Charles Kuralt, Chronicler of Nation’s Back Roads, Dies


Charles Kuralt, the folksy CBS newsman who left behind the drama of covering far-off wars and national elections to chronicle small-town and offbeat America for his “On the Road” television reports, died Friday, the Fourth of July. He was 62.

Kuralt died at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City.

Kim Akhtar, a CBS spokeswoman, said Kuralt succumbed to complications arising from lupus, an inflammatory illness that can affect the kidneys, nervous system, skin and joints.

Associates said Kuralt’s death was unexpected, though he had been ill for months and suffered from several ailments.


“I’m terribly shocked,” retired CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, a longtime colleague, told WBZ radio of Boston. He offered one of the many accolades that began pouring in after news of Kuralt’s death hit.

“America lost one of its finest gentlemen and broadcasters today,” said Cronkite, who added that he found it ironic that Kuralt died on Independence Day. “While Charles never showed his patriotism on his sleeve, he truly loved America, the country and the people who populated it.”

In a further irony, Kuralt died on the very day that many National Public Radio stations, including several in the Los Angeles area, aired what may have been his final work--the narration of an hourlong program on the history of the Statue of Liberty.

“He hearkened back to a stature and idealism of early America,” said Norman Corwin, a friend and veteran of radio and television who directed the Statue of Liberty report.

Kuralt, said Howard Stringer, former president of CBS News, “was the consummate broadcaster, a triple-threat who could anchor, report and write with all-American brilliance.”

With his trademark soothing voice and reassuring manner, Kuralt became a journalistic institution after he and a three-person crew first hit the nation’s highways and byways in October 1967 for a trial run of what would become “On the Road,” a series of homespun vignettes that ran on the “CBS Evening News” for more than 20 years. His sometimes bemused but never condescending essays hit a nerve at a time when incendiary events such as the war in Southeast Asia and civil rights strife at home dominated the headlines.


During his sojourn on the nation’s back roads, Kuralt’s stops included a school for unicyclists, a gas station that doubled as a poetry workshop, and a horse-trading post. His viewers met characters as varied as a 104-year-old woman who entertained at nursing homes and Wahoo McDaniel, a Cherokee Indian wrestler.

His “On the Road” odyssey, Kuralt once explained, was a search for the “unimportant,” “irrelevant” and “resolutely insignificant” story. His inaugural effort was a homage to New England’s autumn foliage.

Eventually, Kuralt and his crew would visit each state multiple times and log more than 1 million miles on their battered motor home. Amid worldwide tumult, the baldish, paunchy Kuralt became a kind of voice for a simpler nation seldom represented in the national press.

“The laureate of the common man,” is how Time magazine once characterized Kuralt, who garnered numerous awards during his 37-year career at CBS, including 12 Emmys, three Peabody awards and a 1983 designation as broadcaster of the year by the International Radio Television Society.

Said CBS News correspondent Dan Rather: “He brought the everyman touch to television news. . . . There has never been anyone with such a unique ability to find nobility in every man.”

Kuralt’s reports, colleague said, underscored his own curiosity and appreciation for other people’s achievements, large and small, as well as his lack of pretense and pomposity and his ability to get along with others.


“He took the ordinary and make it wonderful and interesting,” said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at USC. “He was a poet-journalist.”

In his dispatches, experts say, Kuralt rediscovered and perfected a journalistic approach that had a long and storied pedigree, notably in radio, but had been largely eclipsed amid the industry’s emphasis on conflict, celebrity happenings, government news and other more predictable events.

“He brought back a style of reporting that had slipped away,” said Michael Parks, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. “If we could all do it as well as he did, newspapers, magazines and television would be much the better for it.”

It was Kuralt himself who opted for the looser format after earning his stripes as a jet-hopping veteran correspondent in the far corners of the world.

Charles Bishop Kuralt was born on Sept. 19, 1932, in Wilmington, N.C. His father was a social worker, his mother a teacher.

Writing was long an interest for Kuralt. A high school essay won him a trip to Washington and a meeting with President Harry Truman. He edited the Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, while attending the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1955. Kuralt joined CBS News in 1957 as a 22-year-old radio writer on the overnight news desk, after a stint as a reporter at the Charlotte News.


The young Kuralt, demonstrating a deft writing touch, quickly moved up the CBS ladder and became the network’s youngest-ever on-air correspondent in 1959 at age 24. He eventually reported from Africa, Asia and 23 Latin American nations, with assignments in Vietnam and covering the 1960 presidential campaign, in which John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon.

Eventually, though, Kuralt said he tired of the intense competition and concluded that hard news was not his forte. “I was always worried that some NBC man was sneaking around behind my back getting better stories,” Kuralt one explained to the Christian Science Monitor.

The “On the Road” format appealed to his peripatetic spirit.

“Charles suffered from a restlessness that kept him from fully enjoying his success,” said Andy Rooney, co-anchor of “60 Minutes,” the CBS news magazine. “He had to keep on moving.”

The popular journalist was occasionally outspoken about the industry, once publicly chastising TV news executives for “hiring hair instead of brains,” and stressing the importance of putting experienced journalists in anchor positions.

For 15 years, until April 1994, Kuralt also was the host of the critically acclaimed CBS News’ “Sunday Morning,” with a mix of essays on the nation, the arts and nature.

In addition, Kuralt periodically played a central role in CBS coverage of key events, including news stories such as the 1989 democracy movement in China.


Kuralt was a successful author of numerous books. His memoir, “A Life on the Road,” was the No. 1 nonfiction bestseller of 1990.

He retired from CBS News in 1994, but returned this year as host of “I Remember,” a program on the CBS cable network.

Surviving Kuralt are his wife, Petie Baird Kuralt; two daughters from a previous marriage, Susan Bowers and Lisa Bowers White; two grandsons; a brother, Wallace Kuralt of Chapel Hill, N.C., and a sister, Catherine Harris, of Bainbridge Island, Washington.

A funeral and burial are to be held in Chapel Hill next week, and a memorial service will be scheduled for the end of July in New York.


Charles Kuralt’s work, more than any journalist’s within memory, embodied the spirit of America at its best. F1