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April 10, 2012 11:43 am

An Encounter With Mike Wallace, the Vineyard’s Famous Renter

avatar by Bernard Starr

Mike Wallace. Photo: wiki commons.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Wallace in 1998 at a dinner sponsored by the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), which was honoring him and his wife, Mary, for their mental health advocacy.

Mike Wallace was best known as the hard-hitting —“tough but fair” — investigative journalist on 60 Minutessince the show began in 1968 and until his official retirement in 2006 — although he continued to contribute occasional interviews as recently as 2008.

But there was another side to Mike Wallace. He helped untold numbers of people suffering from depression when he went public about his own battles with the disorder. His courageous personal revelations helped remove the prevailing stigma that discouraged so many people from seeking treatment for mental illness. In Mike’s case, medical intervention turned his life around.

I was invited to the event at the Pierre Hotel in New York City by Pola Rosen, publisher of Education Update, who commissioned me to write an article about the guests of honor, the ceremony, and any other interesting observations.

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Loquacious Mike was joined on the podium by fellow depression sufferers, humorist Art Buchwald and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron. Both Buchwald and Styron had also come out of the closet about their depression. All three appeared on Larry King and other TV shows talking about their years of suffering and how depression compromised the quality of their lives and the lives of those around them. William Styron authored a tour de force book (1992) about his torturous struggles with depression.Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness was an inspiring best seller.

Writing about the evening was easy — the three friends exchanged banter and one-liners that were rich fodder for my article.

Buchwald revealed one sure clue that a person is depressed — when he is physically healthy but obsessed with burial plots. That’s exactly what happened to him during one of his dark periods. Buchwald found two willing listeners in his friends Mike Wallace and William Styron for his dreary talk about choice burial plots that were available in a seventeenth-century cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard. The three compatriots routinely vacationed on this tiny island, where Buchwald and Styron were home owners and Wallace was a renter. Buchwald was fond of needling Mike about his lowly status as a renter.

But renting wasn’t an option when it came to cemetery plots. In fact, the three friends put their money where their depression was and purchased plots in the historic cemetery. Later they joked that Styron got stuck with a plot near a septic tank and Buchwald, ever the one to play to the crowd, picked a final resting place close to the road.

Mike Wallace ended his talk at the banquet on a positive note: People can change, he insisted, and gave an example to prove it. He said he once asked Art Buchwald what should be written on his tombstone. Buchwald replied: “Here lie the remains of Mike Wallace. He was always a renter.” Three months later Mike and Mary bought a house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Rest in peace, Mike. I hope you and your buddies are laughing.

(William Styron died on November.1, 2006; Art Buchwald died on January 17, 2007; Mike Wallace died on April 7, 2012)

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