Bob Dotson's extraordinary 'American Story' reflects the author's strengths | St. Louis Public Radio

Bob Dotson's extraordinary 'American Story' reflects the author's strengths

Apr 2, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Today Show reporter Bob Dotson’s new book “American Story” spins 93 separate yarns, by my count, about folks he’s encountered during what the subtitle calls his “lifetime search for ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

In the process, the Webster Groves native and 38-year veteran NBC correspondent makes a case for the power of storytelling itself. His years as heir to the late Charles Kuralt – whose “On the Road” CBS series popularized such inspirational TV features – have taught Dotson that “the shortest distance between two people, no matter how different, is a good story.”

An especially good story, he says, paraphrasing Robert Frost on poetry, “begins with a lump in the throat.” (More later on Kuralt, still remembered locally for narrating “Sixteen in Webster Groves,” a controversial 1966 documentary that portrayed students and parents as conformist, complacent and self-absorbed – the very types of people Dotson chooses to avoid.)

“American Story’s” fast-paced 233 pages will leave your throat plenty lumpy.

Here you’ll find selfless, loving, indomitable characters like the South Carolina doctor who came out of retirement to recruit other medical retirees and set up a clinic for the poor; the park ranger scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan, joyfully carrying along a companion ranger paralyzed below the waist; the brothers who spent a lifetime scouring the Bering Sea to find their dad’s sunken World War II submarine; and a terribly burned Iraq War veteran who’s become a comic, turning “horror into humor” by confronting his disfigurement head-on.

“This is who I am,” he tells Dotson, explaining how he can get laughs from audiences while helping them confront the serious face of war. “I earned these scars. They’re like tattoos with better stories.” (That’s four of the 93 stories; how excruciating it is to cherry-pick examples, as Dotson discovered culling decades of work for the book.)

Fascinating me even more, though, is a saga the subtitle only hints at: about how Dotson’s pursuits have affected the lifetime searcher himself. And my interest in “American Story’s” author, I suspect, will be shared by Today Show fans who’ll find many of the tales familiar in their briefer print incarnations, and seek more.

Personal 'asides'

As is true in his TV storytelling, the 66-year-old reporter remains mostly out of the picture as he fixes on his astounding subjects, keeping the memoir to a minimum. So I’m riveted by his dozen-or-so personal “asides,” some from his youth, and some marking where his life became unavoidably enmeshed with his professional storytelling.

One such diversion focuses on his grandfather, a purveyor of spellbinding tales named Paul Bailey. Another describes a long-ago job as an up-and-coming St. Louis Zoo announcer, where an amusing mishap with a chimpanzee taught Dotson that “showbiz was not for me.” That episode provokes a classic Dotson one-liner of the sort that punctuates both his book and TV work: “Sometimes when you climb the ladder of success,” he writes, “you find it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”

My own interest in the author’s personal side is twofold. First, I’m a journalist who specializes in researching “stories behind the stories” – usually about America’s greatest print journalism, winners of the Pulitzer Prize. More important, though, Dotson and I are life-long friends, dating to Webster high school years when we were inseparable, carefree pals. Going our separate ways in college, we touched base too infrequently as we laid the foundation of our careers – his at NBC, and mine at The Wall Street Journal. (I do recall, though, a conversation in which we shared our budding-young-journalist reservations about what Kuralt had said in “Sixteen in Webster Groves.”)

Beyond the book’s few direct biographical moments, I find insights into the grownup Dotson mind lurking in his grouping together of themes for his collected stories. This gives them new power under chapter headings like “They Never Let a Handicap Handicap Them” and “Hiding in History’s Shadow.” And more Dotson insights ripple from the first lines of his chapters. “America is a sly dog most of the time, hiding wisdom in plain sight,” he begins one, echoing another favorite quip: “Wisdom doesn’t always wear a suit.”

'I'm a patty melt'

And another chapter, featuring surprising cases of selflessness and courage in the sports world, opens with this intriguing self-appraisal: “In this beefcake world, I’m a patty melt.”

As it turns out, Dotson comes by his lack of relative physical prowess honestly, having battled polio as one of the childhood victims of the nationwide post-war epidemic that gave rise to the preventative vaccine famously found by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin.

His experiences with the disease – and how it (and the children’s book The Little Engine That Could) helped him learn to overcome personal obstacles – led him into describing one TV report in which he and a daredevil photographer gingerly scale to the big toe of the Statue of Liberty, dangling 18 stories above New York harbor. (“I had pursued many American dreams for the Today Show,” Dotson writes, “but this was a nightmare.”)

