’t graduate from UI, he’s helped fundraise, lent his voice for promotional videos, and in 1996 received a distinguished alumni award.
Prickman said the university — largely through its foundation — began discussing the idea of housing Brokaw’s collections years ago.
“It was about three years ago that things progressed to where we kind of moved from an idea to starting to begin the work of actually figuring out, ‘How’s this going to work?’ ” Prickman said.
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The university finalized the commitment with Brokaw over the summer, and the collection arrived on campus in September. Staff members are still going through it and hope to have the items described and available to the public by spring, according to Prickman.
“It’s a big decision — to decide you’re going to take all of your material that’s been saved over a lifetime of work and send it away somewhere,” he said. “That’s not something that necessarily happens quickly.”
Brokaw described Iowa’s persistence Thursday when discussing the collection with Matt Lauer, co-anchor of the “Today” show.
“I spent one year there, and I had a double major — beer and coeds,” Brokaw said. “But they didn’t let go of me, and it was their idea. And I’m terribly flattered.”
Brokaw confirmed he didn’t immediately say “yes” to the UI pitch.
“I was kind of reluctant,” he said. “I was like, ‘Do I have enough important stuff?’ ”
He does. Praising the university’s “world-class library,” which is digitized and connected to the U.S. Library of Congress, Brokaw said he was surprised to find he’s amassed a number of historically valuable items and documents.
“I started going through my material and, my God, I was absolutely astonished by how much I had and how important it was,” he said.
A baseball signed by Yankee Hall-of-Famer Joe DiMaggio. A photo with former South African President Nelson Mandela. Notebooks of interviews with the likes of business mogul Bill Gates and others. And stories to go with them — like the one of him shaking former first lady Nancy Reagan’s hand.
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“We had had a spat — I had said some things about the president that she really didn’t like,” Brokaw told Lauer on Thursday. “I had known them from California days, covering them. So the word came back, don’t go near Nancy.”
But Brokaw was invited to a state dinner a short time later, and he felt somewhat panicked about what to say in the receiving line. When he reached her hand, Brokaw reported, “she looked at me with this kind of steely look that she had, and I said to her, ‘Nancy, back to square one.’ ”
“At that moment, the picture was taken,” he said. “And she said, ‘Back to square one.’ ”
Chunks of the Berlin Wall that came down in 1989 speak to the gravity of deciding to provide memorabilia to a library collection.
“It was a highlight of my career in so many ways,” Brokaw said. “Every time I look at them I think about how symbolic they are about the end of communism.”
Having those materials in one place on campus, Prickman said, creates opportunity for the university, its libraries, and its students and faculty — not to mention the larger community, state and nation.
“In terms of the history of journalism, there is a lot of focus on an earlier era — the newspaper era,” he said. “But this whole history of media journalism in the second half of the 20th century hasn’t been written yet.
“And this is the raw material.”