Charles Kuralt (10 September 1934 – 4 July 1997) was an award-winning American journalist. He was most widely known for his long career with CBS, first for his "On the Road" segments on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and later as the first anchor of CBS News Sunday Morning, a position he held for fifteen years.
Kuralt's "On the Road" segments were recognized twice with personal Peabody Awards. The first, awarded in 1968, cited those segments as heartwarming and "nostalgic vignettes"; in 1975, the award was for his work as a U.S. "bicentennial historian"; his work "capture[d] the individuality of the people, the dynamic growth inherent in the area, and ...the rich heritage of this great nation. He shared in a third Peabody awarded to CBS News Sunday Morning.
Early life and career
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina
, Kuralt attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
where he became editor of The Daily Tar Heel
and was a Brother of Delta Psi Fraternity. He worked as a reporter for the Charlotte News
in his home state, where he wrote "Charles Kuralt's People," a column that won him an Ernie Pyle Award
He moved to CBS
as a writer, where he became well-known as the host of the Eyewitness to History
series. He traveled around the world as a journalist for the network, including stints as CBS's Chief Latin American Correspondent and then as Chief West Coast Correspondent.
In 1967, Kuralt and a CBS camera crew accompanied Ralph Plaisted in his attempt to reach the North Pole by snowmobile, which resulted in the documentary To the Top of the World and his book of the same name.
"On the Road"
Kuralt was said to have tired of what he considered the excessive rivalry between reporters on the hard news beats:
- "I didn't like the competitiveness or the deadline pressure," he told the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, upon his induction to their Hall of Fame. "I was sure that Dick Valeriani of NBC was sneaking around behind my back — and of course, he was! — getting stories that would make me look bad the next day. Even though I covered news for a long time, I was always hoping I could get back to something like my little column on the Charlotte News."
When he persuaded CBS to let him try out just such an idea for three months, it turned into a quarter-century project. "On the Road" became a regular feature on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1967. Famously enough, Kuralt hit the road in a motor home (he wore out six before he was through) with a small crew and avoided the interstates in favor of the nation's back roads in search of America's people and their doings. He said, "Interstate highways allow you to drive coast to coast, without seeing anything".
According to Thomas Steinbeck, the older son of John Steinbeck, the inspiration for "On the Road" was the success of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (whose title was initially considered as the name of Kuralt's feature). John Steinbeck and Kuralt were said to be good friends.
Anything from unusual hobbyists to unusual families to the simple pleasures of unknown places was considered worthy of Kuralt's attention, and part of "On the Road"'s appeal may also have been that Kuralt was never known to have set a specific itinerary for himself. No matter whatever else he did for CBS — hosting CBS News Sunday Morning program from 1979 to 1995, contributing to other CBS News projects — "On the Road" became Kuralt's legacy. His features often captured the beauty of the American countryside, sometimes using images and sounds with no voice-overs to effectively capture the scene. During his career, he won three Peabody awards and ten Emmy awards for journalism. He also won a George Polk Award in 1980 for National Television Reporting.
Kuralt often reveled in his image as the anti-muckraker. "You know, most reporters can't go back to the towns they wrote stories about," he told a biographer in 1994. "I never wrote that kind of story."
He also narrated the TLC documentary The Revolutionary War in 1995.
Kuralt never forgot his roots, as one of his books was titled North Carolina Is My Home
. Kuralt's younger brother Wallace, who died in December 2003, was also well-known in his home state, having been the owner of "The Intimate Bookshop" on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill
for many years. Kuralt himself was a proud alumnus of UNC and outspoken in his lifelong fondness for both the university and Chapel Hill. In addition, a portion of land along the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear Ecosystem — so named for the rivers which flow into the Albemarle, Currituck, and Pamlico Sounds — has been named for Kuralt, honoring his having given as much time to nature and wildlife as to people in his "On the Road" and Sunday Morning
At age 60, Kuralt surprised many by retiring from CBS News. At the time, he was the longest tenured on-air personality in the News division. Yet he hinted that his retirement might not be complete — he signed on in early 1997 to host a syndicated, three-times-a-week, ninety-second broadcast, "An American Moment," presenting what CNN called "slices of Americana." At that time, Kuralt also agreed to host a CBS cable broadcast show, I Remember, designed as a weekly, hourlong review of significant news from three decades previous.
