my (four) million miles

By Bob Dotson, 2019 Inductee

I’ve been in more motel rooms than the Gideon Bible, crisscrossing this country, practically nonstop, for half a century, searching for people who are practically invisible, the ones who change our lives, but don’t take time to tweet and tell us about it. 

America not only survives, but thrives because of all those names we don’t know, seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They don’t run for president or go on talk shows, but they are the heartbeat of this country. 

As a young reporter, I began to wonder why we didn’t dig deeper for stories about people who were not well-known. Assignment editors only sent me to interview ordinary Americans after something had shattered their lives. 

If we only pay attention when tragedy strikes, sadness begins to seem normal. It is not. 

Nothing is more American than optimism that overcomes hardship. Nothing is more valuable than tracking the course these ordinary people took to a better life. Give them the same investigative scrutiny as you would the mayor or city council. You’ll be surprised what you uncover. 

The American Dream reveals itself, not in what people say, but in what they do. Reporting often takes me out beyond the limits of my settled life. I’ve been to places so cold, spit bounces, chasing sled dogs 1,100 miles across Alaska. I’ve covered politics and breaking news. Shot documentaries. Ducked bullets reporting wars. I’m thankful every day that I’ve had time to pack a bag and go. 

NBC News gave me a front row seat to history, but I prefer places the history books often overlook, towns small enough to consider Dairy Queen gourmet dining. 

That’s where you find the unexpected: Amish kids wearing inline skates and Civil War buffs fighting battles until the concession stands close. 

The lights and shadows left a rich load of impressions.  

Mention Mule Shoe, Texas, and a sign pops to mind: “Taxidermist and Veterinarian–either way you get your dog back.” 

Same with Blue Eye, Arkansas. Idling at a stoplight one afternoon, I read this in the window of a photographer’s studio: “If you have beauty, I’ll take it. If you have none, I’ll fake it.”

And then back when the earth was cooling, I made a film about Oklahoma Cheyenne Indians that featured Katie Osage, one of the oldest members of the tribe at the time. 

After interviewing her, I plopped my earphones on her head so she could listen to herself.  

Native American artist Louis Still Smoking saw my picture on Facebook nearly a half-century later period he was inspired to paint a portrait. 

I saw it as I wandered through the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyoming. 

What a surprise. A distant memory captured on canvas for future generations to see.  

My knowledge of America is not bound in books.  

Here’s what I’ve learned traveling more than four million miles: The shortest distance between two people is a good story. Once you know someone’s story, you see what you have in common. You begin to understand each other. That’s important for a functioning democracy.  

Most of what you hear on the news these days outlines our frustrations–the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, middle class jobs fading away, hate-filled politics that prefers gridlock to compromise. What we know about America mostly comes from journalists who travel in herds, trailing politicians or camped out at big stories, pouncing on problems to repeat over and over. They offer up celebrity experts for solutions, the people who spend their busy days spouting opinions to cameras, while others in the shadows quietly make America work.  

I spent my entire career peeking behind the media mirror that reflects celebrity and power, seeking those seemingly ordinary people who had already solved some problems we all face. Many had no riches but their thoughts. Their eyes grew rusty when they realized that poverty is inherited, just like wealth and then shined with renewed determination when someone with the barefoot voice helped them do better than they thought they could. 

That’s why America continues to build, discover, create, achieve, survive, and grow. 

Wisdom doesn’t always wear a suit. 

Bob Dotson interviewing Oklahoma Cheyenne Katie Osage for the WKY-TV News Special titled Until it’s not here no more. Katie Osage was hard of hearing. Dotson would ask his question an inch from her ear and then step out of the picture for her to answer. Bob Dotson, 1975.

Bob Dotson in Tennessee, videotaping American Story for NBC News. Pictured left to right: Rob Kane, sound; Allan Stecker, camera; Bob Dotson, News Correspondent; and Bert Medley, Today Show producer. Photo courtesy of NBC, 1979.

Bob Dotson editing “Until it’s not here no more” after winning Oklahoma’s first National Emmy in 1974 for Through the Looking Glass Darkly, a 90-minute documentary on the history of African Americans in Oklahoma. Photo by Jim Hulsey, WKY-TV, 1974.