The Rip Post


OFF THE ROAD WITH CHARLES KURALT

by Rip Rense

(Originally published by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, on the occasion of Mr. Kuralt's induction into the Hall of Fame. It was one of the last interviews he did.)

          If Charles Kuralt were himself the subject of one of those poetic feature stories on CBS's "Sunday Morning," it might begin something like this. . .(Cue the baroque trumpet fanfare and the sun logo. Cue Charles Osgood.)
         Careers are born in mysterious ways. Some of us struggle for a lifetime, never finding our niche, and others discover their direction almost from the time they abandon their baby shoes. Mozart composed concertos as a child. Steinbeck put pencil to yellow pad and created fiction before he was in his teens. Ella Fitzgerald was singing almost from the time she began to speak. And for as long as Charles Kuralt can remember, he wanted to be a journalist.
         (Cut to the subject's office, a little writing room on top of a building in New York City, described by Kuralt a "shabby genteel, a very small, down-on-its-luck men's club with mahogany bookshelves and leather chairs." Kuralt is at his paper-strewn desk, with a steaming cup of coffee. His elbows rest on the desk-top, his fingers in that spider-doing- push-ups-on-a-mirror position. He wears half-glasses for reading.)
         "When I was just a little boy, six years old or something like that, I had it in mind to be a reporter," he said. "I don't know where the notion came from. I had a much older cousin who was kind of enamored of the profession and always wished he had become one---maybe I absorbed this from him. Of course, television hadn't been invented yet, so what I had in mind was being a newspaper reporter."
         And now, back to our regularly scheduled article. . .
         Charles Kuralt, an American household-name-to-be, grew up in leafy, stately Charlotte, North Carolina; not a town noted for producing journalists. Yet his family revered the fine news purveyors of the day; when the sit-up-and-listen voice of Edward R. Murrow came on the radio from London, or Eric Severaid intoned from somewhere in Europe, the Kuralt kids knew it was time to be quiet. "They were much respected by my folks," says Kuralt, adding something that now seems like a remarkable bit of foreshadowing: "In my family, CBS News was sort of honored. . ."
         It came to pass that young Charles became a history major at the University of North Carolina, but couldn't keep out of the journalism department. His compass kept pointing to "N"---for newspaper. He wound up editor of the Daily Tar Heel, the student paper, and loved it so that he kept dropping other classes in order to dummy pages, write heads, and assign stories. His senior year was devoted exclusively to the Tar Heel ; his history studies were. . .history.
         Upon graduation, he went right to work for his hometown paper, the late Charlotte News. This, apparently, was sort of equivalent to giving Einstein a laboratory. In short order, he was augmenting news reporting with his own daily column---"about cops and kids and cab drivers," as he put it---in a way, an early, print forerunner of his epic "On the Road" series for CBS News. The column won an award---specifically, nothing less than the Scripps-Howard-bestowed Ernie Pyle Award for "newspaper writing most nearly exemplifying the style and craftsmanship for which (war correspondent) Ernie Pyle was known." It was clear that this guy was cursed with too much style to ever be happy as a straight news reporter.
         Like something from a B-movie script, fate arrived in the form of a letter straight from CBS News, inquiring as to whether the award-winning kid-columnist had any interest in working in the big leagues---as a TV news writer in New York. Given the Kuralt family's hallowing of CBS News---then arguably the greatest broadcast news outfit on earth---there really was no decision to make. He moved. Within a year, the rookie found himself actually writing for those almost mythical radio voices he'd grown up with, Murrow and Severaid. He was 22---we'll spell it out: twenty-two ---years old.
        "I was nervous as hell, yeah," chuckled Kuralt. "When I came to New York to interview for the job, you had to walk through the newsroom, and there was Murrow in his shirt sleeves, standing with his back to the room at a wire machine. I knew immediately who it was. . .Murrow had a writer, Ed Bliss, who wrote his radio program. Eddy was the news writer, and Murrow wrote his own news analysis, which was about half the pro- gram. Ed went on vacation, and I got drafted to write---can you imagine? ---Murrow's news portion. We got along fine. He was born in North Carolina, himself. I was 23."
         At 24, Kuralt was made a CBS news correspondent---the youngest in the history of the organization. ("They needed on-the-air people badly," he says with characteristic modesty.) The next nine years were fascinating, adventurous, harrowing, sometimes terrifying. He was Latin American correspondent, based for a time In Rio De Janeiro, and covered the revolution that changed the Congo into the African nation of Zaire ("the country just dissolved into chaos.") He spent eight weeks on Arctic ice covering an attempt to reach the North Pole. Then there were his visits to Vietnam, which he does not discuss without prompting. . .
