I’m Facebook friends with Steve Hartman. I doubt if Steve is aware of that because he has tens of thousands of friends and FANS.. not only on the internet but all over America thanks to his “On The Road” features aired each Friday on the CBS Evening News. His reports..mostly about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, are not only loved by viewers but admired by reporters in newsrooms across the country who are constantly having it hammered into their heads by consultants that viewers want hard news..not fluff. Yet, I remember when Steve Hartman was in Sioux Falls a few years ago and agreed to stop by the KELO newsroom, it was like a rock star was coming and he had our news staff mesmerized. I’ll admit, I wasn’t a big fan at first. I thought he was too young to try fill the legendary Charles Kuralt’s shoes. But his amazing talent for discovering and telling the hidden story in everyone..eventually won me over and I do believe CBS was right in not only bringing back “On The Road” but in making Hartman the rightful heir to Kuralt.
It’s been 17 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. 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, what I thought were, profound questions hoping to 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; accommodating, friendly and humble almost to a fault. When I asked for advice on writing he said, “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..I like to remind myself to keep it simple, stupid.”
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.
It’s not that Charles Kuralt couldn’t do hard news. When first hired at CBS he covered uprisings, politics and wars including Vietnam. But he didn’t like competing with fellow correspondents and hated the daily deadlines. Eventually, amid the turmoil of the 60′s and 70′s he managed to convince CBS to let him just wander around the country for three months chronicling the lives of everyday Americans in search of something positive to report; to show that it wasn’t all protest marches, gas lines and hate filled political rhetoric. 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.
Here’s a case in point that is one of my all time favorites.
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.
Then 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 along with CBS Evening News Executive Producer, Lane Venardos, for dinner. He asked what’s a good place? We said..the Lafayette. Linda still loves to talk about how Charles Kuralt himself actually hopped in the back seat of our car for a ride to Sioux Falls’ only French restaurant with CBS picking up the tab. It was a magnificent evening filled with cigarettes, cocktails, great food, laughter and the unforgettable stories especially with Charles spinning yarns of his travels..becoming more animated with each scotch.
I 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 leading a double life..keeping time with a woman in Montana, who wasn’t his wife, 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 how he influenced my life and career and how I still put everything I write to the Kuralt litmus test.
I wonder if Steve Hartman ever met Charles Kuralt and if the master asked the disciple for his business card too.