Bob Dotson appreciates a good story.
It started at a young age. Dotson, the former host of “American Story,” the long-running series on NBC’s “Today” show, remembers being 8 years old and listening to his grandfather tell the story of how, while on his honeymoon, he was unexpectedly reunited with his long-lost brother in the dining car of a Salt Lake City-bound Union Pacific train.
Dotson’s grandfather had a postcard he had written to his mother from that long-ago honeymoon. “It was probably the first tweet of the 20th century,” Dotson said. The postcard showed Dotson’s grandparents floating on their backs in the Great Salt Lake. The picture had a big circle drawn around a third person. “Maw, we found Vance. More later.”
It led Dotson to a career of storytelling, one during which he spent traversing the country — logging more than 4 million miles — looking for seemingly ordinary people who did extraordinary things, the people whose names we don’t know because they are too busy making America what it is to tweet about it, the people in the shadows and away from thespotlight that make America work
One of the people Dotson found was Jim Crudup. Dotson was in a coffee shop in Mississippi, and people there told him he needed to go see Crudup because he was restoring a 1946 Ford and was really good with his hands.
“It really was a pretty car,” Dotson said.
But that wasn’t the real story. After getting out of the Army, Crudup got a job as a truck driver. But the company bellied up by the time Crudup got to Detroit, so he took a job cleaning medical tools at a research lab at the University of Michigan. As he observed the surgical students, he realized their tools were too big.
“He was one of the first people in America to come up with microsurgical tools,” Dotson said. He taught students how to use them, and, eventually, the professors were sending surgical students having difficulty understanding a concept to him because he had a natural teaching ability.
Crudup, an adjunct professor whose students went on to great fame and fortune, didn’t have a medical degree. In fact, he never graduated from college.
When Dotson asked him why he never became a doctor, Crudup told him he was 45 years old, had three kids, and because it was the 1950s and he was African-American. “That’s three strikes, and that’s not going to work,” Crudup told Dotson.
His reward? “I was expecting some cliché answer. But, instead, he said, ‘Well, I’m 82 years old and one of these days I’m going to be in an operating room, and I’m going to call in an I.O.U. and I’m going to know they’re well taught,’” Dotson said. “This is a story about somebody who made a significant contribution to America, but he’s not going to write a book about it. He’s too busy solving problems.”
The America Dotson saw is a different America that is reported every day on television and on the internet, he said.
He uses the example of the No. 68 bus that goes by his daughter’s apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. On its route to Coney Island, it passes a McDonald’s that is owned by a first-generation American Hasidic Jewish family. The restaurant’s general manager is first-generation Palestinian. Most of their customers that come in for their morning coffee are from Russia and the Ukraine, India and Pakistan, he said.
“Back home, a lot of their relatives are at each other’s throats every day. But in Brooklyn, they’re on each other’s soccer teams,” Dotson said.
Why is that so?
Dotson believes it’s because the people who came to America — and those who are still coming to America — are pioneers. They have a different mindset, he said. They look at how they can fit in, Dotson said. They look at what they can add.
“If you look at it from the bottom up and not the top down, not from all the folks who make a lot of money to pontificate on TV every day about how terrible it is, you realize the country is still working. People are still getting up in the morning; the kids are going to school. We’re winning Super Bowls. We’re losing Super Bowls. Life goes on,” he said.
“That’s not the same every place else in the world, so what is it about America that allows that to happen?” he said.
Dotson thinks the answer can be found by studying people in your backyard or in the coffee shop across the street and not necessarily listening to politicians.
After Dotson retired, he and his wife, Linda, could have lived anywhere in the United States. After all, he had seen most of the country.
“There are a lot of beautiful places in this country. It’s like living in a postcard,” Dotson said. “But six weeks later, I would have gotten up in the morning and said, ‘OK, now what do I do?’”
Shoeless Joe Jackson — or more specifically, a controversy over who owned his will and the rare signature contained on it that ended up at the Supreme Court — had brought Dotson to Greenville before the late Mayor Max Heller’s vision for downtown came to fruition.
“Just figure the odds of this: He’s an immigrant. He’s Jewish in the deep South, and he comes up with a plan that’s, ‘Let’s not worry about what we’re going to do for ourselves next spring, or even our kids. It’s what should we do for our grandchildren,’” Dotson said. “And look what they did.”
Dotson points to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, which sits on a hill overlooking Falls Park.
