Celebrating Our Culture
By Joyce Dixon
It's been eight years since Charles Kuralt said farewell to viewers of CBS's "Sunday Morning" with a poetic allusion to taking a journey to seek the Holy Grail. His memory and body of work are being preserved due to the effort of Ralph Grizzle and his site Remembering Charles Kuralt.
Charles Kuralt is unique because he captured a part of America that is often overlooked, and by doing so gave viewers a glimpse in our humanity. In his heartwarming segments, Kuralt showed that even the most ordinary person offered a bit of wisdom.
Ralph Grizzle is another North Carolina explorer. His first trip was a six-week bicycle trek across the United States that turned into a decade exploring the world. He returned to North Carolina to major in journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill. Grizzle became a travel writer and editor of several travel industry publications. Ralph Grizzle is the editor of Cruise and Resort magazine, which will launch in spring of 2003.
How was your bike journey across America different for Charles Kuralt’s treks?
Well, for one, I carried a much lighter load! Kuralt traveled with an RV, a light man, cameraman, sound man and a lot of gear.
But essentially, we were discovering America in the same way, slowly and along the back roads. He told me that he thought I had seen the country at just the right pace. It is true that I feel as if I absorbed America on my trek west whereas on the interstate highways I get the feeling that I'm just brushing the shoulder of the nation. There are changes in the landscape, sure, but driving past at 70 miles per hour, there's no time to let America soak in.
In 1998, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill commissioned me to conduct a series of oral histories with Kuralt's friends, family and colleagues. Among the many people I talked with was Andy Rooney. He told me that Kuralt would be forgotten in a generation. I found that to be sad, and I decided then to throw some energy into advancing Kuralt's life work and keeping it in front of the public eye.
I think there's still quite a lot to be learned from Kuralt. I've been trying to convince journalism schools of the merits of a course teaching Kuralt's journalistic style. I think journalism students need to be introduced to Kuralt and his approach to reporting, so there's a lot to be learned about the profession through him. Let's face it, we could all use a little more of Charles Kuralt on the nightly news and in our newspapers.
Probably more than anything, his body of work contributes to the notion that there are stories to be found where no one else is looking and that these untold stories are the ones that really reflect America.
How was Charles Kuralt a calming force during the 1960’s and 1970’s?
Charles Kuralt simply balanced the nightly news with stories that weren't about the war in Vietnam, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate or any of the other stories that raised the nation's collective anxiety. Simply by looking for stories where no one else thought to look, Kuralt reassured us that the world was not falling apart.
Time magazine called "On the Road" two-minute cease fires, but his stories provided much more than just relief from the onslaught of disturbing news. His "On the Road" segments reassured us about ourselves and made us aware that we were better than we thought we were - or at least better than the images of us being presented on the nightly news.
So he became a stabilizing force on a ship that was listing frighteningly in one direction.
His brother Wallace Kuralt said that Charles “really wanted to communicate to us all that there is hope.” How did Kuralt’s human interest stories represent hope?
Charles showed us that anything is possible in this nation. One of his favorites stories was about a poor Mississippi share-cropper who managed to send eight children to college. The old man had to borrow a mule and two dollars to get his first son into town and onto a bus that would take him to the college town where Cleveland Chandler would complete an undergraduate degree. Seven more children would follow. The story of the Chandlers was just one of many stories of unheralded heroes who inspired us with hope.
So his "On the Road" segments were portraits of hope. Of course, some of the segments were of people who had passions that appeared to have nothing to do with conveying the message of hope: the collector of the world's largest ball of twine, for example. What could this possibly have to do with hope?
But I think those portraits were important, because they conveyed a sense of how diverse we were as a nation, how there was enough room in this big country for eccentricities and differences, and how all of this happened under one flag that united us all. So the twine story really does relate back to hope. What more could one hope for than the freedom to pursue passions - even if that passion was to wrap twine round and round?
As Charles Kuralt explored America in his RV, the appreciation of taking a slower pace came across in his “On the Road” segments. What was the act of “permitting yourself to be detoured” a virtue?
Charles told me in 1994 that "we go too fast characteristically." He saw virtue in slowing down and taking the roads less traveled.
Once, while driving through Ohio, Kuralt and crew passed a house with a yellow banner strung between two oak trees. The banner read "Welcome Home Roger." A few miles down the road, Kuralt turned to the driver and cameraman Isadore Bleckman and said, "You know, we really ought to go back and find out who Roger is."
Roger, as it turned out, was a Vietnam vet returning home. The segment that Kuralt and his crew filmed turned out to be one of the most memorable in the "On the Road" series. It never would have happened had they not permitted themselves to be detoured.
What personality traits of Charles Kuralt caused people to open up to a stranger?
