Forgiving Charles Kuralt


By Ralph Grizzle




 On the Road with Charles Kuralt.


 The legendary reporter in his youth.


By Ralph Grizzle


I 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.

In 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.

As 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."

But 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."

Reactions 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.

The apparent contradiction muddled Kuralt's image not only in my mind but 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."

In 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 narrow."

Indeed, 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.

Of 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 anymore."

Such 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 him? No.

First, from a moral point of view, if we hold him to strict Christian scrutiny, as 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.

Second, 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.

On 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.

There 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.

Or 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."

The 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."

I 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.

We 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.

Each 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.

All 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 live in."

Kuralt 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?

Kuralt 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."

This Independence Day, on the sixth anniversary of his death, I will celebrate the life of Charles Kuralt. He was indeed a national hero.


Ralph Grizzle is the author of "Remembering Charles Kuralt," an acclaimed biography published in year 2000. His current book, scheduled for publication in December, is "Charles Kuralt's People," a collection of 169 award-winning columns that the 22-year-old Kuralt wrote for the Charlotte News in 1956. The columns moved CBS Radio to take note of Kuralt's vast unique talent. He was hired by the network in the spring of 1957.


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