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The Road to Inspiration

They say the Today show’s Bob Dotson has been in more motel rooms than the Gideon Bible. Find out what keeps him on the move.

By Bob Dotson, New York, New York

As appeared in

For a while I wasn’t sure what to do with this revelation. But as I made my way through a few odd jobs before landing at the NBC station in Oklahoma City, I kept remembering Dad’s face—his shame, followed by the flash of pride at his accomplishments.

Behind his stoic exterior smoldered an extraordinary story. What other stories lurked like that in forgotten corners?

A couple of years later I was working on a piece about pioneering African-Americans in Oklahoma. So far I hadn’t come up with a lot. Even the librarian at a university built for black students in the state said they didn’t have much material.

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Working with an African- American cameraman from the station, I crisscrossed the state looking for people who remembered the early days. But I needed historical footage. One day I crawled into a tiny storage area at the station wedged between the dropped ceiling and the roof of the newsroom.

I pawed through stacks of archived film. Suddenly a box caught my eye. Pathé, it said on the side in old-fashioned lettering. That was the name of an old newsreel company. I opened the box. Stacked inside were reels and reels of news footage from the 1920s and 1930s.

A name was written on the reels: Bennie Kent. He’d been a Pathé cameraman long ago. Most of his footage would have been sent away to New York to be edited into newsreels for national distribution. This was the stuff he’d deemed of no interest to editors. For some reason he’d saved it.

I found an old projector and watched the footage. Flickering black-and-white images appeared of people walking the streets of old boomtowns. There were long sequences of Native Americans living lives untouched by Western ways.

Then, to my astonishment, came footage about entire towns populated and governed by African-Americans. They were freed slaves excluded from white communities who went out to found their own communities.

Immediately my cameraman and I raced out to find some of these people. We ended up speaking to several African-Americans in their nineties who remembered living in all-black towns. Our segment won awards. I got lots of kudos. But I cared less about that than about something deeper.

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Every time I looked at that old footage or interviewed another nonagenarian startled to be asked about his or her long-ago past—all the work I did putting that story together—I had my dad in mind. I thought of the weight he’d carried all those years, of all his private struggles and hardships before he became a success in life.

The world is like that. We all carry the weight of our own stories, happy or sad. We are better when we share them. We’re better when we hear those stories and recognize ourselves.

I think that’s part of what God means when he instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are, in the end, each of us a collection of stories. We love each other by embracing those stories, honoring them and learning from them.

From the time I came across that old film I’ve steered a course different from most television reporters. While the journalism world speeds up on Twitter and aims for quick ratings hits, I’ve slowed down and trusted in viewers’ inherent goodness.

So far my trust has been rewarded. Every year I have to persuade my editors to keep my segment on the air. Every year “The American Story With Bob Dotson” ends up being one of the most watched and loved segments on Today. That’s not because of Bob Dotson. It’s because of the stories.

Like my dad taught me, it’s the story that holds life. Tell the stories, and the rest will take care of itself.

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