         "Every time I got sent to Vietnam I seemed to get into some ter- rible situation without really trying too hard. In 1961, we got the first combat footage of that stage of the war," he said. "It was before the U.S. was involved with troops in the field, but we went out with the Vietnamese Rangers and got ambushed. Half the company we were with got killed. We were lucky as hell not to get killed. . .Then we did a show called 'Christmas in Vietnam' in 1965. We were with a squad that lost a guy right and front of us, and so forth. . .For sheer difficulty, I guess those were the hardest stories."
         By the early 60s, he had become of the premiere TV news correspondents on the premiere newcast in the country, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, but his heart was back in Charlotte:
        "I didn't like the competitiveness or the deadline pressure. 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."
         Kuralt had an idea. How about no assignments at all, he asked his bosses. How about three months of rolling down the Great American Highway, just to see what he could see? Cover nothing but what journalists strangely term human interest stories. No, the honchos said, that's nuts---a downright wacky suggestion, so Kuralt went back to news, to Vietnam, etc.. Trusting his instincts, he floated the idea again two years later, in 1967. There was a new CBS News president---Richard Salant---who promptly responded, "Sure. Three months? Why not? Keep the budget low." Twelve weeks of lyrical, bucolic, inspiring and thoughtful reports later, nobody bothered to call Kuralt home. Ever again. Guess the brass figured there was enough human interest to just leave the man "On the Road," as he was calling his reports. Or maybe they realized that, given the tumult and trauma sweeping the country at the time---the War, riots, assassinations, racial strife---"Charles Kuralt, On the Road" was a balm for the grim stuff being reported nightly by Uncle Walter.
    "     I wasn't trying to prove anything about America," said Kuralt. "I was just trying to stay out of the office, and have some fun. But looking back on it, yeah, we started in the fall of '67, and then came '68, with the death of Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Bob Kennedy. Cities were burning; the Vietnam War was still a big issue and it was just a bad time. And here we were doing stories on, you know, a woman who carves fiddles, or a guy who has a car that runs on corncobs. I mean, we just ignored the big news. But it taught me something about journalism that I had never really noticed before---that if you go to Vitenam and cover a battle, people think, 'My God, Vietnam is all battles.' But the fact is that during the day, that night, or the next day, you might be back in Saigon having an elegant meal in a sidewalk cafe, with no sign of trouble at all.
         "That's, I guess, what I learned from 'On the Road'---that even in those turbulent days, most people didn't take part in the turbulence. They were just trying to get the kids off to school on time. I think we were telling a kind of truth even though we weren't covering the big stories."
         "We" was Curalt, cameraman Isadore "Izzy" Bleckman and soundman Larry Gianneschi (is there a Hall of Fame for crew people?)---who traveled together for 20 years in a battered motor home, reporting on unheralded Americans in every state in the nation. (Somehow, Kuralt and wife Petie managed to raise daughters Lisa and Susan, off the road: "CBS never knew where we were, so when somebody had a child graduating from grammar school or a birthday or something, we would just declare a few days off and go home.") It was an unqualified romantic existence---one that management, in its infinite wisdom, repeatedly tried to ruin with other offers. Nothing doing. Kuralt successfully resisted joining "60 Minutes" when it was new, but was less successful when he was approached in 1970 to do something creative with 90 minutes of air time historically of little interest to sponsors---every Sunday morning from 8 to 9:30. Blame it on French apple brandy:
         "Dick Salant said, 'look, you can keep doing 'On the Road' and this,'" Kuralt recalled. "And Chad Northfield, the founding producer of Sunday Morning, and I went out and drank a lot of Calvados. He had liberated some in the Battle of Bulge, and never got over it. We toasted each other. I got drunk, and he talked me into it."
         "Sunday Morning" was---and, now hosted by Charles Osgood, still is---certainly the most civilized and thoughtful newsfeature TV magazine on the air, what with downright literary essays and commentaries on Americana, human struggles, the arts, nature. . .For fifteen years, Kuralt helmed the show---his relaxed manner, sagacity, and warm prose combin- ing to inspire affection and loyalty unsurpassed in the history of televi- sion news (including Cronkite.) How unusual was/is "Sunday Morning?" Well, how often in commercial TV can you watch a program that ends each week with unnarrated , natural-sound footage of wandering bison in Yellowstone, a field of poppies and lupins in California, a snowscape in the Vermont woods? Etc. ("This was Chad's idea," says Kuralt, adding "I suspect some people tune in just for these last two or three minutes.")
