Remembering NC native Charles Kuralt as ‘On the Road’ turns 50

Kuralt (center) and his On the Road crew. CBS photo

DETROIT (CBS News) — The “On the Road” motor home wasn’t the fastest way to find a news story. But Charles Kuralt wasn’t looking for fast, or even news, for that matter — at least not in the traditional sense.

Kuralt, who was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and was a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, was a different kind of journalist. He didn’t investigate people. He simply admired them.

CBS photo

The legendary creator of “On the Road” died 20 years ago. But Kuralt’s biggest fan — Izzy Bleckman, his cameraman — is alive and well.

We invited Bleckman here to the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, where “On the Road” is celebrated year-round. The exhibit has been here for years, but this was his first time seeing it.

“Charles used to have a saying,” Bleckman said. “He says, ‘You’re making my heart beat fast.'”

Bleckman was there for most of Kuralt’s career — the highs and the highers. But he says “On the Road” almost didn’t get off the ground.

Management wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first “because they didn’t see what he saw,” Bleckman said.

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“What I heard was that the telephones lit up pretty hard after that night when the first one was on,” he added. “People said, ‘It’s about time we saw a little something else about America.'”

It was the beginning of one of the most successful segments in TV news history, which is why it saddens Bleckman that Kuralt’s name is now fading from our collective conscience.

People are forgetting who started this.

I even asked a group of CBS News interns, “Who’s heard of Charles Kuralt?” Way in the back, two people raised their hands — one of them was my intern.

I asked Bleckman, “What is lost if America forgets who Kuralt is?” To which he responded, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to let them do that. That’s your mission is to keep doing it and keep us in awe.”

Fortunately, there is still plenty of awe left in America.

In fact, what strikes me today is the same thing that struck Kuralt — that despite the negative headlines, the back roads connect up a country that still seems rather fine, even strong and enduring.

Yes, the motor home may be retired, but thanks to Bleckman and Kuralt, today there is still a vehicle for telling the stories we believe matter most.

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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