I don’t have many heroes. I’m rather strict with my requirements. A single heroic act is not enough; they must be dogged in pursuit of a dream and be sincere in their professional demeanor and approachable and friendly in their personal lives.
I was saddened when two of them died last month, within a day of each other.
I was driving my kids to the beach when we heard on the radio that Jimmy Stewart had died. It felt as if someone I had actually known had died. He was in some great movies, but it was his character that drew me into them. I explained to my kids how much a part of my childhood he had been, how I had been totally absorbed by the suspense in his Alfred Hitchcock films.
My favorite was “Rear Window.” When I saw it again as an adult, my life had changed considerably. The plot was secondary, it was the character that I identified with now. A photojournalist given to wanderlust; when confined to his home, he finds intrigue when he turns an eye on his own neighborhood. He was resistant to involvement in a relationship, even one with the beautiful and charming Grace Kelly.
The next day, we listened on the radio as they announced the death of Charles Kuralt. An unlikely hero, you might think. He was bald, overweight and talked slowly. But it was his perception that was so piercing. Talk about wanderlust! He wandered for years in a CBS Winnebago and during the harsh times of the ’60s and ’70s, presented a softer side of America that it seemed only he could find. He was a hero in part because he found the heroic in everyone else: the man who had a lending library of bicycles for a poor side of town, the sharecropping Mississippi couple who picked cotton for 50 cents a day, but sent seven children off to earn college and advanced degrees.
I so admired Charles Kuralt that when I worked for The Charlotte Observer I invited him back to his childhood home to speak as part of a newspaper centennial celebration. I spent a day driving him around his hometown. When I brought him in the newspaper’s lobby, he immediately ambled over to an old linotype machine. He remembered how it used to work.
CBS was sending him the following month to Moscow as part of a summit conference. Not to cover the presidents, but to cover something much more significant: the return after a 60-year-absence of native son and concert pianist Vladamir Horowitz who was to play in the same concert hall he had last played in before his defection. Charles later said it was the “Sunday Morning” broadcast of which he was most proud.
But this day in Charlotte, Charles needed a typewriter to take to Moscow. He was going to cover the triumphant return of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. He wasn’t sure of what electronic accommodations he would encounter and he wanted something he could count on. Laptop computers had just been introduced, but we were in pursuit of something much simpler.
He directed me to an old business machine store he had frequented. After chatting with several employees he remembered, we walked the aisles of the store, carefully looking over all their old, retired models. In the corner, he found it. A typewriter that needed no electricity, that was dark with age and character and came with its own hinged cover. Charles had found what he was always able to find: the simple item, unadorned by life’s counterproductive distractions, focused on and able to do what it was always meant to do and to do it the best of any of its kind.
The same qualities that I look for in a hero.
Photos: Jimmy Stewart, Charles Kuralt and Vladamir Horowitz.