NEW YORK (AP) - Charles Kuralt, the avuncular CBS newsman and North Carolina native whose "On The Road" reports celebrated offbeat America - from unicyclists to horse traders to gasoline-pumping poets - died on the Fourth of July. He was 62.
Kuralt died at New York Hospital from complications from lupus, an inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, kidneys and nervous system.
"He connected to the essence of America better than any woman or man of his generation," former CBS News president Howard Stringer said. "It's a totally inappropriate death, but on a most appropriate day."
Kuralt made a career of searching for the insignificant and elevating it to prose and visual poetry. He kept pitching the idea of "On the Road" at CBS until the network agreed to a three-month trial in 1967.
The first stop was Vermont for a piece on the fall foliage, with this Kuralt narration:
"It is death that causes this blinding show of color, but it is a fierce and flaming death. To drive along a Vermont country road in this season is to be dazzled by the shower of lemon and scarlet and gold that washes across your windshield."
Kuralt stayed "On the Road" for the next 13 years, logging up to 50,000 miles a year on back roads and byways with a two-man camera crew, wearing out half a dozen campers. Then he brought the same outlook and sensibility to CBS's "Sunday Morning" for 15 more years.
"All good television is about telling stories," said "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt. "Nobody told 'em better than Charles Kuralt."
Bald, pear shaped and rumpled, Kuralt wedded his elegant prose to a warm, deep baritone voice with a hint of the twang of his native North Carolina.
As he spoke with the lumberjacks, whittlers and farmers he met along the way, he chatted the same way you would talk over a backyard fence, uncovering stories the reporters on the airplanes and superhighways sped past.
He found a butcher who could hold 30 eggs in one hand, a swimming pig in a water-ballet show, a light bulb that had stayed lit in a firehouse since 1901.
He did pieces on a school for unicyclists, gas station poets, horsetraders and a 104-year-old entertainer who performed in nursing homes.
"The kind of stories I like best are light and funny ones," he said. "People overcoming obstacles - a farmer who builds a yacht to see the world, or a man who's irritated there isn't a straight road from Duluth to Fargo and spends 25 years building one."
Walter Cronkite said Kuralt's reports "remind people that all is not lost, that life goes on much the same for a lot of people."
Kuralt retired from CBS in 1994, after 37 years, saying, "I aim to do some traveling and reading and writing."
But earlier this year, he returned to television to be host of the syndicated "An American Moment" - a thrice-weekly series of 90-second slices of Americana - and for the CBS cable network "I Remember," a weekly one-hour examination of a significant news story of the last 30 years.
Winner of three Peabody awards and 10 Emmys, Kuralt also wrote several books: "To The Top of the World," "Dateline America," "On the Road with Charles Kuralt," "Southerners," "North Carolina Is My Home," and "A Life on the Road."
His brother, Wallace, who runs a book store in Chapel Hill, N.C., said Kuralt "had continued to work very hard, even though he wasn't feeling very good."
Born Sept. 10, 1934, in Wilmington, N.C., Kuralt was showing his way with words for a national audience at age 14. He won an American Legion "Voice of Democracy" essay contest, went to Washington to meet President Truman and had his entry read on CBS radio by Edward R. Murrow.
At the University of North Carolina, he edited the student newspaper and after graduating in 1955 went to work for the Charlotte News, where he won an Ernie Pyle Award for his offbeat, human interest columns.
After joining CBS, he quickly impressed his bosses, with one describing Kuralt as "the next Ed Murrow." The self-deprecating Kuralt dismissed such praise as "ridiculous."
Kuralt moved quickly from rewrite to on-air correspondent, covering the 1960 presidential campaign before taking over as head of CBS' newly established Latin America bureau, and eventually became a roving correspondent.
He did four tours in Vietnam and visited "all the tropical trouble stops," he once said. But after bouncing around the world, Kuralt decided in 1967 that he wanted out of hard news.
"I was always thinking, `How can I get out of this?' he said. "With my temperament and physique, I wasn't suited to deadline pressure."
In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife, Suzanna; two daughters from a previous marriage, Susan Bowers and Lisa White; a sister, Catherine Harris, and three grandsons.
Funeral arrangement were not immediately known.