To Newsman Bill Kurtis, the Little House on the Prairie Is An Address That Means Home
—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
What was once the seamless prairie where Laura Ingalls and her family settled briefly in 1869 is now a modest tourist stop on Route 75,13 miles from Independence, Kans. Laura's memoirs of her pioneer girlhood became first children's classics and later the inspiration for NBC's hugely popular TV series. But the site on which the original Little House stood has a special meaning for newsman Bill Kurtis, co-anchor of the CBS Morning News. For him, it will always be home.
His grandfather, a successful oil wildcatter, acquired the land in the '20s and bequeathed some 360 acres to Bill's mother, Wilma, who settled there with her family when Bill was 16. Given those roots, Kurtis is an unabashed product of America's heartland. "The Midwest is such a good place to grow up," he says. "I was raised in the '50s when parents weren't divorced or traveling around. We had church, Boy Scouts, role models in our coaches. Looking back on it, those really do seem like happy days."
Two weekends ago Kurtis, 41, returned to Independence (pop.: 10,598) for a family reunion and a visit to the town's premier tourist attraction. "It's a long way from Disneyland," he observed. "We have no plastic dispensing machines, no monorail, no asphalt parking lot." In fact, the current Little House wouldn't exist at all had it not been for some determined detective work on the part of the town's book dealer, Margaret Clement. Beginning in 1963, she spent eight years poring over 19th-century census reports and maps trying to pinpoint the exact location of Laura's house, finally concluding that it was part of the Kurtis property. Some of the citizens of Independence helped with the construction of a replica of the cabin, which they filled with Little House memorabilia (including autographed glossies of actor Michael Landon, TV's Pa Ingalls). The Kurtis family later moved two more buildings to the site: a tiny post office and a one-room white schoolhouse where Kurtis' grandmother, Lillian Jones Horton, taught in 1901.
Not surprisingly, Bill's most devoted fans are his former neighbors in southeast Kansas, where the locals remember him by his middle name, Horton. "I tuned in to CBS this morning at 7 and said, 'My God, he's going to be here for dinner tonight,' " fluttered hostess Sharon Viets. Memories were as plentiful as the reunion fare of eggplant lasagna and herb bread. High school football teammate Pack St. Clair recalled a long-ago evening at the University of Kansas when Kurtis "borrowed" two loudspeakers from the auditorium, strapped them to his car, and cruised fraternity row, shattering the stillness with peals of amplified laughter. Arrested for disturbing the peace, he spent the rest of the night in jail.
His exploits as a prankster, however, did nothing to sully his image. "The nice thing about Hort is that he is a gentleman," says Georgia High, managing editor of the Independence Daily Reporter and a former college classmate of Kurtis. "He is unspoiled by his success." "Hort was just an all-round boy," says Independence undertaker Jerry Webb, "class president and star quarterback. I remember when he won a Voice of Democracy contest, I said, 'That Horton is going to go somewhere.' "
In fact, Kurtis had been a lot of places before his family set down roots in Independence in 1956. That was the year his father, a Marine Corps brigadier general, retired to life as an oilman and farmer. Born in Pensacola, Fla., Bill had spent his early years shuttling between military bases from California to North Carolina. By the time he'd become a teenager, recalls Jean Kurtis Schodorf, 31; now a speech pathologist in Wichita, he was a big brother to inspire a kid sister's awe. "Hort and his friends were very nice to me even though I bugged them," she says. "I remember trying to hide in his car once when he went out on a date, but I never made it past the driveway." Even then, she remembers, Kurtis seemed mesmerized by the romance of radio. "Sometimes he would lie in his bedroom practicing what disc jockeys said over and over again. He'd practice everywhere. If we'd go out for Fourth of July fireworks, Hort would be the narrator."
At 16, for 65 cents an hour, he became a Little League broadcaster and disc jockey for radio station KIND. "Horton could always be trusted," says station owner Nelson Rupard. "He developed a one-on-one sincerity like Arthur Godfrey, and he had a good, mature voice." Yet broadcasting came so easily to Kurtis that "I thought it couldn't be what I was supposed to do in life," he recalls. So after graduating from KU in journalism in 1962, he served a hitch in the Marines, then entered Topeka's Washburn University School of Law. "Like most young people, I wanted to see beyond the plains," he says. In 1963 he married his high school sweetheart, Helen Scott. Later they became the parents of Mary Kristin, now 16, and Scott Erik, now 11. Helen Kurtis died of cancer in 1977.
In 1966, while working part-time as a newscaster at WIBW-TV to help put himself through law school, Kurtis got word that a killer tornado was nearing Topeka. "I knew the next thing I had to say meant life and death," he recalls, "so I blurted out, 'For God's sake, take cover.' " Ignoring his own advice, Kurtis continued on-air locally for 24 hours and made his network debut on CBS Morning News the day after the storm. His performance caught the attention of a CBS news director at Chicago's WBBM-TV and Kurtis was offered a job. "That tornado blew me right out of Kansas," says Bill, "just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz."
Kurtis and family packed a U-Haul and headed north to Chicago. "I had never lived in a big city before," he says. "I grew protected in my little Shangri-la, naive and probably too open. People from small towns have to have their edges roughed up to get along in the world. But as a street reporter, you learn quickly." Except for three years as a network correspondent in Los Angeles, Kurtis spent his entire CBS career in Chicago, winning numerous awards. On one occasion he made news while reporting a story, plunging into a lake in Marquette Park to save a 17-year-old boy from drowning. He was tapped this March for The Morning News, replacing Charles Kuralt as part of CBS' long-running effort to overtake NBC's Today show and ABC's Good Morning America. "I'd like Morning News to become a great first edition electronic newspaper," Kurtis says, "so that the New York Times will want to watch us."
Kurtis was joined on his recent hometown pilgrimage by his two children and his fiancée, Donna La Pietra, 31, a former executive producer at WBBM-TV. They continue to live in his Chicago house while he arranges for a New York apartment. "If Bill could be anywhere right now," says Donna, "it would probably be Beirut. I think he's in love with the image of the war correspondent without attachments. He's a terrible risk taker. He thinks that he can go anywhere, and that because he's a newsman he won't be in any danger."
Back in unthreatening Kansas, however, Kurtis spent the weekend revisiting old haunts, stopping at the bank to receive an oversize card signed by 1,200 local well-wishers, and getting a $5 trim at the same barbershop which once specialized in 50¢ flat-tops. Later, after a stroll past the childhood home of playwright William Inge, Kurtis joined a bevy of proud relatives for an outdoor feast at the renowned Little House. "This is about as far away from New York as you can get," he said contentedly. "What a privilege to see purple wild flowers and buffalo grass shoulder-high." Yet the weekend was only an interlude, and Kurtis was soon on his way back to Manhattan. As Laura Ingalls Wilder might have put it—and did: The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away.