This article is based on Montana and North Carolina court records, hearing transcripts, interviews, newspaper archives, and Charles Kuralt's books "A Life on the Road," "On the Road With Charles Kuralt" and "Charles Kuralt's America."
On his sickbed in New York in the summer of 1997, Charles Kuralt thought of Montana, a place he had loved for a great many years for its natural wonders, far away from his life in the city.
Down by a riverside, he built a log cabin. It reminded him of his native North Carolina, but most of all it gave him a place to disappear.
Wherever the news took him, wherever CBS sent him, whatever corner of the country he explored for his "On the Road" series, Kuralt always returned to his little cabin on the Big Hole River.
In the hospital, having surrendered to doctors and tests, Kuralt, shaky and anxious and only 62, took up a pen and wrote a letter:
"Something is terribly wrong with me. ... I'll have the lawyers visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in MT. If it comes to that ..."
It was his final letter in many years of letters to Patricia Shannon.
Kuralt could not have foreseen its impact, for the letter revealed a life he had hidden for nearly 30 years, and led to
confrontation between two women he hoped would never meet.
Petie Kuralt, his wife, and Pat Shannon, his longtime companion, both wanted the Montana land Charles Kuralt left behind. Pat Shannon contested Kuralt's will in a court case that added a surprising and uncharacteristically contentious footnote to a life story everyone thought ended July 8, 1997, when Charles Kuralt came home one last time, to a shaded grave in Chapel Hill.
In the Madison County courthouse in Virginia City, Mont., case file DP-29-97-3609 overflows with glimpses of a Charles Kuralt America did not know.
For 29 years, he moved between two worlds: one with a wife and career on the East Coast, another with a woman clear across the country.
He shared Montana with Pat Shannon, and that is not all.
They vacationed together, celebrated Christmases together, camped, hiked and picnicked together. Charles put her oldest daughter through law school and helped put her son through college. He bought Pat a cottage in Ireland and a term at a design school in London.
Over the years, he sent her enough money that she didn't have to work; the checks came monthly, $5,000 here, $8,000 there, well over a half-million dollars. Even as he and Pat drifted apart (he refused to leave his wife), he continued sending money and notes of affection.
A few months before he died, Charles deeded Pat his Montana cabin and 20 acres, and with his final letter intended to give her the surrounding land. It was for the courts of Montana to decide whether the letter legally constituted a will, and on May 26, the court ruled that it didn't. Petie Kuralt won.
Unless the state supreme court overturns the ruling, she won 90 acres and a historic schoolhouse her husband renovated with Pat as a study overlooking the cabin, $600,000 worth of property.
The Kuralt family has declined to discuss the matter, and so have Pat Shannon and all their attorneys. Petie Kuralt has chosen not to tell her side of the story, though court records tell a great deal of Pat's, through personal letters, mementos, photographs and cards, Pat Shannon's evidence of Kuralt's generous devotion to her and her three children, who came to think of him as a father.
"Mr. Kuralt and I lived a life, and perhaps it was not a life you approve of," she testified recently. "But it was a life together."
Kuralt took great care never to cross that life with his other.
During his 40 years with CBS News, Kuralt made fans everywhere. Throughout the '70s and on into the '90s, he celebrated the poetry of everyday life, a simple, powerful series known as "On the Road." People loved him for it because famous or not, he seemed as ordinary as anyone: easygoing, rumpled, as pudgy and balding as a favorite uncle.
Kuralt did his job so well, people not only felt they knew his story subjects; they felt they knew him, forgetting there is more to a man, to any human being, than a television camera can beam into a family's home.
Meeting on the road
On the morning of Tuesday, March 3, 1998, a petite woman in a black suit took the witness stand in a nearly empty courtroom in Virginia City.
Pat Shannon was 64, silver-haired and shy.
"Ms. Shannon," asked the attorney, "would you explain how you met Mr. Kuralt?"
