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40 years of American Story-telling: A veteran NBC News correspondent looks back

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.

My grandfather, Paul Bailey, told me that when I was 8 years old, rocking on the front porch swing with him after dinner. He used to start conversations like this:

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson's maternal grandfather, Paul Bailey.

“Did I ever tell you about my honeymoon?”

“No.” But even at 8, I was interested.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson at age 8.

“We stumbled across my oldest brother. Missing for 20 years. He was the conductor on our train."

"Where had he been all those years?"

Grandpa pulled a postcard from his pocket, written to his mother during that honeymoon long ago: "Ma. We found Vance. More later…”

People often ask why I became a storyteller. All of my life I’ve been trying to tell a tale as well as my grandfather did.

The first time I did an “American Story” for the TODAY show, I called my grandmother to see what she thought of it. There was a long pause at the other end of the line, and then finally she said, “Bobby, I think you ought to learn a trade.”

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson's Grandmother, Marguerite Bailey.

“A t-trade!”

“Yes. They’re not going to keep paying you for four minutes' work a day.”

Well, Grandma, they have — from red hair to gray. On NBC's nickel I have traveled this country 4 million miles, 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. Names we don’t know, but should. People with thoughtful solutions to problems we all face.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
A redheaded Bob Dotson anchors the news, 1970.

Wisdom doesn’t always wear a suit. My dad taught me that. Bill Dotson had a fifth-grade education, but went to night school for 23 years. He became an optician. Opened his own company the year his youngest son contracted polio. Me.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson's Dad, William H. "Bill" Dotson.

For a time, I could not walk. But the doctor urged my parents not to give up hope. Thirty years later they saw me sitting on the big toe of the Statue of Liberty. I had climbed to the top for a story on the TODAY show.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson sitting on the Statue of Liberty's big toe, 1984.

All my life, I have tried to face each day with the same spirit that pulled our ancestors to these shores, a willingness to explore new places and opportunities. It is part of our geography of hope.

Happily, my wife Linda supports this pursuit. She has sacrificed much, but we’re still together. We just celebrated our 43rd anniversary.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Linda and Bob Dotson.

Our daughter Amy, our only child, now has two curious little storytellers of her own, Zoe and Aden, who once asked a woman from Turkey a probing question: “What’s your country like? Is it a lot like chicken?”

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson's daughter Amy and her two kids, Aden and Zoe.

The crews who traveled with me became family too. In the days before smartphones, we sometimes linked our cars with a wireless microphone and speakers so I could read them “naptime” stories while the producer drove. Fortunately, no one fell asleep as we bounced down all those back roads. Shunning superhighways and crowds of reporters, we chatted with the locals, listened carefully, and found your stories.

Courtesy Bob Dotson
Bob Dotson with NBC News crew, 1980: From left, Rob Kane, sound; Allen Stecker, camera; Dotson, and Bert Medley, producer.

Telling tales on television is a bit like writing on smoke: After a brief mention, the men and women I profiled drifted away. The lessons they left us, though, linger, their importance undiminished.

People always ask, “What was your favorite?”

The next one.

BOB DOTSON BY THE NUMBERS:

  • 40 years at NBC News
  • 25 years on TODAY
  • 4 million miles searching for American Stories
  • 120 National and International awards for producing and reporting
  • A record 6 Edward R. Murrow Awards for Best Network News Writing
  • 8 National Emmys and 11 nominations
  • Grand prize winner: DuPont Columbia, Robert F. Kennedy, William Allen White Awards
Courtesy Bob Dotson
Dotson with the most recent of his eight national Emmys.
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