“In any other town, that hillside would be covered with developers building high rises selling for the highest dollar,” he said. “But here, it’s, ‘Let’s just do this for juniors and seniors in high school, and, in fact, they can sleep here. And we won’t just build a building; we’re going to build a Tuscan villa and it’s going to be gorgeous.’… And they did.”
That was the effort initially of one person, Virginia Uldrick, who died in November.
Greenville’s transformation is a testament to the people who live here who come in all flavors and backgrounds, rich and poor, he said.
“It’s the pioneer spirit,” Dotson said.
When Dotson was a young television reporter in Oklahoma, he went to a fire station in Stillwater that was being torn down. The fire chief told him there was some film up in the attic.
Dotson took a look and was told it had been put there by Benny Kent, who worked for a newsreel company that sent stories to New York City. “Benny Kent was me 100 years ago,” Dotson said.
The stash of flammable nitrate-based film included Geronimo’s last buffalo hunt. “There was all kinds of great stuff,” said Dotson, who said Kent was enough of a reporter and storyteller that he did stories that he knew he couldn’t sell because they were interesting, including stories on the 24 all African-American towns in Oklahoma.
His first “American Story” segment was a play off that story. It was a segment on Birdie Farmer, a 101-year-old woman who was the last living relative of the original Buffalo soldiers, which were black cavalry units that went west after the Civil War. They were told they had to keep the Native Americans away from the immigrants lining up for free land.
Dotson asked Farmer what her husband would have said was the best day of his life. Dotson figured he would have said the day he married Birdie, since she was 30 or 35 years younger than he. At one time, George Armstrong Custer was offered the position of head of the Buffalo soldiers. He turned it down. “My husband said that was the best day of his life, because you know Custer went to Little Bighorn and got scalped, and we went to Fort Sill, Okla.,” Birdie told Dotson.
“The Buffalo soldiers were named by the Native Americans because they had nappy hair that looked like buffalo hide, and the Buffalo were strong and courageous,” Dotson said. “They had great respect and stood between all these immigrants and survival of the native tribes.”
Today, Oklahoma is the nation’s most diverse state with 34 different Indian tribes and people from 154 nations, Dotson said.
“They’re all Oklahomans, but at one time or another they came looking for the promised land,” Dotson said.
Oklahoma, he said, is a metaphor for the country.
“If you’re looking for what the essence of America is, it’s a bunch of folks who band together to face down a common challenge and do better generation after generation,” he said.
If Dotson had to tell his own story in “American Story” style, it would start when he was 2 years old when his parents came in to wish him a happy birthday and he couldn’t get out of bed. He was diagnosed with polio.
His mother took him three days a week for five years to a big hospital in St. Louis in an attempt to get some range of motion back. His left leg is an inch and a half shorter than his right, and he couldn’t put down his foot until doctors put in a piece of pig tendon.
“The doctor gave me a book — I think people will know it — ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ and said, ‘If you do what we ask you to do, you’re going to have a normal life and maybe even a better life than that,’” Dotson said. He thought about that when he climbed the Statue of Liberty with its official photographer and sat on the statue’s big toes, and his parents could watch on the “Today” show.
And, after he graduated from college, Dotson remembers his dad taking him for coffee one day and telling him that he hadn’t gone past third grade. At the time, women in the city without extended family sent their oldest sons to work on a farm as a sort of indentured servant to help support the rest of the children. He stayed a year, until his aunt and uncle confronted the farmer who was taking money out of his letters.
Once back in St. Louis, Dotson’s dad got a job as a janitor in an optical store. The owner said he would never ask him to work nights, so Dotson’s dad went to night school — for 23 years, eventually becoming a licensed optician. He started his own business but learned his business partner stole everything they earned their first year in business and went to Mexico. That was when Dotson was diagnosed with polio.
“What did you do?” Dotson asked. “I started over,” his dad said.
“That wasn’t around the corner or across the country. That was in a coffee shop in Lawrence, Kan., asking my dad about something I had never asked him about before,” he said. “I think that’s the essence of storytelling. That’s the essence of America, and that’s certainly the essence of me.”
Dotson said he thinks one of the most important questions in the world today is how do we get along with people of different backgrounds than ourselves.
“The shortest distance between two people is a good story,” Dotson said.
He should know.
If you want to go:
What: Today Show guy is your new neighbor: Bob Dotson
When: Feb. 21, 12 noon
Where: Poinsett Club
Tickets: $30 for Upstate International and World Affairs Council Upstate members, $40 for non-members
Information: www.upstateinternational.org or 631-2188