It was the spring of 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. At her home in Reno, Nev., Pat Baker sat up into the night wondering what she, a young, divorced mother of three, could do. She decided on creating a park.
She rallied local volunteers but needed publicity. Pat heard CBS had a guy who had just started roaming the country doing feature stories for Walter Cronkite. She called CBS in New York.
Kuralt was 33 then, married for six years to Petie Baird, "the
beautiful secretary who used to run along the Grand Central catwalk with me."
They were married on June 1, 1962, and, "I suppose we haven't spent more than a week at a time together from that day to this," Charles wrote years later. "Petie has not minded this much. People ask, 'And what does your wife do while you're away?' I say, 'She reads and when I come home, she tells me things I don't know.' "
The park in Reno sounded like a good story for "On the Road." Kuralt and his camera crew headed west. By now it was July in the blood-hot summer of '68. Bobby Kennedy was dead, too.
Kuralt's camera rolled as 700 volunteers worked the weekend away. "Almost lost in this crowd is a slight, pretty woman named Pat Baker," he told his viewers. "The whole crazy idea of building a park in two days. ... Her idea became everybody's idea."
That night, Charles invited Pat to dinner. He arrived at her house with three dozen red roses. She introduced him to her children: Kathleen, 13, J.R., 11, and Shannon, 9. He met Pat's mother, too.
After dinner, Charles and Pat sat in the lobby of his hotel and talked all night about their lives.
She was 34, he 33. She was born in San Diego, he in Wilmington, N.C. Both graduated from college in 1955, she from the University of Nevada, he from UNC-Chapel Hill. She was the daughter of an auto body worker, he the son of a teacher and a social worker. She worked in public relations; he had never wanted to be anything but a journalist, and a traveler. She had been divorced for five years, and he had been remarried for six.
'Pick a place'
"Now did you, after that evening, continue a personal relationship with Mr. Kuralt?" asked the attorney.
"Yes. He began calling me frequently and he sent me a book. It's called 'The Gentle Wilderness.' It's on the Sierra Nevada, and in it he put a note and said, 'Pick a place and we'll go there.' And he came back in September and we went hiking in the Sierra."
Every few weeks, Charles visited Pat in Reno. Sometimes they went to San Francisco but usually they stayed with Pat's children and parents. They played the piano together, dyed Easter eggs, went to J.R.'s Pop Warner football games. Pat's family adored him.
In the fall of 1970, when Pat and the kids decided to move to San Francisco, Charles helped them move and paid the rent. She worked in public relations for the U.S. Department of Labor but soon found the job got in the way of time with Charles. She quit and started her own women's rights consulting firm, Pat Shannon Baker & Associates. The business wasn't enough to live on. Charles supported Pat and the kids.
"Did you talk about that with Charles Kuralt, the support, or was it kind of an unstated proposition?" the attorney asked.
"Well, when we talked about my quitting my job, we knew I didn't have any money. ... Charles always said -- his refrain through all of his life -- 'Don't worry, we're rich,' he would say. He was the breadwinner of the family."
Pat never went on the road with Charles but they traveled together in his off time.
In 1975, they found an ad in a fishing magazine: field house for rent at a ranch on the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana, near Twin Bridges.
They vacationed there almost every autumn, renting until 1981, when Charles decided to buy 20 acres and build a cabin on it.
Charles bought it for Pat, a gift.
"OK," the attorney continued. "One question that should be directly asked is that you knew that Mr. Kuralt was married during this period? And by this period, I'll define it as throughout the 1970s and 1980s."
"Were there specific discussions about ... him being married?"
"No. There were -- I went through bouts of despair, and there were arguments, but we never directly talked about, about his
life in New York. I knew it existed. Charles -- I read in some of this material that's coming out of Washington today how there's a tendency for men of power and, and fame, to sometimes compartmentalize their lives. And I think that's what Charles did. He had a life in New York. I did not inquire into it. And he did not discuss it with me."
