Steve Hartman’s humorous, uplifting, and sometimes poignant “On the Road” stories bring laughs, smiles, and tears to viewers’ faces at the end of each Friday night’s CBS Evening News broadcast.
One week he’s in Washington state, overlooking Puget Sound, telling how an elderly gentleman plays Taps each night at sunset to honor America’s veterans. The man would have gladly joined the Armed Forces, but couldn’t after being stricken with polio as a child.
Other stories, Hartman finds closer to home, such as the woodchuck who mysteriously stole flags from a Hudson cemetery; or in Catskill, where he talks about his addiction to pulling weeds on the 130-acre property surrounding his nearly 300-year-old Dutch stone house.
But the best idea he ever came up with is a positive byproduct of this year’s COVID-19 pandemic. Kindness 101 is a series of online classes teachers and parents may use to spark discussions about important values such as character, friendship, fortitude, and compassion.
Segments are introduced by Hartman and his two youngest children, 10-year-old Emmett and 6-year-old Meryl, and include archived stories from his “On the Road” series. He and his wife, Andrea, also have a 12-year-old son, George.
“This was like the golden opportunity for me to make these stories available to kids across the country during this time when they’re at home learning off their computer screens anyway,” he says. “We started with four episodes the first week kids were out of school. We thought that was going to be it, four days, Monday to Thursday. We actually had a little graduation ceremony.”
But there was so much demand, that Kindness 101 continued through early June. One of the most-viewed segments, released on Memorial Day, dealt with patriotism. Other subjects such as empathy, altruism, honesty and service typically aren’t part of today’s classroom curriculum, but couldn’t be more important with America’s soul stretched to the breaking point by racial tensions and the worst public health crisis in more than a century.
Feedback reflects how much people appreciate the project, which Hartman provides gratis on top of his regular CBS duties.
“No words, no songs could ever express the love and gratitude my husband and I have for what you do,” an Arizona couple wrote. “We have followed you, Steve, for years, and love what you did and do. Then to share your children amid this craziness, words again escape me. I am a nurse at a cancer center, but you and your children are the true superheroes, in every essence of the word.”
Joye Booher, a mom in Tennessee, said: “Tonight, I went upstairs and could hear my eighth-grade son, Caleb, sobbing about all of the people dying and how much he misses his friends and how much he loves them. I told him how that, often when we’re sad, we get so inward that our problems just swell into bigger problems and that somehow, reaching out to others, helps.”
Together, Booher and her son stayed up past midnight watching Kindness 101 episodes.
“I have work tomorrow and my son has school,” she wrote, “but I thought his spirit and heart were more important than sleep. He absolutely loved the shows and ended up kissing me good night with a big smile on his face before going off to bed. Thank you for showing us some of the good in this world.”
Until now, Kindness 101 has been publicized informally, with people learning about it through word-of-mouth or on social media. Following time off for summer, if all goes well, Hartman hopes to continue the mission of Kindness 101 this fall.
“I also want to provide relevant curriculum to accompany each story,” he says. “This still needs CBS approval. I have been trying to do this for years, but have hit roadblocks. Fortunately, we have new management at CBS who believes in me and this mission. I’m confident this will happen.”
Shows are done with the same cameras and state-of-the-art equipment Hartman uses to edit and produce award-winning “On the Road” stories from his home-based studio. He’s earned three Emmys and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors, during his career.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Hartman moved to Greene County, with his wife from a previous marriage, about 15 years ago. He was working for CBS in New York and they were living in Harlem.
“She wanted to have sheep,” he says, still somewhat bemused by the idea. “I tried to tell her, ‘There’s no way you can make a living as a shepherd, at least in the last 700 years.’ But she had her heart set on it so we had to get out of the city. I’d never been to the Hudson Valley before. We saw this place online. I came up and looked at the house and fell in love with it. If I had to leave New York City, this was going to be it. She left about a year later and took the sheep, too. I stayed behind.”
At times, he’s seriously questioned his own wisdom and financial judgment for buying the historic house — its early occupants were attacked by British-allied Native Americans during the American Revolution — and expansive surrounding property.
