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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

TV Poet: Charles Kuralt

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Charles Kuralt has been "off the road" for a year and a half now, and I miss him. I know that it's perfectly common to say about anyone who retires that "there will never be another like him," but in the case of Charles Kuralt it's true -- no one will ever be able to fill his shoes or to do his job.

Kuralt's "job" for 28 years was to drive the back roads of America in a CBS camper and report to us what he found there. What he found there was sometimes inspiring, sometimes charming, but always interesting and uniquely American. His series of "On the Road with Charles Kuralt" reports were like little pieces of ourselves. That alone made them special. But Kuralt would show us the America he found with such charm, such simplicity, and such sincerity that each story became almost like a little jewel (perhaps encrusted with the dust of a dirt road), but precious and priceless nonetheless.

Kuralt was the Walt Whitman of American television, and he crafted a kind of video artistry that was about (and for) Everyman. In this he was (and he remains) unique.

He caught ordinary people in the act of being themselves. Only it wasn't an act. Not on their part and not on his. His affection for the people he showed to us shines through each of his pieces. Charles Kuralt had a deep and an abiding respect for this country and the people in it -- and what they were doing, too. Often he would join in and "lend a hand" stirring the stew in a kitchen of a woman who turned her house into a haven for the hungry or chopping wood to help a New England farmer get ready for the winter.

There is a skill in making people and their dreams come alive, and Kuralt worked his craft in that singular way which allowed folks to tell their own stories. The important person in a Kuralt piece was never Kuralt himself -- it was who he aimed his camera and microphone at. The hardest job in journalism is to make it all seem natural and easy, to have it sound and feel as if someone is just telling you a story and have the focus on the story rather than on the storyteller. With Kuralt, it was always "Look what I found!" It was never "Look what I made."

And what stories he found!

Jethro Mann of Belmont, North Carolina, who spends his money and time trying to make sure that every kid in town has a bicycle to ride.

And George Long, who hand-carves horses for the merry-go-round with love and patience and artistry.

And the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin who have been praying (in shifts) without interruption for the past hundred years.

And Her Honor Maggie Conn, a 76-year-old woman who is the Mayor, Street Engineer, Health Inspector, Marriage Counselor, Fire Commissioner, and Dogcatcher of Herrick, Illinois.

My favorite is Bill Bodisch, an Iowa farmer who took six years to build a fifty-eight foot steel yacht in his pasture. He then sold the farm, had the boat trucked to the Mississippi, and then set sail for a trip around the world. It had been a dream of his, and he did it.

We live in a world which is increasingly moving faster and faster, a world which seems to be growing more impersonal every day. Television journalism breathlessly reports on scandals, robberies, murder, war and the international scene. The stories we see are very important and very big and very fast.

Kuralt says that he tried to keep "relevance" and "significance" out of his stories. "I tried to go slow," he says, "to stick to the back roads, take time to meet people, listen to yarns, notice the countryside go by and feel the seasons change."

And he shared all of this with us.

We are richer for the experience.

And poorer now that he no longer holds his mirror up to our faces and lets us see (and feel) ourselves, our country, and our lives.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.