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Remembering Charles Kuralt on the 20th anniversary of his death

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Above: Photos from Charles Kuralt’s reconstructed study in Chapel Hill. (Photos: Rolando Pujol)

The legendary poet of the American road, Charles Kuralt, died 20 years ago this July 4th.

His CBS News’ “On the Road” segments are well worth binging on during this Independence Day, for each is a remarkable celebration of America. Unfortunately, these vintage visual essays hosted by Kuralt are not easily streamable. You’ll find some poor-quality VHS dubs on YouTube. Netflix or Hulu don’t have the videos in their streaming collections, either.

So you’ll have to head to Amazon and buy the Kuralt “Americana Collection” on DVD, which contains hours and hours of his best reports from his travels in a CBS-eye-stamped RV across America’s back roads, most of which aired on the “CBS Evening News” starting in 1967, or on his signature “CBS Sunday Morning,” which he hosted from its premiere in 1979 to his retirement in 1994.

Fame is fleeting, and there is now a whole generation of Americans for whom Kuralt is an unknown figure, or one whose legacy is overshadowed by his complex personal life. In today’s world of electronic oversaturation or tabloid obsession, a legacy like Kuralt’s is easy to miss.

That’s a shame. I hope this post plays some part, however small, in changing that even for one person who is unfamiliar with his work.

Kuralt’s stories from the American road — the characters he found, the obscure places to which he brought a network camera — are even more fascinating today than they were in Kuralt’s heyday —  and in an age of viral sameness and social-media banality, they are a revelation, a breath of fresh air. He recorded places, institutions and traditions that were imperiled then — some have faded into the history books since, with Kuralt’s electronic essays serving as the only testaments to their fragile existence.

Of course, what really makes the segments so compelling is the man himself. The warm, rolling voice. The avuncular presence. The smile. The lyricism of his prose that is so distinct. The ability to find the epic in the mundane.

On my own travels, documented here, his voice is always echoing in my own mind. Never far away is his love of these off-beat places, and his even greater love for the people who made them off beat — whom he would make famous, even folk heroes during the days when a few minutes on Cronkite was the closest thing to going viral.

This admiration for “On the Road,” and his influence on my own work, compelled me to visit two special places recently, during a family trip to Raleigh, North Carolina.

I knew Kuralt was buried at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, on the campus of his beloved alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill, and I intended to pay respects at his grave site.

But in researching this visit, I was stunned to discover that the communication school (inside Carroll Hall) was in possession of Kuralt’s actual study, moved from his Manhattan apartment, complete with furniture, fireplace mantle, a bevy of books, a mid-1990s computer, a raft of Emmy awards and the curios of one of the most fascinating media personalities of the 20th century.

The school has lovingly recreated the great man’s workspace, which has become popular with visitors hoping to gain insights into Kuralt. (Do call ahead to secure access and a private tour.) It is also used as unique meeting space.

One sad detail that’s easy to miss, but that’s a Kuraltian gem he wouldn’t let slide: There are USA travel guides from 1997 stacked on one shelf — so shiny and so unused, their spines without a crease.

1997 would be his final year. He died that July 4, of lupus. There’s a certain beauty in that patriotic calendar coincidence that eases some of the pain of his untimely passing, at age 62.

His widow, Petie Baird Kuralt saw to it that his study and other personal effects made the trip down to his beloved campus. She died a little more than two years later, and is buried beside the bard of the American road in the old cemetery.

Here are photos from his study, and the graveyard, that I present as a tribute to a man who inspires many of us every day to keep looking, because you never know what might be “just around the bend.”