Don Sheldon was among the early aviation pioneers who developed the piloting skills necessary to land and take off from glaciers in Alaska, and was the focus of a 1974 CBS Evening News story by reporter Charles Kuralt. This episode of News Knowledge features excerpts of our interview with Sheldon’s son Robert and grandson Ryan, interspersed with excerpts of news reports about their famous ancestor, as well as the behind-the-scenes details of their family’s contribution to the official renaming of Mt. McKinley to Denali in 2015.
Links for photos/video of Denali, the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, and the Sheldon Chalet:
ONE SMALL CORRECTION ABOUT A LARGE AREA: Robert Sheldon says, “I stated that Denali National Park was the first national park . . . what I meant to say is that it was the first national park added after the National Park Service was established.”
[00:00] [background music]
News anchor: [00:02] When we last saw Charles Kuralt, he was on the road in Alaska.
Robert Sheldon: [00:06] So that entire vast open area? That area is gigantic.
Charles Kuralt: [00:09] Home is a hut, 12 feet by 12 feet, built on a rock above the glacier.
Ryan Sheldon: [00:16] It’s quite a treat to see Charles Kuralt do a wonderful piece on my grandfather.
Robert Sheldon: [00:22] My father was a really remarkable person, and he had all sorts of ways in order to maximize people’s experiences in life and boy, with Charles Kuralt, did he find a willing participant.
Russ Mason: [00:34] Hi, I’m Russ Mason. At the conclusion of our previous “News Knowledge” podcast, I noted that the TV News Archive’s collection has been available to anyone for any purpose now for nearly fifty years, and in this episode we’re going to share a story that recently landed on our doorstep quite unexpectedly, but which is an excellent example of one of the ways the Archive’s collection has been utilized over the years.
The stars of this story include several members of a family from Talkeetna, Alaska, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, a priest who traveled from Boston to Alaska in search of solitude, and the mountain in Alaska now officially known as Denali, formerly called Mt. McKinley.
It’s a story with several chapters spanning nearly 80 years, and which came to us courtesy of Robert Sheldon and his son Ryan, during their recent visit with us here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive.
In 1974, Robert’s father, Don Sheldon, was profiled on “The CBS Evening News” by Charles Kuralt for a segment in his series of “On the Road” reports, which regularly focused on off-beat and interesting subjects that Kuralt and his cameraman encountered as they traveled around the country.
But what made Don Sheldon so extraordinary that it was worth traveling all the way to Alaska to find him? To begin to answer that question, let’s listen to this excerpt from Kuralt’s October 4th, 1974 profile of Sheldon.
Charles Kuralt: [02:05] If it’s a clear day anywhere in central Alaska, and if you glance up from what you’re doing, this is what you see, McKinley. Even from 100 miles away, Mt. McKinley, 20,000 feet, tallest mountain on the continent, dominates your vision.
And if you want to go there, most Alaskans will tell you, there’s really only one way to go, Don Sheldon. For 25 years, Don Sheldon has been flying in a single-engine airplane with skis where the wheels ought to be, up among the peaks of the Alaska Range and down in its awesome depths.
Russ: [02:42] But Don Sheldon’s reputation was already well-established before Charles Kuralt came calling, as evidenced by this bit of narration from a 1966 “National Geographic” documentary, shared with us by Sheldon’s son, Robert.
Narrator: [02:56] Don Sheldon’s this wild man’s name. Over the years, his daring aeronautical exploits in landing, retrieving, and often rescuing climbing parties, have made him an institution in these parts. To top an already legendary career, he single-handedly built a hut, with fireplace and all, a third of the way up McKinley’s south slope. He’d like to see a ski tow here some day and some profit. Sheldon seems content to share his mountain with people, like myself, I guess, who can get a thrill from just looking at a thing of beauty.
Russ: [03:32] Of course, appearing on the CBS Evening News just further cemented Sheldon’s status as a living legend among Alaska’s many bush pilots.
Kuralt: [03:39] They say there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Don Sheldon must be the exception who proves the rule. Charles Kuralt, CBS News, “On the Road” in Alaska.
