Pat Shannon of Twin Bridges, the secret companion of the late journalist Charles Kuralt for 29 years, should inherit 90 acres of Kuralt's land along the Big Hole River, a district judge ruled Wednesday.
A handwritten letter from the CBS correspondent to Shannon in 1997 saying he wanted to leave her his fishing retreat is a valid will that allows her to own the land, District Judge John Christensen of Lewistown ruled. She should also inherit an old, renovated schoolhouse, which Kuralt intended to use as his study.
The folksy, rotund Kuralt described the lives of ordinary and extraordinary Americans to millions of TV viewers in his popular programs, "On the Road With Charles Kuralt" and "Sunday Morning." He also authored several books.
Only after his death on July 4, 1997, did his family learn that he had been leading a double life, one with Shannon at their retreat near Twin Bridges and one with his wife of 35 years, Suzanne "Petie" Baird Kuralt, in New York City. Kuralt died at age 62 of complications from lupus.
At issue during the drawn-out trial was whether the letter Kuralt wrote to Shannon 16 days before his death was a recognizable will under Montana law or whether the will he wrote in 1994 leaving all his property to his estate - his widow and two daughters - was the document to be followed.
Kuralt's widow died in 1999, and his estate now includes his two daughters by his first marriage, Susan Bowers and Lisa Bowers White.
Kuralt's letter to Shannon, written June 18, 1997, the first day he entered a New York City hospital, said, "Something is terribly wrong with me and they can't figure out what … I'll have the lawyer visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in MT. if it comes to that."
In his ruling Christensen wrote, "The use of the term 'inherit' specifically being emphasized by Kuralt leads this court to conclude that Kuralt intended his letter to Shannon on June 18, 1997, to provide a posthumous transfer of his Montana property to her."
In testimony before Christensen Feb. 17 in Virginia City, Todd Hillier of Bozeman, lawyer for Kuralt's estate, said the 1997 letter was not a legitimate will because it was informally written, didn't use Shannon's full name, wasn't notarized and didn't give the location for the property.
In previous court testimony, Shannon had testified Kuralt gave her thousands of dollars over the years, supporting her and paying for her children's education. Her children considered him a father figure, she said.
"This court concludes there was a personal, secretive relationship between Kuralt and Shannon. … There was a substantial history of gift giving and support by Kuralt of Shannon and her family as well as a close familial relationship between Kuralt and Shannon's family."
In ruling that Shannon was entitled to Kuralt's Montana property, Christensen wrote, "Perhaps this is the final chapter in 'Charles Kuralt's America' and as such speaks volumes about Kuralt, Shannon and their committed relationship and America."
Shannon said Wednesday through her lawyer, Jim Goetz of Bozeman, "I hope the wounds of these past months can begin to be healed and we can now celebrate Charles' life the way he would have wanted us to."
Goetz said he was "very happy" with the decision.
"It's been a long haul, but I think justice has been done," he said.
Hillier said he hadn't had time to fully review the decision or to discuss it with his clients. He said he didn't know if they would appeal.
The 90 acres, appraised at $600,000, will be added to 20 acres Kuralt had deeded to Shannon earlier. The old school, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Big Hole River, was renovated at a cost of $180,000,
Ken Ryder of Bozeman, the contractor who renovated the schoolhouse, said, "I'm pleased she (Shannon) will inherit the remainder of the property in Montana. I am confident that was Charles Kuralt's intention."
Shannon and Kuralt met when the journalist traveled to Reno, Nev., in 1968 to film a segment of TV's "On the Road With Charles Kuralt." The story was centered on Shannon - her name was Pat Baker at the time - who had spearheaded the building of a park there by volunteers of all races.
In 1998, Madison County District Judge Frank Davis ruled the contested land should go to Kuralt's estate. After the Montana Supreme Court overturned the ruling, Davis excused himself from the case.