Such candor, as well as an ability to focus on simple truths about the human spirit, enlivens these tales.

“Show me a self-made person, and I’ll show you a liar,” starts another chapter. And while perhaps sounding reminiscent of last year’s campaign rhetoric, in this case it echoes only Dotson’s observations about people helping people – laying the groundwork for his own thanks to colleagues and family, especially wife, Linda, who must put up with the millions of miles he’s traveled, and nights in “more hotel rooms than the Gideon bible.”

'Sixteen in Webster Groves'

Eager for a bit more, I caught Dotson at home in Mystic, Conn., between book-tour interviews. From our high school days, he most vividly recalls his speech teacher at Webster Groves High, Dorothy Weirich, and long-time choir director Esther Replogle, whose love of music and sense of future possibilities changed the lives of both of us teenaged tenors. “You’re fortunate if you meet one teacher in your life who inspires you,” he says. “I had two.”

Among professional influences, Kuralt was “the godfather of us all” in the human-interest TV field, says Dotson. “When he was flying between a couple of major cities, he was the first to convince the people who write the paychecks that there was something out there between the bright lights.”

The two men first met at Syracuse University, where Dotson was studying for a graduate degree. As he recalls it, the meeting also gave him a chance to discuss that still-fresh “Sixteen in Webster Groves” CBS documentary, which had aimed to showcase the supposed complacency dominating suburbs like ours, at a time of supposed youth rebellion elsewhere in the country. “I was waiting for him because it wasn’t reflective of the place I grew up,” Dotson says. The report, based on university research, had put Kuralt in the unaccustomed role of sociologist. And indeed, Kuralt conceded to Dotson that “we were maybe playing too fast and loose in how we were telling the tale.”

Still, Kuralt’s visionary reporting approach – looking for the good in people he found “on the road” – touched Dotson deeply. “All the money in the world is sitting on a stool in front of a TV camera in New York City,” Kuralt told him, “but all the fun is out there.”

Solutions that 'didn't require bullets'

Another powerful influence on Dotson’s career, understated in the book, was a 1978 NBC assignment that sent him to meet armed rebels in Central America. There he found himself briefly taken captive, blindfolded and threatened. “I made a pact with myself in that moment. If I got out of this OK, I’d stay home and look for people who offered solutions to problems that didn’t require bullets,” he writes. “It was a watershed,” he tells me. “I just had this flash; I asked myself, Is this all I want to do, chasing hurricanes and revolutions?”

As for life’s boundless conflicts, plenty of other reporters are there to cover those. As Dotson writes, “Yes, there are dark shadows on earth, but they make the light seem stronger.”

Can he continue to find such light at NBC, I ask him, with all the commotion swirling around host Matt Lauer’s future, or Ann Curry’s dismissal, or ratings slippage, along with questions about how it treats certain stories?

Dotson laughs, saying that after four decades he takes the view of “a long distance runner who’s seen the hills and valleys before.” Of the show’s staff, he says, “I wish ‘em all well.” His features for Today remain popular – with viewers and NBC management. “No matter what the winds of change are,” he says, “the people who sign paychecks have always appreciated a good story that works.”

That augurs well for a fellow who describes his kind of heartland reporting as “like being on vacation.” Come to think of it, he adds: “Is a guy who’s spent practically his whole career on vacation going to worry about what’s going on at the head office? My work is so fascinating to me that I don’t spend a whole lot of time wondering if Matt asked the right question, or whether they hyped an interview.”

Life lessons

As the book ends, Dotson dons something of a new hat – that of a self-help author, drawing 10 life lessons from the satisfaction he’s found in his interview subjects.

Those lessons, in brief:

  • Be willing to explore.
  • Value teamwork.
  • Seek and do good.
  • Follow through on promises.
  • Be persistent, yet practical.
  • Cherish imagination.
  • Welcome change.
  • Embrace our differences.
  • Don’t dwell on loss.
  • Be happy.

The successful people he’s found “search each day for what will make them smile,” he writes. “That’s been my goal, too, all these years. I sought the America in which I grew up. It’s still there, out beyond the interstate exit ramp, where kids are taught to help one another and make the world better.”

Reading that, I thought, Gee, if only we’d known such simple truths back before leaving the Webster womb. But then, perhaps we did. Or perhaps we both needed our long years of listening to America to confirm such wisdom – hiding in plain sight.

Roy Harris is author of “Pulitzers’ Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism” (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010.) He lives in Hingham, Mass.