Russ: [03:58] So last month, after Don Sheldon’s son and grandson, who’s attending college here in Nashville, stopped by to view this CBS News clip – and two others that we’ll get to in a minute – they generously agreed to come back the next day so that we could record a conversation with them, during which Robert related details of his father’s childhood growing up in Wyoming, explained that he’d made his way from there to Alaska by himself at the age of 17, and that after laboring for several years at a variety of physically demanding jobs, including mining and fur trapping, he’d used the money he’d saved to enroll in an aviation school. Shortly thereafter, however, Pearl Harbor was attacked, drawing the country and Sheldon himself into the Second World War.
Robert: [04:43] He was in a bomber in World War II. He was a tail gunner, not a pilot. Even though he was qualified as a pilot, they needed tail gunners because the tail gunners kept getting shot. He, when his number of flights were done, because he had crashed in a bomber early on where he was the only survivor to walk away…it’s a miracle that me and Ryan are here today, by the way, also because of his flying. He did some very risky stuff, but he knew his flight envelope…but he walks away from this bomber crash in World War II.
Of course, he already had several flights, and he gets in with a green crew in this next bomber. And they go on complete missions and they’re almost done. But my Dad’s done. He can go home, he’s given his ticket. Instead, he volunteered to stay on to see those guys through because he knew if they got a green tail gunner in there that they would die. I think that – actually I believe this firmly – that my Dad always wanted to see people through. So the rescues he did on Denali was not anything different than what he did back in World War II.
Russ: [05:52] You talk about your Dad having to rescue people off the mountain. How often did that happen?
Robert: [05:58] Unfortunately, it was quite frequent. Early on, on Denali, as we call the mountain now – which my Mom has a little bit of a stake in that coming to pass, kind of an exciting side story – every expedition up there had to have a scientific rationale behind it.
For example, the Boston Museum of Science with Bradford Washburn, they were pivotal in having good, well-thought out, scientific expeditions that would go up there. In fact, the Boston Museum of Science, when led by Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn came out to Alaska, and with my father, they mapped the Alaska Range, my father doing the flying and Bradford doing most of the surveying.
The long story short here is that subsequent to those high scientific days, the National Park Service, Denali is inside the oldest national park in the National Park System. It just turned a hundred this year, as a matter of fact. So Denali National Park, at that point in time was heavily regulated, but the Park Service started relaxing what they would allow for scientific expeditions. The unfortunate side effect was that there were more and more frequent accidents, because even though they had mapped out some very good routes of how to get up and down the mountain safely, some people were treating it as a walk rather than a climb. A lot of the pathways up the mountain, the West Buttress and some of the other routes that are popular to this day aren’t particularly challenging, but the problem is: That mountain creates its own weather, and with that, try flying in it.
Russ: [07:39] I remember you mentioning that Charles Kuralt had said something to the effect that your Dad kind of marooned him up there for a time. [laughter] And your Mom had a version of that story.
Robert: [07:54] My father was a really remarkable person, and he had all sorts of ways in order to maximize people’s experiences in life. And boy, with Charles Kuralt, boy, did he find a willing participant.
My father gave this terrible excuse that there wasn’t enough lift in the air to take off with everybody, so he marooned Charles Kuralt and his cameraman Izzy on the glacier. Their first response is, “Well, where are we gonna stay?” Then my father said, “Well, we have the Sheldon Mountain House up the way, and there’s someone there that will greet you,” so they went up there.
But the story that my Mom tells is that my Dad had that planned. He thought that these guys zinging around the country should take a few more minutes in what they were doing with their storytelling, and that they should take some deep breaths. The clip we just saw this morning here, the third one that we found really speaks to that, that he was very thankful for that pause in life.
Russ: [09:14] As it turned out, that “pause in life” that Don Sheldon created for his new friends, Charles and Izzy, became yet another “On The Road” profile, this time focusing on Father Ron Dunfee, which aired on October 15, 1974.
Kuralt: [09:30] This is the Ruth Glacier, a vast and treacherous ice field that flows down from the base of Mount McKinley, as frozen and forbidding a landscape as you can find in North America. And that figure down there walking across it, testing the edges of the crevasses with his ice axe before stepping nonchalantly across, oh, that’s just Father Ron Dunfee on his way home.
