Kuralt Goes Off the Road, Sees Progress on the Way

OF all the monuments to Charles Kuralt's 37-year television career at CBS, none is more profound than this: Americans in every dusty corner of the country can instantly match his name to his winsome voice.

From 1967 to 1987, Mr. Kuralt logged more than a million miles in a motor home filming ``On the Road'' broadcasts for the CBS Evening News.

His folksy portraits of American life were a fount of calm and continuity in a time when political and social upheaval dominated the news.

``Charles Kuralt leaves a legacy of virtually unparalleled ability to marry pictures and words,'' says Marvin Kalb, head of the Barone Center at Harvard University and a former CBS colleague of Kuralt's. ``He combined beauty and facts in a way few television reporters have managed to achieve.''

Kuralt's homespun narratives blossomed on ``Sunday Morning,'' a polyphonic blend of news, science, sports, and art that exemplified Kuralt's intellectual breadth. He once devoted an entire 90-minute show to a Picasso exhibit.

``Sunday Morning'' has earned eight Emmys since its inception in 1979, adding to the three Emmys Kuralt garnered for ``On the Road.'' In 1983, the International Radio and Television Society named him ``Broadcaster of the Year.''

In a telephone interview, Kuralt plays down all the accolades.

``Anyone who has intimations of fame or immortality chose the wrong career in TV news,'' he says. ``This business is so fast and fleeting, I don't think anything lasts for very long.''

What is he most proud of?

``Showing ordinary people you wouldn't expect to see on TV, people who are not celebrated in any way.''

Although he has covered major events from the Winter Olympics to the Gulf war, Kuralt has never strayed from his specialty: poignant stories simply told. He once turned down a position on ``60 Minutes.''

``Charlie will be the first to say that he wasn't there to do the big story,'' Mr. Kalb says. ``He was there to do the little stories ... and he did them better than anybody else in the business.''

Kuralt will spend the next 12 months visiting a dozen of his favorite places in America for a book called ``The Perfect Year.'' His 1990 memoir ``A Life on the Road'' was a bestseller.

Closing his final ``Sunday Morning'' show, Kuralt thanked his audience and acknowledged his successor, Charles Osgood.

``I aim to do some traveling and reading and writing, and to watch this program the civilized way for a change - in my bathrobe while having breakfast,'' Kuralt said.

Longtime CBS commentator Morley Safer will narrate a one-hour special on Kuralt's life and work to be aired in early May. ``It's basically a conversation between two old fogeys,'' Mr. Safer says. ``I accuse him of being a patriot, and he pleads guilty.''

Kuralt's voluntary departure comes at a time when many industry veterans are wary of current trends in TV news. ``Priorities have changed,'' Safer says. ``There's less emphasis on writing, less emphasis on taking a minute to think about things. Charlie and I both concluded that we probably couldn't be hired today, doing what we do, the way we like to do it.''

Nevertheless, Kuralt - the insatiable patriot - focuses on the distance traveled rather than the miles left to go.

``I think there are grounds for modest pride for what's happened in America since I've been a reporter. We have a very short memory in journalism, but I can remember a time when people didn't care about issues like civil rights, women's rights, the environment, and consumerism. I'm inspired by the changes.''

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