TODAY   |  March 31, 2013

Bob Dotson on 'American Story': ‘I have been so fortunate’

“I have been able to travel the world on NBC’s nickel, telling the stories of everyday people,” said Bob Dotson of “American Story.” For 40 years, Dotson has been bringing amazing tales of people off the beaten path. TODAY’s Erica Hill and NBC’s Peter Alexander interview Bob Dotson.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> this morning on "american story with bob dotson ," it's a look back at the stories we love. for 40 year, bob has been bringing us tales of amazing people off the beaten path.

>> now in his new book, "american story , a lifetime search for ordinary people doing extraordinary things," he reveals the lessons he's learned along the way. bob, good morning. nice to see you.

>> good morning, folks! i have been so fortunate, as we just mentioned, talking before the break, you know, i have been able to travel this world on nbc's nickel. doing stories about ordinary, everyday people . not every immigrant found success, but the wilderness beyond that torch was part of their geography of hope. i have wandered this country from red hair to gray. 4 million miles . listening to your stories. did you ever lose hope?

>> no. if i ever lost hope, i'd never made it.

>> reporter: wisdom didn't always wear a suit.

>> if there was no town, there'd be no people. so they saved themselves is what they did.

>> reporter: america survives and thrives, because it's seemingly ordinary people who find solutions to challenges we all face. names we don't know but should.

>> so one of the things i'm sure you get asked a lot, who's the person you interviewed you remember the most, and you say it's people we've never heard of before.

>> i heard that from my grandpa bailey, and said, don't listen to the cliches, get beyond that. if someone tells you a story , there's probably a story behind the story . what you have to do is stop asking questions and let them fill the silence with a better answer than you've asked for, and then you get the whole story about people.

>> i love that you dedicate this book to your brandson, 2 years old, aidan, who, i think, by the way he asked someone, a woman from turkey, what is your country like? is it a lot like chickens? which i appreciated. you wanted to be a reporter and you started here in 1972 . what is it about being a reporter that sort of drew you?

>> well, you know, i think the most important thing about what i do in my life is that i don't feel like a reporter. i feel like a storyteller. the shortest distance between two people is a good story . and if you tell it well, i start listening to you. and when i start listening to you, i understand how we're all alike, and then we can all move down the road. i think that's a very important of what we do. i think one of the most underreported things we do in our business is talk about ordinary people and their lives.

>> and they're the ones who drive this and who drive this country. some of the stories we wanted to highlight, one, a doctor from rushville, illinois, dr. russell donner.

>> donor on donner? donor.

>> really changed the way with the way people deal with a doctor in his community.

>> 55 years, never taken a vacation. last time he left the state was in the world war ii army. you know what he charges for the doctor's appointment? five bucks. when he started, it was two. he said it's gotten a little bit --

>> a little inflation?

>> yeah. first time i met him, over 30 years, he had seen 50 patients, set a broken arm, and delivered two children and it was 10:00 in the morning.

>> how did you find him the first time around?

>> i wandered through town, and somebody was talking about him in the coffee shot. they said, we're really lucky to have a doctor here all the time. i said, really? they said, yeah, yeah, he grew up on a farm outside of town, graduated with honors from northwestern university , wanted to be a cardiologist, but then thought maybe the folks in rushville need me more.

>> tell us about a guy named fred benson , a guy you wrote about block island , rhode island , but you and i were speaking ahead of this, and i admit, i've been revering your story telling the year, and your first book "make it memorable" fired me up. and you have to interview every person like they're a governor.

>> i did fred's story because he was was 90 years old and a state license examiner. and if you wanted a license, it was, yeah, okay, on block island , park over there. we were waiting for the ferry to take us home when all of a sudden he said, you know, i've been the police chief , the fire chief , head of the rescue squad . i was in charge of the chamber of commerce five times. i didn't say anything. and he said, did i tell you that i won the rhode island state lottery ? he says, i threw a big party for all the kids and told them they could all go to college. and i was an 8-year-old orphan when i was taken here by gerd milliken, and he would point down, he said, keep your eye on fred benson , and all of a sudden, the foghorn started and he looked back, and by the time, the camera crews were shooting all this, right?

>> right.

>> and he said, i hope he knows how i turned out. so what started as just a funny ha ha story about a little guy, kind of a cliche, ended up -- this is the reason we have a country we have is because of guys like fred benson .

>> and a very special place, too, block island , you find interesting people there. one of my favorite places in the country. so nice to have you with us this morning.

>> thanks for having me.

>> and you can catch more of bob's book -- bob's stories, rather, in his book called "american story ."