It's no coincidence that On the Road, the TV program that made Charles Kuralt famous, was named after a Jack Kerouac book. The two writers had much in common: Both came from humble beginnings to conquer New York, both adored jazz clubs and cocktails, both possessed an incurable wanderlust and both were equally intoxicated by the electricity of Greenwich Village and the sleepy backroads of small-town America.
The only difference? Where Kerouac's road was full of pretty waitresses and all-night parties, Kuralt's road--at least what we got to see of it--was populated by toothless farmers and solitary enthusiasts.
In this excellent book, author Ralph Grizzle gamely traces Kuralt's path from childhood in rural Onslow County and Charlotte to his days at UNC-Chapel Hill, from his early time with CBS News in New York to his years of crisscrossing the nation, and back to New York for his tethered Sunday Morning period.
Grizzle, a contributing editor to North Carolina's Our State magazine and a UNC journalism school graduate, wisely chooses to let his interview subjects--nearly 100 Kuralt friends, family and colleagues--do the talking. When he does leave his own imprint, as in this description of Kuralt's childhood, he writes in a poetic style not unlike a Sunday Morning narrative: "Kuralt spent his days flying kites of newspaper held rigid by flour paste, making slingshots from dogwood branches, and tickling Venus flytraps shut with a piece of straw."
Much is made of Kuralt's sincerity and endless sense of wonder, but his story is also one of a prodigy--radio announcer at 14, high school graduate at 16, rabble-rousing college newspaper editor (at UNC's The Daily Tar Heel, which the FBI visited after Kuralt wrote an anti-McCarthy editorial) and youngest-ever CBS News correspondent at 24.
When Kuralt's tender On the Road stories debuted in 1967, Time called them a "two-minute ceasefire" from abundant darker news. Kuralt filed his first-ever installment from a leaf-strewn road in Vermont. His opening line? "It is death that causes this blinding show of color. But it is a fierce and flaming death."
Walter Cronkite says he initially objected to doing the feature-oriented spots on the CBS Evening News. "But with the very first piece he did, I was convinced that we better get them on the air." Cronkite admits to having envied the young Kuralt. "Here was a guy born the very year I got my first full-time newspaper job and already he wrote a lot better than I did."
"He taught me temperance in writing and rhetoric," says journalist Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a classmate at UNC. "And it was something that remained characteristic of his style, that gentleness and consideration and reluctance to be harsh or brutal."
Kuralt never learned a similar temperance when it came to cigarettes, alcohol and food. "Smoking brings great pleasure to me," he once said. "I don't want to concentrate on living to be 100, spending an hour a day on the treadmill and another hour eating a salt-free dinner. It's outside my philosophy."
Several of Kuralt's friends paint an oddly envious portrait of a man whose unquenchable desire to live inevitably wore him out. "I had seen Charlie over the years get fatter and fatter," says lifelong friend Ruth Jones Pentes. "I knew he drank. I knew he smoked. I knew he ate badly." But, she acknowledges, "had he not done all that, he wouldn't have been Charlie." While Kerouac drank himself to death at 47, Kuralt took a slower road, contracting lupus (a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disorder) and died from heart failure in 1997 at age 62.
Kuralt's dealings with women provide another, less-flattering parallel to the Beat author. Considering the amount of time both men spent on the road, one can imagine how maddening it must have been to be the girlfriend or wife left behind. Sure, Kuralt's junior-high girlfriend speaks well of him. But his marriage to college sweetheart Sory Guthery, with whom he had two daughters, clearly became a swift casualty of his rising star at CBS in the late '50s. Kuralt's second marriage lasted from 1962 until his death but has been tainted by posthumous revelations--revelations even to his wife--that he'd been having an affair and living a secret life in Montana for 29 years.
Grizzle chooses not to include this bizarre epilogue to Kuralt's legacy. It would be easy to quibble with that decision, but it would be stranger still to have it in there, a tacky tabloid ending to the story of a man who celebrated the quiet dignity of common people. It would be the equivalent of showing one of those soothing Sunday Morning nature videos--say, geese drifting into a pink sunset--and letting a boatload of drunken hunters pick them out of the sky.