Charles Kuralt's other life Scandal: The late CBS newsman had a wife in New York and, secretly, a longtime companion in Montana. The two have now met, in court.

June 01, 1998|By Paige Williams | Paige Williams,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

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:

"Dear Pat,

"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

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