But Kuralt barely got the chance to make those projects last. He was hospitalized in spring 1997 and died of complications from lupus on the Fourth of July that year.
By request in his will, Kuralt was buried on the UNC grounds in Old Chapel Hill Cemetery
. The University uses a Kuralt speech in its television commercials and displays many of his awards and a re-creation of his office in its Journalism School.
But two years after his death, Kuralt's personal reputation came under scrutiny when a decades-long companionship with a Montana woman was made public. Kuralt apparently had a second, "shadow" family while his estranged wife lived in New York City, and his daughters from a previous marriage lived on the eastern seaboard. Kuralt's Montana companion asserted that the house in Montana had been willed to her, a position upheld by the state's supreme court. According to court testimony, Kuralt had met her while doing a story on a park she had volunteered and promoted to build in Reno, Nevada in 1968, which was called "Pat Baker Park" in her honor. Pat Baker Park is still in a lower income area of Reno that had no parks until Ms. Baker, nee Shannon, promoted her plan. Kuralt mentions Pat Baker and the building of the park — but not the affair — in his autobiography.
The revelation of the long-term relationship exacted a toll on Kuralt's image and reputation. But his biographer, Ralph Grizzle, who sometimes faced hostility and even boycott threats when trying to promote Remembering Charles Kuralt, attempted to rehabilitate Kuralt's image in a USA Today column called "Forgiving Charles Kuralt":
- Each Sunday morning as Charles spoke to us seated on a stool, he was perched, in our minds, on a pedestal. Well aware of his own flaws, he never aspired to such lofty heights. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he ate too much and, now, it seems, he loved too much. May we forgive his excesses as readily as we embraced, unknowingly, of course, the emotional deficits that drove him to seek out the people and places that so enthralled him, and through him, us.
- All Kuralt really intended to be was someone who did the world a little good. "If I do any good," he told a Chapel Hill newspaper reporter in 1965, "it's just the same thing all journalists hope they do — maybe some good by enlightening people about the times they live in."
- Kuralt enlightened by seeing the good in us - not because that was all there was to see but because he chose to. We praised him for his good-news approach, even bestowing him with 13 Emmy and three Peabody awards. It is unfortunate that when we discovered that all the news about his own life was not good, we chose to lash out at his memory. What does that say — not about Charles Kuralt, but about us?
- "For 25 or 30 years I never had an assignment. These were all stories I wanted to do myself. So they were always about somebody I like, 'cause if I didn't like him, I just didn't do the story. And to have somebody else paying the bills for this tourism, to every corner of every stage, over and over again--why, who wouldn't want a job like that?"
- "It's that enthusiasm, that passion for what you're doing, that is most important."
- "Time for us to part, you and I. Saying goodbye to the viewers of Sunday Morning is like saying goodbye to old friends. That’s the way I feel. Thank you for making me feel that way. I aim to do some traveling and reading and writing, and to watch this program the civilized way for a change: in my bathrobe, while having breakfast. Charles Osgood appreciates poems and often commits poetry, himself. There is a rhyme by Clarence Day which says what I want to say: 'Farewell, my friends-farewell, and hail/I'm off to seek the Holy Grail/I cannot tell you why. Remember, please, when I am gone/'twas aspiration led me on./Tiddly, widdly, toodle-oo/All I want is to stay with you.' But...here I go. Goodbye." — Kuralt's final words as host of Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt aired in March 26, 1995.
- "What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. Our loyalty is not only to William Richardson Davie, though we are proud of what he did 200 years ago today. Nor even to Dean Smith, though we are proud of what he did last March. No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people." — Kuralt, at the UNC Bicentennial in 1993.
- "The greatest thing you can do in life is to tell a young boy or girl that they're 'the very best' at something - baseball, reading, art. That gives them the wonderful feeling that they can do anything -- which they can!"
- "Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything."
- "I think liberalism lives -- the notion that we don't have to stay where we are as a society, we have promises to keep, and it is liberalism, whether people like it or not, which has animated all the years of my life. What on Earth did conservatism ever accomplish for our country? It was people who wanted to change things for the better." — Kuralt to Morley Safer in the May 5, 1994 CBS special, "One for the Road with Charles Kuralt"