CHICAGO TV LEGENDS: Bill Kurtis

KALEIDOSCOPE continues its look at the legends that have made Chicago television what was and is, and today we shine the spotlight on American television journalist, producer, narrator and news anchor, Bill Kurtis…

Kurtis was born in Pensacola, Florida on September 21st, 1940, to parents Wilma Mary Horton and William A. Kuretich of Croatian origin, who was also a U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general and a decorated veteran of World War II, and it is with the military career of Bill’s father that his family had to travel extensively; The family then settled upon his retirement in Independence, Kansas.

Bill Kurtis’ home town is, of course, Chicago, Illinois, and his residence is Mettawa, Illinois; He began working as an announcer for a station called KIND radio in Independence at the age of 16. In 1958 he had graduated from Independence High School, and in 1962 at the University of Kansas he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and then in 1966 he had earned a Jurius Doctor degree from Washburn University School of Law. While there he worked part time at WIBW-TV in Topeka, Kansas.

One evening on June 8th, 1966, Bill Kurtis was attending a bar review class when word reached him that severe weather was approaching in Topeka, so he left to fill in for a friend at WIBW-TV to anchor the station’s 6-O’-clock news; With that emergency gig, Kurtis stayed to update weather reports…And then, at 7:00 PM, a tornado was sighted by WIBW cameraman Ed Rutherford, located southwest of the city, all while on the air, and just within 15 seconds another tornado sighting came in. Bill Kurtis and the entire WBIW broadcast team had remained on the air for 24 hours straight, all during the time of the 1966 Topeka tornado that had left 16 dead and injured hundreds more, and they even covered the aftermath of the storm. Since that time, WIBW became a communications hub for emergency operations, not to mention being the only television station in town that is not damaged by the tornado. That experience would change Bill Kurtis life forever, as his career path had changed from law to broadcast news.

After seeing his work covering the tornado, WBBM-TV hired Kurtis on the spot, and that would set the stage for what would become a career with CBS that would last 30 years.

The beginning of what was to be a tumultuous four years in Chicago began in 1966, as Bill Kurtis started being in the middle of historic events, both as a reporter and as an anchor; He had covered the neighborhood fires that followed the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Robert Kennedy. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago which Kurtis covered, people protested the Vietnam War.

The following year Kurtis made a documentary about a woman by the name of Iva Toguri, AKA “Tokyo Rose”, which happened to be the first interview after she had been convicted for treason in 1949; As a result of his reporting, as well as Ron Yates of the Chicago Tribune, that helped persuade President Gerald Ford to pardon her in 1977.

Bill Kurtis would return to Chicago in 1973 to co-anchor alongside Walter Jacobson at WBBM-TV; Five years later, his investigative focus broke the Agent Orange story, U.S. veterans who had been sprayed by the defoliant in Vietnam, in which after that dramatic screening in Washington, the Veterans Administration issued guidelines to diagnose and compensate those veterans who had been affected by Agent Orange. Kurtis then returned to Vietnam in 1980 to cover the Vietnamese side of the story and, while there, discovered some 15,000 Vietnamese children conceived and then left behind by Americans when the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975. Becoming instrumental was a story that Kurtis wrote for The New York Times Magazine that obtained special status for the children to enter the United States, where they live today.

Kurtis would join Diane Sawyer on The CBS Morning News in 1982, which was broadcast from New York City. They were also featured on The CBS Early Morning News, which on most CBS stations aired an hour earlier. Bill Kurtis had also anchored not one, but three CBS Reports news specials: “The Plane That Fell From The Sky”, “The Golden Leaf”, and “The Gift of Life”.

In 1985 Kurtis returned to WBBM-TV; The following year, he hosted a 4-part PBS science series entitled, The Miracle Planet and a four-part look at the CIA in 1987. The very next year he had formed his own production company, Kurtis Productions, in which that same year produced for the PBS series NOVA called “Return to Chernobyl”; Kurtis Productions had produced 500 documentaries while Kurtis himself had narrated nearly 1,000 documentaries!

Throughout his career, Bill Kurtis had received two Peabody Awards as well as numerous Emmy Awards among other accolades; Then he had been awarded the University of Kansas William Allen White citation in 1988. Kurtis had also been a narrator of a multimedia book by Joe Garner entitled We Interrupt This Broadcast (in which I highly recommend reading to all of my fellow bloggers and blog followers out there), which features a forward by Walter Cronkite and an epilogue by Brian Williams.

Today, Bill Kurtis is a radio host as well as the lead host of the Decades television network program Through The Decades, which covers historical events from a specific day since the beginning of television.

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