“Now it seems like I’m a genius,” Hartman says. “There’s not a better place in the world to ride out this virus than Catskill, NY. I have the ideal setup. I’ve got all my edit equipment here. I can record voice and video. I’ve been writing from home, and I’ve got all the beauty of the Hudson Valley surrounding me.”
It’s also the perfect place to raise young children. Family projects run the gamut, from trail building to identifying and learning about wildlife that call the site home.
“I came here kicking and screaming a little bit. Now, to get me out of here, it would be kicking and screaming…Moving out here to Catskill was the best thing I ever did because it was perfectly suited for life in quarantine.”
“Growing up in Toledo, the biggest hills were the landfills,” Hartman jokes. “Here I’ve got the Catskill Mountains. There’s not a bird on this property we don’t know by name, and many by call. The streams with the little rapids, that’s the kind of thing I dreamed of when I was a little boy. Now it’s outside my window. The place feels a little bit like a movie set; rolling hills, fields of hay. Just in the last week we’ve seen eagle, mink, bear, a yellow warbler. That was not going to happen in Harlem. I came here kicking and screaming a little bit. Now, to get me out of here, it would be kicking and screaming.”
“That’s why I say, moving out here to Catskill was the best thing I ever did because it was perfectly suited for life in quarantine,” he says.
But he’s also anxious to get back on the road with “On the Road” (he’s been doing the series from home, with interviews on Zoom) and continue telling extraordinary stories about ordinary people throughout the U.S. Hartman battles constantly to stay relevant and compelling in a world whose biggest attention-grabbing headlines are dominated by hate, fear, anger, violence, and tragedy.
“It’s funny, every time the news gets serious, whether it was after the 2016 election or now with the coronavirus, I’ve always worried that’s going to be the end of me at CBS News because there’s just too much important stuff to talk about,” he says. “But that hasn’t been the case. It seems like the more doom and gloom, the more people feel like they need something positive.”
With hard, straight news, the message is always more important than the messenger. This is true, too, of feature reporting, but Hartman’s quick wit, humor, and engaging personality add extra depth, meaning, and purpose to each assignment.
Plus, he enjoys the freedom this type of journalism affords.
“If I’m doing the story at the end of the newscast that nobody else is covering, then I can do it my way, on my own terms. I don’t have to worry about somebody second-guessing how I told the story,” he explains. “I also like the opportunity to be more creative and really tell a story rather than just tell the facts. As best I can tell, I’m the only network correspondent that edits his or her own stories.”
However, “On the Road” is a three-person effort consisting of Hartman, cameraman Bob Caccamise (who lives in Ancramdale), and producer Roxanne Feitel, who scours the internet, local newspapers, and television stations in search of stories that deserve the national spotlight. “She’ll find a few things she thinks fit the bill and bounce them off me,” he says. “Before coronavirus, I would get on an airplane Monday morning out of Albany, go to wherever the story was, and try to be home by Tuesday night. Then I would sit here, put all the material in the computer, and write and edit for the next three days, usually finishing a few hours before it airs Friday night.”
Hartman keeps everything he does, and himself, in healthy perspective. He says investigative reporters are journalism’s “real heroes” for their dedication to uncovering corruption and misdeeds.
“I don’t worry so much about the feature reporters,” he says. “We’re kind of like the dessert that comes at the end of the program. But those people at the beginning of the program, especially those people on Sunday night on 60 Minutes, the service they provide is not just important, it’s what makes America America. The First Amendment is first for a reason. There’s an assault on the First Amendment now that worries me. When I went into this business, after Watergate, journalists were put on a pedestal. They aren’t on a pedestal anymore. We need to start propping them back up there because they do great work. They need to be appreciated and supported.”
At 57, and with a young family, Hartman has no plans of retiring. “My appetite has been whet from doing Kindness 101,” he says. “I want CBS to make these stories and archives available to teachers across the country. I want to get them into classrooms. I’ve seen firsthand the difference they can make.”
Some day, when it’s all said and done and there are no more stories to tell, there’s only one thing left Hartman wants out of life. “I think I’m going to go around weeding the garden,” he says, smiling.