BY RALPH GRIZZLE
will remember Independence Day 1997, not for its glorious displays
of fireworks or for its patriotic celebrations in city squares, but
as the day that Charles Kuralt died. His death affected me so profoundly
that he occupied my mind even as my family and I sat watching fireworks
burst streaks of color over Asheville, North Carolina. In fact, from
that day on, I have devoted much of my own life to researching and
writing about his.
subsequent months, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
commissioned me to conduct a series of oral histories with Kuralt's
friends, family and colleagues. Sixty of my interviews now accompany
the vast Charles Kuralt Collection, a historical archive of nearly
60,000 letters, scripts, memos and other memorabilia that Kuralt gave
to the university for safekeeping.
I talked with people whose lives had intersected with Kuralt's, I
heard time and again that Charles was just what you saw on television
- genuine, sincere, sweet, caring, "a national hero," the
"poet of America's back roads."
two months into my interviews an old friend of Kuralt's revealed the
Charlotte Observer would soon publish a big story on the CBS bard's
29-year-extramarital affair with Patricia Shannon. Sure enough, a
few weeks later the front page of the Observer's "Living"
section featured a three-page exposé detailing "The Other
Life of Charles Kuralt."
to Kuralt's marital infidelity ranged from censure to sympathy. Faced
with two disparate images of Kuralt - one whose friends characterized
him as a national hero; the other of a man who cheated on his wife
for nearly three decades - I found it difficult to reconcile how I
should remember him. His moral frailty contrasted sharply with the
seemingly strong convictions of the television personality who espoused
goodness and character and virtue.
apparent contradiction muddled Kuralt's image not only in my mind
also in others. Following my January 1999 cover story on Kuralt for
North Carolina's Our State magazine, one reader angrily fired back
that he was deeply disappointed that we would pay tribute to Kuralt:
"Is it not now widely regarded that Mr. Kuralt led an adulterous,
scandalous personal life that must surely have brought great shame
to his wife and family? In no way do I view Mr. Kuralt in the high
esteem as I did before these revelations."
the Bible Belt where I live, Kuralt, once so widely admired, clearly
was being crucified. Two publishers who expressed initial interest
in a Kuralt biography based on my interviews now felt the market "too
after tapping my home equity line to self-publish Remembering Charles
Kuralt in July of 2000, I attended a book signing in Blowing Rock,
North Carolina, where the bookstore owner confided that some of her
customers refused to buy anything by or about their old North Carolina
favorite since his affair had made news.
course, not everyone felt this way. As the bookseller and I were talking,
a kindly man browsing books turned to us and interjected: "I
would have thought the affair would have made him more interesting."
As he uttered these words, however, his wife walked in, waved a disapproving
finger at a copy of the book he was holding and asserted as she abruptly
turned to walk away, "I'll have nothing to do with Charles Kuralt
public outrage presented a paradox: A person's greatest strength ultimately
can become his or her greatest weakness. That is to say the very quality
that drew us to Kuralt - his capacity to become smitten with people
- had now become the thing that threatened to repel us. But should
Kuralt's infidelity diminish his life's work or the way we remember
from a moral point of view, if we hold him to strict Christian scrutiny,
we are so prone to do in the South, we must also extend to him the
most gracious of Christian virtues. Even Charles' wife, while certainly
not apathetic about the affair, forgave him. "He was the best
man I ever knew," she announced at a dinner I attended shortly
before her own death.
Charles' affair did not change his essential character. He was, as
his closest friends had noted, a genuinely nice guy. "A lot of
people ask me what Charles was really like," says Loonis McGlohon,
a friend of Kuralt's for almost five decades. "I tell them I
never heard Charles say anything unkind about anybody." We should
all be so gracious.
the same day I signed books in Blowing Rock, I met a lady who attended
high school with Charles. They had no classes together but often passed
one another in the hallway. "I was really fat," she said,
positioning her hands several inches in front of her belly, "and
as a consequence, I wasn't all that loved. But Charlie always had
a big smile and a wave for me." You get my point about Kuralt
being a genuinely nice guy.
is a final and perhaps more practical, or at least self-serving, reason
to honor Charles Kuralt. And that is his collective work, including
the more than 600 episodes of "On The Road," continues to
enrich us. Need convincing? Just go back and watch the heart-warming
story of Bill Bodisch, an Iowa farmer who took six years to build
a fifty-eight foot steel yacht in his pasture, sold the farm, trucked
the yacht to the Mississippi and set sail for a trip around the world
fulfilling a lifelong dream. Or Jethro Mann, a retired minister
in Belmont Abbey, North Carolina, who bought and repaired bicycles
so that every one of the impoverished kids in his neighborhood would
have a bike to ride. Mann paid for the bikes and repairs from his
fixed income, expecting nothing in return.
the Chandlers, a poor black family in rural Mississippi who put nine
children through college. As it happened, Charles showed up with his
camera crew on the Chandler's 50th anniversary. The children had come
back to the new house they had built to replace the shack where they
had grown up, and when Mr. Chandler bowed his head to bless the meal,
he broke down in tears. Izzy Bleckman, the cameraman, began weeping,
too, as did Kuralt. "What were we weeping about," Kuralt
later said. "The American Dream, this notion that if you really
want to in a country like this, you can start from nothing and make
a success of yourself."
fact that they just don't make television like that anymore is lost
not only on the older generation. After Charles' death, a fan wrote
to me: "His TV show where he traveled around the country in a
camper and talked to interesting people was really neat. I wish there
were more shows like that, and I'm only 12."
now understand why some have remained angry with Charles over his
affair. It has to do with a feeling of betrayal. With arguably few
exceptions, television no longer presents us with role models. We
wrongly assumed that the immensely likable Kuralt was one and crowned
him with a halo.
regarded Charles as a hail-fellow well met. But we did not know him.
Few did. "Charles was one of the few people who you could talk
with, and when you were done, he knew everything about you, but you
knew nothing about him," said his old friend Bill Friday, president
emeritus of the University of North Carolina
Sunday morning as Charles spoke to us seated on a stool, he was perched,
in our minds, on a pedestal. Well aware of his own flaws, he never
aspired to such lofty heights. He drank too much, he smoked too much,
he ate too much and, now, it seems, he loved too much. May we forgive
his excesses as readily as we embraced, unknowingly, of course, the
emotional deficits that drove him to seek out the people and places
that so enthralled him, and through him, us.
Kuralt really intended to be was someone who did the world a little
good. "If I do any good," he told a Chapel Hill newspaper
reporter in 1965, "it's just the same thing all journalists hope
they do - maybe some good by enlightening people about the times they
enlightened by seeing the good in us - not because that was all there
was to see but because he chose to. We praised him for his good-news
approach, even bestowing him with 13 Emmy and three Peabody awards.
It is unfortunate that when we discovered that all the news about
his own life was not good, we chose to lash out at his memory. What
does that say - not about Charles Kuralt, but about us?
could have as easily chosen to be a muckraking journalist, but his
style was not to be brutal or harsh. "You know, most reporters
can't go back to the towns they wrote stories about," he told
me in 1994, and then added thoughtfully: "I never wrote that
kind of story."
Independence Day, on the fourth anniversary of his death, I will celebrate
the life of Charles Kuralt. He was indeed a national hero.
Grizzle is the author of Remembering Charles Kuralt, which will be
reprinted by The Globe-Pequot Press in July 2001. Post your comments
about Kuralt at here.