A retirement home
In 1987, Charles decided to buy more land on the Big Hole River, 39 acres on one side of the cabin and a 50-acre bluff on the other.
Driving around Madison County, Charles and Pat often passed the Pageville schoolhouse, a derelict old thing given over to wayward cows.
In the steepled ruin, Charles and Pat envisioned a library where Charles could write after he retired from CBS.
He paid $15,000 for the schoolhouse, had it moved to the river bluff and hired a contractor to restore it, easily a $180,000 project.
Pat oversaw much of the restoration from San Francisco, where she was getting increasingly restless. They had been together 20 years now and still Charles refused to divorce his wife. Pat decided to move to London to study landscape architecture at the Inchbald School of Design. Charles paid for it. She returned home the next spring.
Taking care of the kids
From the start, Charles Kuralt impressed the Baker children as a kind man who was genuinely interested in their lives and future.
He gave J.R. his first baseball glove, taught him how to sail. When J.R. had trouble getting into college, Charles sent him to a preparatory school in Arizona, where one of Cronkite's children had gone.
When he thought J.R. should see a bit of the world he took him on the road with his camera crew, and once got him an internship at CBS.
He paid for Kathleen to go to law school at the University of San Francisco; when she graduated, Charles was there. He helped send J.R. to grad school; when he graduated, Charles was there. He gave them job references and advice and very often, a little walking-around money, even when they didn't ask for it.
He never failed to send birthday cards and Valentines. He wrote letters a good father would write: Don't rush into a job you hate ... Let's catch some fish this summer ... I'm proud of you ... I love you. He began signing his letters, "Pop."
'Too much invested'
"Now Ms. Shannon," the attorney continued, "was there a time during this period that you attempted to break off and pursue an independent life?"
"Well, we -- our lives became increasingly scattered, I guess you would say. Charles was no longer on the road. He was living with Mrs. Kuralt in New York City. ... Charles had not gotten a divorce and I was becoming more and more unhappy about it. ... Charles said he thought we had too much invested to just toss it aside and was eager, as I generally was, too, to have reconciliations."
In 1994, Kuralt retired from CBS, and letters of sadness poured in from all over the country, more than 1,000 a day. He asked Pat to join him in Key West, Fla. She still hoped Charles would leave Petie, so she went, but once there, she realized again nothing ever would change. When Charles invited her to Charleston a month later, Pat said no. When he asked her to meet him at the cabin, she said no.
That September, he turned 60 in Montana.
The next October, in 1995, he had heart bypass surgery.
By summer 1997, Pat had been deeded the cabin and 20 acres. Charles wanted to deed over the rest of the land, but Pat says she urged him to wait. They were to meet at the cabin in September and once again try to repair their relationship.
Charles hadn't been feeling well. His doctors ran tests. On June 18, he wrote to Pat from the hospital: "Something is terribly wrong with me." He enclosed two checks, one for $9,000 and zTC
one for $8,000.
Days later, when she received the letter in Ireland, Pat frantically called J.R., who called the hospital, which would tell him nothing. J.R. called Charles' apartment in New York as he often did, and as he left a message on the answering machine, Petie Kuralt picked up the phone.
For all she knew, J.R. thought, this was just another friend calling to check on Charles.
His heart was the trouble, and lupus. But he seemed to be getting better, Petie said.
J.R. called his mother and told her not to come to New York.
On July 3, J.R. called Charles.
Pat was anxious to speak to him, he said.
No, said Charles; he would be home soon and would call her then.
The next day, he died.
They buried him between a crape myrtle and a dogwood tree in Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, his mahogany casket covered in red roses.
More than 1,600 people had come to the memorial service to say goodbye, the famous and the unknown, among them Patricia Shannon.
At one point that day, she showed Charles Kuralt's letter to someone at the funeral, and the secret began to unravel.
Pub Date: 6/01/98