Charles Kuralt never fit the mold of a TV correspondent. He wasn’t good looking. Far from it.
He was balding, overweight, and wore suits that looked as if they’d just arrived off the rack from JC Penney. But, you trusted what he said. And he could tell the whole story, a positive story, in just a couple of minutes.
Kuralt’s “On The Road” segments, which began in 1967 on the CBS Evening News, were a nice respite from the tumultuous 60s, Watergate, the mid-70s recession, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and other depressing stories.
And that’s exactly how he pitched his original idea for what some later called Kuralt’s, “Two-Minute Ceasefire” segments.
They were nostalgic pieces that allowed us to look away from what we didn’t want to see and toward a story that he found for us. A good story that, without Kuralt, we never would have known was there.
Kuralt’s work was so good that he won two Peabody Awards (the first in 1968) and shared a third with the program he would later host – CBS Sunday Morning.
Charles’ future legacy would be cemented when he went to the bosses at the network and offered to do stories about people that weren’t from the front pages, but those who lived down the street or around the block. He asked if they’d let him try it for three months. The brass at CBS agreed to his idea and gave him the money and crew to do it.
At first, Walter Cronkite, who was the then-anchor of the newscast, was against the segment. He changed his mind after the very first segment aired.
It was a story that would never have made it past most news director’s desks, but Charles made magic from it. It was a segment about kids in New England playing in the fall leaves.
The public was so ready for a break from all of the negative news of the day, that On The Road became an instant hit.
During his stint on the CBS Evening News, Kuralt traveled in a small motor home and rode the highways to wherever his next lead took him. Footage frequently showed him in the back of the moving coach, sitting at his typewriter, hammering away at his copy while the scenery passed in the window next to him.
There were many memorable segments, but one that has always stuck with me was his piece on the Chandler family. It was 1978, and their nine children were coming home for Thanksgiving and also to celebrate their parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. What made the story remarkable was that they had been a poor sharecropper family, yet the parents sent all nine of their children to college.
Kuralt’s 1972 story from Somerset, Wisconsin, actually changed the town, according to a 2012 article in The Hudson Observer. He had received a tip about something called, ‘river tubing,’ (which is well-known around the country today, but wasn’t then) and contacted the owner of the tubing business to see if he and his crew could come by and check it out.
The owner contacted the locals to make sure there would be plenty of people tubing on the river when he arrived. Even the local media showed up to do a story about Charles Kuralt doing a story.
There were approximately 52 million people watching when that story aired. Needless to say, after that, things picked up a bit at the tubing business in Somerset.
Charles rode the Goodyear Blimp to do a story. He reported on a man who collected twine – lots of twine. He filed a report about a man who chose to become a waver after retirement. He stood on the corner and waved to traffic in his hometown.
Kuralt’s work led to his own anchor job on the then-new CBS Sunday Morning. Each weekend, millions of us would plug in the percolator, pour a cup, and take a seat with Charles. He would tell us what he was going to tell us, and then each story would unfold. Like his On The Road segments, he gave us a break from things we were tired of hearing about.
Only with CBS Sunday Morning, we got way more than two minutes. And it was great.
That is, until 1994, when Charles retired at 60 for health reasons. He suffered from lupus and had heart problems. By most accounts, he also didn’t live the healthiest lifestyle.
Viewers were heartbroken. But, the show went on with host Charles Osgood taking Kuralt’s place. Osgood retired in 2016. Jane Pauley is now the host. The program recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
I find myself avoiding TV news these days. I don’t like the way the world is going, and I don’t want to hear about it all day, every day.
The world we lived in when Kuralt started his On The Road segments was one of intermittent reporting. We had local TV news at 5 and 10, and national news at 5:30. There weren’t TVs everywhere we went with 24/7 cable news blaring at us all the time.
Even though CBS Sunday Morning gets somewhat political at times, and features celebrities more than I’d like, Steve Hartman revived the On The Road segment in 2011, and still carries on in the Kuralt tradition with stories that are in the same vein as what Charles would have brought us.
Sunday mornings are a time when I like to sit down with my coffee and newspaper, and flip on CBS Sunday Morning – a program that I consider to be the last bastion of news delivered in a mostly ceasefire manner.
Thanks, Charles, for your legacy. Steve’s doing a good job for you. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and two other awards for writing.
And your program as a whole? It’s still delivering the goods.
I just wish you were still here every Sunday morning to have coffee with me and see it.
©2019 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.