         "I guess it's unique in television, Kuralt's combination of sophistication and folksiness," said Washington Post Television Critic Tom Shales. "He's hardly just Mr. Crackerbarrel Philsopher; he's not a make-believe figure like Garrison Keilor, or Cliff Arquette as Charlie Weaver. He's a genuine American original, and has a very sophisticated outlook toward life. He's able to relate on a very one-to-one basis with people at home. So while he may not be the toast of the upper East Side in New York, he's probably one of the best known and best liked broadcast journalists ever. I mean, Edward R. Murrow, for all of his great renown, was probably not as well known or as well loved in the average American town as Charles Kuralt is. Partly because he's dedicated himself to celebrating the average American town. And he puts the subject first and himself second, which is rare in journalism."
         Veteran TV critic Rick DuBrow, who interviewed Kuralt several times while with UPI, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and L.A. Times, laughingly remembers trying to reach the man at CBS---to no avail: "I placed a call to his New York office, and he called me back from a phone on a highway somewhere in Wisconsin. I could hear the cars and trucks whizzing by as I interviewed him!" Kuralt, DuBrow avers, does the hardest thing that a journalist can do---"to take ordinary things and make them not only interesting, but often beautiful and inspiring---and to avoid treacle, and phoney sentimentality" in the bargain.
         And then there's that voice---a measured, avuncular kind of baritone that, even when heard saying "I'm not hear right now" on his answering machine---inspires comfort and respect. Said Shales: "I think we're getting more and more of clones of clones of clones in TV news, locally and nationally, so the days of the truly distinct voices like his probably will soon be over."
         Kuralt, now 62, woke up and smelled the coffee one day in 1994, and it smelled like. . .time. He resigned from "Sunday Morning," and CBS News (where had also: anchored the evening news between Cronkite and Rather, hosted a weekday version of "Sunday Morning" with Diane Sawyer, and a nightly competition for ABC's "Nightline" that was, DuBrow said, "better than rated") after 37 years because, as he put it, "I said to myself, 'if you're going to take the time to do some writing, the things you've always promised yourself, you'd better get to it.'" He subsequently finished his seventh book, "Charles Kuralt's America" (a best-seller), and is currently writing a film script for a documentary about western North Carolina, an area caught between development and retaining its old Blue Ridge Mountain culture.
         More books are likely from the man. With nearly a thousand "On the Road" stories in his head, the thirteen-time Emmy winner and three- time recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award is not lacking material. An inevitable question is posed: is there one story that stands out most?
         "I find it hard to choose, but we did one about a black family in Mississippi, the Chandler family," he said. "This was a Thanksgiving Day story. It happened also to be the Chandler's 50th Wedding Anniversary, and they were so poor that, when the oldest boy decided he wanted to go to college, all his parents could do for him was hitch the mule to the wagon and borrow $2 from a sister to give him bus fare. And from that beginning, he became Dr. Cleveland Chandler, the head of the Economics Department at Howard University.
         "And each of the other eight kids also became college graduates, most with advanced degrees. On this Thanksgiving Day, they had all come back from all over the country to the anniversary in a new house they had built for their parents. Izzy couldn't see through the viewfinder because of the tears in his eyes, and I was having the same trouble, and Mr. Chand- ler couldn't get through the blessing at the meal. What were we all crying about? I guess that cliche of anybody being able to make it in America if they're willing to work hard."
         If Charles Kuralt himself were the subject of one of those poetic feature stories on "Sunday Morning," it might end something like this. . .
         Nowadays, Kuralt spends his Sunday mornings in a bathrobe, with a cup of coffee, watching the program he hosted for so long. "It's a pretty good show," he'll tell you, "if you don't have to work on it." And as he points out, he never formally declared an end to doing feature stories about the American heart. So stand by, Izzy and Larry. Keep that motor home engine warm. You're dealing with a man who knew he would be a reporter from the age of six. You never know when he might get that itch to head out again. . .on the road.
         (Cue up those trumpeter swans returning to their nesting grounds. . .)

BACK TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS


2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.