EVEN AS A 20-YEAR-OLD ROOKIE reporter on North Carolina's Charlotte News, Charles Kuralt had his own unique slant on every assignment. Sent to cover a parade, he focused on one of the pint-size spectators—a little boy watching through a thicket of grown-up legs. Kuralt, it seems, decided to "get down on his knees," remembers longtime friend Richard Cole, dean of the University of North Carolina journalism school, "and write about how the parade appeared to that young kid."

Kuralt's curiosity about the nooks and crannies of American life would make him a standout in a medium that too often passes such places by. A rumpled populist who never lost his sense of wonder, he spent most of his 42-year career at CBS celebrating small amazements that others overlooked: the sharecropper who put nine children through college, the 104-year-old distance runner, the poet who spent his days pumping gas. By the time he died of heart failure on July 4 at 62, Kuralt himself was celebrated as a broadcast institution. "He did what he did better than anybody else possibly could have," says Charles Osgood, who succeeded Kuralt as host of CBS News Sunday Morning in 1994. "There was a humility in his demeanor and an elegance to the language he used."

Kuralt's sensibility was rooted in his boyhood in Charlotte, where his father headed the city's welfare department and his mother was a social worker. Aside from a love of language, Charles inherited his parents' egalitarian spirit, says his brother Wallace Jr., 58, a bookstore owner in Chapel Hill. With their younger sister, Catherine, "We grew up in a house that was pretty much without any prejudices," remembers Wallace. "We had friends who were well above us in social status and others who were well below us, and I don't think it made any difference to any of us."

From early on, says Wallace, Charles was an adventurer who "enjoyed telling a good story." At 13, he "won a contest that allowed him to travel with the Charlotte Hornets minor-league baseball team to an away game," recalls Wallace. "He ended up entertaining the whole crowd with 'Casey at the Bat.' The next year he was broadcasting their games."

As indifferent to his appearance as he was polished in his writing, Kuralt seemed an unlikely candidate for broadcast journalism. "He didn't look like a television personality," says CBS eminence Walter Cronkite of his former colleague, who in 1959 became the network's youngest correspondent ever. "That was one of his strengths."

In the early '60s, Kuralt assuaged his "travel itch" by reporting from Latin America and Africa as well as Asia; he took four trips to Vietnam during the war. But as he noted in 1991's A Life on the Road, the fourth of his seven books, the grim nature of hard news didn't suit him. "I was always thinking, 'How can I get out of this?' " he confessed. "With my temperament and physique, I wasn't suited to deadline pressure."

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Kuralt began contributing his "On the Road" segments to the CBS Evening News. Cronkite, the anchor, was at first opposed to the wry, often touching reports on small-town America. With troops dying, and antiwar demonstrators in the streets, Kuralt's little stories struck him as frivolous. But he quickly became a Kuralt convert. "It was a marvelous addition at a time of stress and disquiet," he says. "And Charles seemed to discover the best in everybody, even those who might seem less than lovable." During his 13-year stint on America's back roads, Kuralt wore out six campers and collected 12 Emmys.

When he wearied of travel, in 1980, Kuralt cut back his workload to anchoring CBS's Sunday Morning. Though he officially retired in 1994, the network veteran, who lived with second wife Petie in Manhattan (he had two daughters from his first marriage: Lisa, now 40, and Susan, 38), was soon back in the saddle. This year he returned to CBS as anchor of its cable show I Remember, and to syndicated TV as host of An American Moment. Staying put, it seems, never suited him. "He got very restless at meetings," says Osgood. "He was happier being out on the road."

But Kuralt's deteriorating health cut short the ride. Diagnosed with lupus in June, he died of heart failure at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on Independence Day—a quintessentially American personality gone on the most quintessentially American day, remembered for his warmth and the unexcelled grace of his work. "He made it look easy," says Wallace Kuralt, "the way a great athlete makes it look easy. But he worked awfully hard to get things right."

MICHELLE GREEN
CYNTHIA WANG in New York City and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Miami

  • Contributors:
  • Cynthia Wang,
  • Fannie Weinstein.