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Charles Kuralt, CBS' poet of small-town America, dies at 62

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'He cared about telling stories'

July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 6:41 p.m. EDT (2241 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) - Charles Kuralt, the folksy CBS newsman whose reports from the small towns and back roads of America endeared him to millions, died Friday at a New York City hospital. He was 62.

Kuralt died from complications from lupus, an inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, kidneys and nervous system. His brother, who runs a bookstore in their native North Carolina, said Kuralt had been ill for a couple of months.

"He was feeling pretty good yesterday, so it's very unexpected," Wallace Kuralt said.

"He was one of the true, greatly talented people in television," said Walter Cronkite, his former CBS colleague. "I'm terribly shocked. ... I didn't have any idea Charles was in mortal danger. There probably wasn't any more of a patriotic or loving man in television or the country than Charles."

Balding, pudgy and gifted with the ability to see poetry where others saw the prosaic, Kuralt logged up to 50,000 miles a year in a motor home. Rather than condescend to what some called "the little people," Kuralt delighted in their stories, in their passions, in what was genuine and real and made them unique.

He did pieces on a school for unicyclists, horse-trading and a gas station/poetry factory. He interviewed professional wrestlers, a 104-year-old entertainer who performed in nursing homes, lumberjacks, whittlers and farmers.

Remembering
Charles Kuralt
Charles Kuralt
Charles Kuralt from "On the Road"
(Courtesy CBS)
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Charles Kuralt's farewell words on his last broadcast of CBS' "Sunday Morning" in 1994
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Harry Smith, a CBS colleague, remembers his humanistic quality
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Charles Osgood, succeeded Kuralt as host of CBS' "Sunday Morning," talks about his love of America

Once called 'the next Ed Murrow'

Kuralt was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 10, 1934, the son of a social worker and a teacher. While young, he won an American Legion essay contest and a trip to Washington to meet President Truman.

Kuralt edited the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1955, and won the 1956 Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for his offbeat, human interest columns while working for the Charlotte, North Carolina, News.

Kuralt joined CBS in 1957 and moved quickly from rewrite to on-air correspondent, covering the 1960 presidential campaign before taking over as head of CBS' newly established Latin America bureau.

He eventually became a roving correspondent, and was described by one of his bosses as "the next Ed Murrow," a comparison Kuralt dismissed as "ridiculous."

He did four tours in Vietnam covering the war, and visited "all the tropical trouble stops," but decided in 1967 that he wanted out of hard news.

"I was always worried that some NBC man was sneaking behind my back getting better stories," he said later. In 1967, accompanied by a three-man crew, Kuralt began a three-month trial run of "On The Road."

'He just touched something that audiences responded to'

It struck a nerve immediately, and Kuralt eventually logged more than a million miles on the show before taking over as anchor of "Sunday Morning," a news magazine show.

"He just touched something that audiences responded to," said CBS colleague Charles Osgood, who replaced Kuralt on the Sunday program when he retired three years ago. "If we could think of something better to do, we'd do it. But nobody can."

When Kuralt left "Sunday Morning," he told his audience, "I aim to do some traveling and reading and writing."

But earlier this year, he ended his retirement to be host of the syndicated "An American Moment" -- a thrice-weekly series of 90-second slices of Americana -- and for the CBS cable show "I Remember," a weekly one-hour examination of a significant news story of the last 30 years.

Kuralt won three Peabody awards and 10 Emmys, and wrote several books: "To the Top of the World," "Dateline America," "On the Road with Charles Kuralt," "Southerners," "North Carolina Is My Home," and "A Life on the Road."

In 1981, he received the George Polk Memorial Award for national television reporting, and was named Broadcaster of the Year in 1985 by the International Radio-Television Society.

'He cared about telling stories'

"You were humbled to be around him, to watch him in operation," said CBS newsman Harry Smith. "There wasn't a real person on the planet who wouldn't talk to Charles Kuralt. There were no airs. He was prideful of his work, but there was no ego. So much of the things that this business grows, he would have none of. ... He cared about telling stories."

"The chronicle of the country and the nation that he brought was among the most beautiful and vivid journalism that I've ever heard in broadcast," said CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno.

"He created an art form, really, in television broadcast. He was one of the best writers that television has ever known. His voice, his inflection, his delivery. Everything about him was just pure art, I must say... We'll miss his presence and his grace."

In addition to his brother, Kuralt is survived by his wife, Suzanna; two daughters from a previous marriage, Susan Bowers and Lisa White; a sister, Catherine Harris; and three grandsons.

Funeral arrangements were not announced.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.  

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