Remembering Charles Kuralt

Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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Doug, what I try to do is begin each story with a sentence or two that will get people’s attention; arouse their curiosity so they’ll want to read on. I like to end a story the same way, perhaps with a turned phrase or touch of irony that will leave the reader with a smile or at least with something to think about. Oh, yeah..keep it simple stupid.
That, as best as I can remember, is what Charles Kuralt said when I asked him during an early 80’s interview if he would share some of his secrets to being a good writer. Charles Kuralt is to me what Mickey Mantle is to Bob Costas or Johnny Carson is to David Letterman; a hero.
When he first was hired at CBS he wound up covering hard news stories all around the world including Vietnam. But he didn’t like competing with fellow correspondents and hated the daily deadlines. He somehow managed to convince CBS to let him just wander about the country for three months chronicling the lives of everyday Americans if for no other reason than to show that the world isn’t necessarily going to hell in a hand basket. Well, that experiment turned into “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” and lasted for 25 years. He and photographer, Izzy Bleckman logged thousands and thousands of miles crisscrossing the country in a motor home looking for stories and finding them at every turn. Each were beautifully shot and brilliantly written. But the magic happened because of Kuralt’s narration. He played his folksy voice like a master violinist; always at an unhurried pace and with just the right inflections to create moods of  joy, reverence, patriotism, whimsy, or sadness.  He could read the book of Genesis and hold an audience mesmerized..even with all the boring begats. (To see and hear one of his most famous pieces, click here.)
It’s been 11 years now since Charles Kuralt died on the Fourth of July.  
My colleagues at Keloland  knew how much I idolized him and that we actually..kind of, sort of, knew each other; so they showed up at my house with a camera and reporter that day for a reaction to his death. I have no idea what I wound up saying. All I remember is fighting back tears when it suddenly sunk in during the course of the interview that he was actually gone.
We first met in Sioux City where he was the featured speaker at a regional news media gathering of some sort. Keloland TV has always been a well respected affiliate of the CBS network and managed to pull a few strings to get me a half hour exclusive interview with Charles Kuralt. I tried not to appear as nervous and star struck as I was but I’m sure it showed.I had written out a list of profound questions that I figured might impress him but as it turned out, we just sat there and talked as the camera rolled.He really was just like he appeared to be on television; accomodating, friendly and humble almost to a fault. Before long the time had flown by and I’d hardly gotten to any of my notes.  I thanked him for our visit and as I was leaving he asked if I had a card or something.  He probably did that to every young reporter he spoke with but at the moment it was to me like Mean Joe Green throwing a sweaty towel to the kid who gave him a Coke.
We met again when Keloland sent Steve Hemmingsen and me to New York to do some promos with the network personalities. While on the set of  CBS Sunday Morning I thought about asking him if he still had my card..but didn’t.
Kuralt came to Sioux Falls in 1983 to do a story on an area farm family and later took some time to talk to Kelo reporters in our newsroom. He actually remembered me..or said he did..In 1986, during the height of the farm crisis, Dan Rather decided to take the CBS Evening News on the road for three days. The network set up shop in our Keloland studios. After just one day, though, Rather had to leave so they called in Charles Kuralt to anchor the broadcasts. Not only did I get a chance to watch my hero on the job but after the news we actually got to hang out together. He asked Steve and me bring our wives along and join him for dinner. Linda still loves to talk about how Charles Kuralt himself actually hopped in the back seat of our car for a ride to the restaurant.  It was a magnificent evening filled with cigarettes, cocktails, good food and the unforgettable stories he shared of his travels..becoming more animated with each scotch.  
News reporters aren’t supposed to ask for autographs but I couldn’t resist having my hero sign my copy of his book.Linda and me with Charles Kuralt at a Keloland reception in his honor 1986I think it would have been great fun to have Charles Kuralt for a friend but he was a pretty private guy; a master at finding out everything about other people but equally masterful and keeping his personal life to himself.
That’s why shortly after his death so many of us were shocked to find out that he’d been cheating on his wife with a woman in Montana for nearly 30 years. How could this gentle self-effacing poet of the common man who warmed our hearts with so many stories extolling the virtues of honesty and good character in the American people, be, himself, dishonest and flawed? I don’t know and can’t say I care all that much. What I do know is that each Independence Day since 1997 I think about how Charles Kuralt influenced my life and career.I still put everything I write to the Kuralt litmus test..and right now I hear him saying, “This is running way too long..keep it simple, stupid.”

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