Sunday, July 05, 2009

The other day, I suddenly thought of one of the many stories that used to be on the national TV news.

It wasn't one of the momentous, earth-shattering ones that seems to be the lifeblood of all news stories today, the ones that have numbed us all to the point where the same earth barely whimpers when a news anchor shouts. It was about a man who lived near a major crossroads, where many had gotten lost and he was the only one around to give the lost a clue as to where they were and in what direction they should be heading. Sick of this position he found himself in, the man began making his own road signs, directing everybody to all the places they'd asked him about, adding new destinations on the signs based on the wayward travelers' queries that still came his way, despite the signs he'd made.

The story had appeared on a segment of the CBS News that was called On The Road. The man who brought us the story: Charles Kuralt.

I remembered the gandy dancers, the man who decided to build his own highway across a midwestern state, the small town cafe where all the coffee cups were emblazoned with a regular's name after said regular had drunk five gallons of coffee...all due to Charles Kuralt.

I began to read his book America at a moment in my grandparents' house when I was cutting the boredom with a knife, and was charmed at the tale he told of a house for sale that had once belonged to an upper crust member of Charleston society, who was appalled when a potential buyer had ventured into a part of the house in which the soon-to-be former owner would never have gone: "You went into the kitchen?"

After checking out some books of his from the library recently, I found that a great secret of his that he'd kept all the years he'd been traveling the country and wrangling several different types of RVs in his quest for the gems hidden in the everyday, the next-door, and the so-called run-of-the-mill had come to light. He was an adulterer all those years, a fact that seems to have tainted his legacy for all time for some:
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."

Each must reconcile a person's gifts to this world with the fact that we are all flawed human beings who mostly want nothing more than to transcend our humble origins - even Kuralt with his legacy. He was not a perfect individual - but even his wife forgave him his longtime frailties. In many ways, the strongly adverse reactions to these revelations in light of the stellar career and personality he built over decades says a lot more about how successful he was at his job than about how good or bad he actually was as a person.

Death seemed to have canonized this man before these revelations, especially when Kuralt passed away on a date as momentous as the Fourth of July:

Watch CBS Videos Online

I for one am grateful that he passed through our lives in his way, showing us all how extraordinary the simple and the mundane could be in this world that seems to increasingly encourage us to leave all of that in the past. Kuralt even convinced Walter Cronkite, a scion of network news, of the wisdom and value in his reporting of subject matter that was not so worldly as to be almost otherworldly.

Without this man, these stories would not be with us today.

Without this man, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog.

Happy belated Fourth to Mr Kuralt, of blessed memory.

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