THE LITTLE HOUSE SITS ON A DIRT ROAD NEAR Twin Bridges, Mont. "It's nothing fancy," says a neighbor, "just an old cabin." But to the late Charles Kuralt, longtime CBS news anchor and celebrant of small-town America, the house and the land it sits on were paradise. From the day in 1985 when he bought it until his death last year from heart failure at 62, the broadcaster was smitten with his 110-acre ranch.

So, it seems, was Patricia Shannon, a retired Twin Bridges divorcée who claims she was Kuralt's lover for 29 years and is suing Kuralt's estate for ownership of the land and a restored school-house, which she says he willed her in a 1989 handwritten statement. "I loved Charles," Shannon, 64, told a Montana district judge in Virginia City on March 3. "He wanted [the ranch] as a hideaway."

Kuralt's wife of 35 years, Suzanna "Petie" Kuralt, has kept silent regarding the alleged affair, as have his two daughters from a prior marriage. But Kuralt's family rejects Shannon's claim that Kuralt left her the ranch. Petie's lawyers argue that even if the 1989 document ever amounted to a valid will, a subsequent will, dated May 4, 1994, supersedes it and leaves everything to his wife and children.

Ironically, the court battle grew out of one of those heartwarming stories that were the hallmark of Kuralt's TV career. Pat Shannon was a 34-year-old single mother in 1968, raising three children on her salary as a public information officer at a Reno power company. Moved by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., she organized an effort to build a park in predominantly black northeast Reno. She called Kuralt at CBS in New-York City and urged him to visit it.

Kuralt flew to Reno that July to cover the park's dedication. He also, according to Shannon's testimony, invited her to dinner and showed up at her house with three dozen red roses. That fall, she said, the pair vacationed together in the Sierra Nevada and began a relationship that would last until his death. According to Shannon, Kuralt visited her family frequently, and in time her children began to call him Pop. "He would always fly in around the holidays," she testified. "It depended on his schedule; sometimes he replaced Walter Cronkite on the evening news."

Shannon knew Kuralt was married and that he had children—Lisa Bowers White, now 41, and her sister, Susan Bowers, 38. Yet the relationship continued. The newsman bought her a house in Ireland, she says, and mailed monthly checks of at least $5,000 until the time of his death.

"I was always hopeful he would leave Mrs. Kuralt," testified Shannon, who last saw him in 1996 in Montana. The following summer, when Kuralt was hospitalized in New York, he wrote Shannon (in a letter she presented in evidence) saying he would "have the lawyers visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in Montana."

Kuralt died 16 days later, on July 4, leaving the disposition of his land unresolved. In his 1990 book, A Life on the Road, Kuralt admitted that during his first marriage, "I was drunk with travel... indifferent to thoughts of home and family...." Now it seems that in all his wanderings, recounting the stories that enchanted America, the story he chose not to tell was his own.

PATRICK ROGERS
VICKIE BANE in Montana

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  • Vickie Bane.