Bill Kurtis was familiar with the volatile weather patterns of the Great Plains—he and his family settled in Independence, Kan., when he was a teenager and he saw storms roll in and out. So it’s a bit ironic that the then 26-year-old Kurtis got his big career break when a massive F5 Kansas tornado barreled through Topeka on June 8, 1966. He wasn’t necessarily settled on broadcast journalism as a livelihood the night he was on duty at WIBW-TV—he was clerking for a law firm in Topeka during the day and doing the evening news. Sure, Kurtis—he of the sonorous voice—had enjoyed doing radio during high school and went on to graduate from the prestigious journalism school at the University of Kansas. But he also had a law degree from Washburn University burning a hole in his pocket.
And Kurtis never dreamed the temperamental Kansas weather and wicked storms he witnessed as a kid would be a turning point in his life.
Kurtis delivered a solemn five-word directive to viewers in the path of the killer tornado that late spring evening in 1966; it later became synonymous with the storm that claimed 16 lives, injured hundreds and dispelled the myth that Topeka’s Burnett Mound, a hill southwest of town, acted as a shield against tornadoes.
“For God’s sake, take cover.”
That passionate plea, plus Kurtis’ subsequent 24-hour reporting of the death and destruction of the first tornado in the U.S. to exceed $100 million in damages, would prove to be a launching pad for what decades later is a revered, award-winning career in broadcast journalism.
“The night of the tornado was definitely a bonding moment,” says Kurtis from his Chicago office, that distinctive voice resonating on the phone. “You saw people later and they would say ‘You saved my life.’ I really think God was saying something to me that night, too. Don’t be a lawyer.”
The Topeka tornado was Kurtis’ first groundbreaking story. But the journalist/lawyer wasn’t convinced quite yet about his path. He accepted a position at a Wichita law firm.
Three months later, Bill Kurtis sent a tape to Chicago’s CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV. His unscripted performance of reporting the Topeka tornado caught the attention of executives, and they wanted to see more.
“I was out to seek my fortune in broadcasting,” Kurtis laughs.
Kurtis was hired at WBBM-TV, in the country’s second major media market, first as a reporter and then as an anchorman in the Windy City. He became a CBS correspondent and covered controversial figures and landmark trials, including Charles Manson and the 1970 trial in which the notorious criminal was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murders of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and two others. Kurtis also reported on the 1972 trial of Angela Davis, a prominent 1960s activist and radical who, among other things, led the Black Panther Party.
In 1973 Kurtis began a memorable nine-year run with Walter Jacobson, a well-known Chicago broadcaster. The dynamic duo was a dominant force in Chicago, a ratings bonanza for WBBM, and became legendary in the world of reporting the news, forever changing the landscape for local television stations and setting a standard for breaking news and major stories. Kurtis went to Vietnam in 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon. Other major stories the veteran newsman covered include the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, the breakup of Rhodesia and environmental issues such as the plight of the black rhino in Kenya and Tanzania.
On March 23, 1978, WBBM aired Kurtis’ riveting documentary, “Agent Orange, the Deadly Fog.” The piece, which focused on the controversial and deadly herbicide used in the Vietnam War, led to local and national media reporting on the substance and the increasing chorus of veterans’ complaints with more frequency.
Kurtis continued his upward momentum, moving to New York in 1982 to anchor “CBS Morning News.” He returned to Chicago three years later to produce documentaries for “The New Explorers,” which highlighted the role of scientists pursuing the adventure of discovery.
Kurtis’ excellence in reporting has resulted in a host of honors, including more than 20 Emmys, the 1998 Illinois Broadcaster Association Hall of Fame Award and the 2003 Kansas Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame Award.
Today Kurtis is back on the air with Jacobson, co-anchoring the weekday CBS 2 News at 6 p.m. He’s known as one of the best newsmen around, but also has recognition as a respected documentary filmmaker, a former advertising personality, a motion picture narrator and a successful entrepreneur. In a delicious table-turning moment, Kurtis narrated the satirical comedy and cult hit, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” starring Will Ferrell and Johnson County native Paul Rudd. He also appeared in a series of AT&T Mobility television commercials that poked fun at his serious investigative journalist persona.
“Those were big jumps for me,” says Kurtis, who doesn’t regret his decision to have some tasteful and humorous fun.
Add rancher, conservationist and prairie lover to Bill Kurtis’ prolific resume.
The native Kansan has had a love affair with the Flint Hills for decades—in fact, he calls it “his place.”
“We all have our place, and this [Flint Hills] is mine,” says Kurtis. He literally does have a place in the historic and environmentally fragile tallgrass prairie: the sprawling, stunning 8,000-acre Red Buffalo Ranch near Sedan, Kan., where 60 head of buffalo currently graze. The ranch includes natural wonders like a 14-foot waterfall with a limestone basin known as Butcher Falls. Kurtis also has unique guest houses he rents to tourists. His quote on the property’s website speaks to his swell of emotion about the expanse of land: “There’s less to get in the way of you and the heavens out on the prairies of Kansas.”
Kurtis admits that you can take the boy out of Kansas, but you can’t take Kansas out of the boy. “We don’t have skyscrapers or the seashore or mountains here in the Sunflower State,” he says. “But we have land and grass and uninterrupted sky. We have silence where we can listen and the land talks back.”
In 2005 Kurtis founded Tallgrass Beef Company to champion the environmental and health benefits of grass-fed cattle ranching. He often speaks about his appreciation for small towns, rural life and his revitalization efforts of Sedan, which he did last fall at Johnson County Community College (JCCC), an appearance that was co-sponsored by the JCCC Kansas Studies Institute.
“You have to walk on this unspoiled land to experience the feeling,” explains Kurtis. “There aren’t trees out in the Flint Hills, but we’re discovering that in fact there are more specifies on the prairie than in the rainforest.”
Bill Kurtis, the acclaimed journalist, humanitarian, published author, distinguished documentary filmmaker and passionate prairie preservationist is a man of the world, having reported some of recent history’s most compelling stories. But he is also a man of the land, the beloved prairie where his soul connects with the spirit of his place … the Flint Hills.
For more information on Red Buffalo Ranch, visit theredbuffalo.com.