He was unprepossessing, and by that I mean that he did not wallow in his celebrity. I remember a lead article in the Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's student-run newspaper, about Kuralt walking in to the offices of the paper where he was editor in 1955 and announcing the obvious: "Hello, I'm Charles Kuralt."
"And of course he was," the paper read.
So I don't think people were intimidated at all by him. After all, this was "Uncle Charlie," who sat in our living rooms on Sunday mornings.
He attributed the fact that people opened up to his looks - a fat, balding guy, not an immaculately groomed star. But I think the real reason that people opened up was that he was such a good listener. Quite a few of the people I interviewed remarked on this, and one, Margery Baker, a producer at CBS, even went so far as to say that it was unusual in her business to know that someone was actually listening and cared.
As a young reporter for the Charlotte News, how did his column “People” reflect the storytelling heritage of his southern roots as well as a touch of folk wisdom and an appreciation of the ordinary?
His stories probably reflected more on the journalism he had heard on the radio as a youth, particularly the CBS News World Roundup. Edward R. Murrow, for example, was one of his mentors, and I think Kuralt tried to emulate his style early on.
Kuralt also was influenced by the stories of Rudyard Kipling and Richard Halliburton. And Kuralt's love of words was passed to him from his grandmother, a former schoolteacher. His sensitivity toward people, although I'm sure he was born with some of that, was heightened by his father, who showed his son the plight on poor people during the father and son travels through Eastern North Carolina when Wallace Kuralt worked for Social Services. These travels, I think, predisposed Kuralt to the plight of ordinary people, and he remained enthralled by them throughout his life.
When you combine all of this you have the makings of a reporter who could do a compelling job at writing about ordinary people.
He talked about all of this in an interview with a former colleague, Irv Drasnin, in which Kuralt stated:
I had a little insight into life that most kids growing up in small town North Carolina probably didn't have. My mother was a school teacher, and a good role model for me. But my father was the real one. He was a social worker and, for years, head of the social services department in my home town. And so, through his eyes I saw the underside of society.
I saw how many people were poor and how many kids my age went to school hungry in the morning, which I don't think most of my contemporaries in racially segregated schools in the South thought very much about at the time. I think that was an advantage for me.
I knew a little bit more about real life than most kids did, I think. And then, the storytelling tradition that you bring from the South, I don't know where it arose, but it's still there. You can't go to the feed store, or the
country courthouse on a Saturday afternoon without running into storytellers.
And I had some favorites. I was charmed to sit and listen. And my father, who was a New Englander and a little more reticent, not a great storyteller himself, also was charmed. And so he and I would stand around and listen to these old guys tell whoppers. And I think that appreciation for stories probably helped me.
The lyrical quality of his writing is evident throughout his body of work. How was Charles Kuralt a poet and visual artist?
Again, his grandmother, and mother, are to credit for heightening his appreciation of the poetic, as poetry relies on words and phrases, and he credits his grandmother and mother for giving him a love of words.
Kuralt talked about "falling in love with good language and trying to imitate it" as a boy, so he certainly was concerned with the rhythm of language and words from an early age.
It was said that Kuralt didn’t stay in a town too long, so that he would not become aware of its flaws. Could it be said that Kuralt held the same belief about his personal life – that he kept moving between friends and families out of insecurity or fear that he may not be held in high esteem if he was around for longer periods? Was his loneliness a self-prison?
I think Kuralt was one of these people who was motivated to seek out "peak" experiences, characterized by those moments when he felt the highest levels of happiness. He moved from one to the other as if he were dancing, never letting his feet settle in one place for too long. So, in my mind, that's the thing that propelled him.
But you may be right about potential insecurity also driving him to move about so much. He was never around enough for people to see the warts, thus the image he projected was of a journalist much admired.
The price of that, of course, was loneliness. How ironic that someone who appeared to be everyone's best friend could be so utterly alone. It may have been a self-prison, but it was also the muse that drove him. And I, for one, thank god for that muse.
Would you say it was appropriate that Charles Kuralt passed away on Independence Day?
A colleague of Kuralt's called it an "inappropriate death on an appropriate day." And I do think it was the appropriate date for him to die - I wish the day, however, would have been 30 years prolonged.
Kuralt was a patriot who loved the nation. Isadore Bleckman, Kuralt's cameraman of many years, said that had Kuralt lived during the Revolutionary War, he would have been among the first to pick up a musket. So I do think it is an appropriate date for his death and appropriate that we remember him on that date as someone who loved the nation and held up a mirror in front of it to show us how good we were.
Forgiving Charles Kuralt (Ralph Grizzle's USA Today editorial following the scandal)
Literary Southern Appalachia, by Ralph Grizzle (Hemispheres, September 2001)
Profile of Louis Reuben, by Ralph Grizzle (The North Carolina Century)
© 2002, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved