Charles Kuralt, a veteran of CBS News who covered hard-news stories but was happiest spinning his tales of offbeat Americans in out-of-the-way places, died Friday at age 62.
Kuralt died of heart disease and complications from lupus, an inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, kidneys and nervous system, said Kim Aktar, a CBS News spokeswoman. She added that the newsman had undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery several years ago.
For 30 years, Kuralt searched for the insignificant and elevated it to prose and visual poetry. As rewards for his efforts, he collected 12 Emmys, three Peabody awards and numerous other journalistic honors.
While his brethren invaded Vietnam, investigated Watergate and analyzed the Cold War, Kuralt followed his own leisurely path to find real Americans with uniquely American stories. “The kind of stories I like best are light and funny ones,” he once said. He kept pitching the idea for his “On the Road” reports at CBS until the network agreed to a three-month trial.
On Oct. 26, 1967, he delivered the first such report, a paean to New England’s glorious fall foliage:
“It is death that causes this blinding show of color, but it is a fierce and flaming death,” he said. “To drive along a Vermont country road in this season is to be dazzled by the shower of lemon and scarlet and gold that washes across your windshield.”
It was completely unexpected, even groundbreaking. And completely Kuralt.
“He was the first on television to make pieces sing, and tell stories in that kind of effortless, charming, poetic, graceful way,” said former CBS News president Howard Stringer.
North Carolina roots
Born in Wilmington, N.C., in 1934, Kuralt graduated from the U. of North Carolina in 1955 and went to work for the Charlotte News, where he won an Ernie Pyle Award for human interest columns.
From his earliest days in journalism, Kuralt saw things that others missed. Richard Cole, dean of the journalism school at Kuralt’s alma mater, remembered when Kuralt was sent to cover a parade.
“This kid was looking at the parade through the legs of the people in front of him,” Cole said. “So Charles got down on his knees and wrote a story about how the parade appeared to that young kid.”
As he spoke with the lumberjacks, whittlers and farmers he met along his way, Kuralt chatted the same way you would talk over a backyard fence.
“When his baritone voice rolled out, everybody’s head turned,” said Nebraska folklorist Roger Welsch. “One time in a restaurant in Grand Island, he had to send his food back to be reheated at least four times because people kept wanting to talk to him. And he would talk with them as long as they cared to.”
He found a butcher who could hold 30 eggs in one hand, a swimming pig in a water-ballet show, a light bulb that had stayed lit in a firehouse since 1901. He did pieces on a school for unicyclists, gas station poets, horsetraders and a 104-year-old entertainer who performed in nursing homes.
50,000 miles on back roads
Kuralt stayed “On the Road” for 13 years, logging up to 50,000 miles a year on back roads and byways with a two-man camera crew, wearing out half a dozen campers. He brought the same outlook and sensibility to the network’s “Sunday Morning” show for 15 more years.
After his stints abroad and across America, Kuralt retired from CBS in 1994, after 37 years and six books.
His colleagues said the nation had lost one of its treasures.
“He connected to the essence of America better than any woman or man of his generation. It’s a totally inappropriate death, but on a most appropriate day,” Stringer said, referring to the Fourth of July.
Longtime CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite agreed: “While Charles never showed his patriotism on his sleeve, he truly loved America, the country and the people who populated it.”
“All good television is about telling stories. Nobody told ’em better than Charles Kuralt,” said Don Hewitt, executive producer of “60 Minutes.”
In addition to his brother, Wallace, Kuralt is survived by his wife, Suzanna; two daughters from a previous marriage, Susan Bowers and Lisa White; a sister, Catherine Harris; and three grandsons.
Kuralt will be buried in a cemetery on the U. of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill. A memorial service is planned.