Home is a hut, 12 feet by 12 feet, built on a rock above the glacier. It is the only structure for 80 miles around, designed as a shelter for mountain climbers in trouble. Ron Dunfee, a Catholic priest from Boston looking for a quiet place to spend a long retreat, has settled on this precarious perch atop a wilderness of ice. I think we can consider him the loneliest man in America.
As for us, we interrupted his solitude by accident. The pilot of a ski plane, who landed us on the glacier for some close-ups of Mount McKinley, discovered he couldn’t take off with our combined weight aboard. So Father Ron Dunfee found himself, all unwitting, host to cameraman Isadore Bleckman and me. What he talked to us about, in that beautiful and solitary place, was beauty and solitude.
Father Ron Dunfee: [10:48] Solitude is getting to be more and more, as time goes on, one of the priceless luxuries in life. It’s hard to find. It’s hard to buy. Somebody said one time up here, a climber, he said, “Gee, you can just almost hear it and feel it, the energy here, all of the pent up energy amidst tons of ice, and all under the great pressure and tension.” I can really feel the energy of this place.
Kuralt: [11:13] And so, we talked through the afternoon until the sun arched behind McKinley. We found that we fell into long silences as the night came on, and as a sense of the awesome isolation of this little hut settled upon us. It wasn’t by choice, but by necessity that we spent a day and a night in this lonely place, with this good man. But now that the dawn of another day has come, we find that the silence and peace of this place has seized us and that we’re reluctant to leave it.
Russ: [11:46] And so, while we wait for Don Sheldon to return and fly them back to civilization, I want to pause as well and mention that there are several links associated with this episode on our News Knowledge website, all of which include images of this spectacular Alaskan landscape and the hut where Charles and Izzy found themselves stranded overnight with Father Dunfee.
It was Don Sheldon’s dream to build a larger structure near the hut, and Robert, as he was talking about Father Dunfee, explained that his father had begun stockpiling materials for use in that construction project.
Robert: [12:22] Father Dunfee, he was up there caretaking the mountain house and the materials that were already up there. He was up there a lot longer than any other human has been other than probably me at this point. He was up there for months and months at a time for a couple of years in a row. The longest period of time was then in ‘74. He was basically making sure that no one was fiddling around with these materials my Dad had up there for the beginning of the chalet.
Russ: [12:41] The first time Charles Kuralt came, you were, what, three-years-old?
Robert: [13:02] Yeah, a very young age to have any memories, right, Russ? [laughter]
Russ: [13:08] And yet, you say you do.
Robert: [13:10] I believe so. My earliest memory was sitting in my father’s lap, in what we call a Super Cub, and we were taking off of the village strip in Talkeetna, Alaska. The perfumed smell of avgas was in the air. I think that’s what really probably prompted that first memory, there’s a lot of things about that that I remembered. That had to be in ‘74 because I highly doubt the previous summer when I’m two, I would possibly have any memory.
My father passed away the subsequent year, and Charles Kuralt came later that fall. I’m certain that I remember the busyness of the day, of all of the boxes of materials and the cases. There were these big grey cases with silver-lined seams around them that would open up like a clam shell. I remember that day well too. I don’t remember specific conversations, but I remember that it was an important day specifically because while my father didn’t mind providing interviews and such, but what was significant was my mother was in the room, and she abhorred the press. Whether it was for a friendly conversation, or perhaps, not so friendly conversation, she avoided it like the plague.
Russ: [14:24] Do you know where her attitude towards the press came from? Did she have a bad experience at some point?
Robert: [14:31] My namesake, Robert, is not after my mother, Roberta, it’s after my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, Bob Reeve. Bob Reeve pioneered most of the air routes in South America, and then came to Alaska during the Depression and pioneered a bunch more routes and became really well-known for training the U.S. Army during World War II to fly aircraft out along the Aleutian chain and repulse the Japanese that were coming in. It was a very difficult place to fly, but because of all of those feats, he was extraordinarily well known throughout the planet. All the luminaries of that day, whether it was as simple as actors and actresses, or as complex as dignitaries and diplomats, they came through his office. My grandmother was entertaining at least six nights a week, my Mom would relate, and she tired of that because there was always someone looking for a sound bite for some angle, because there was always reporters in the room, and she grew tired of that.
Russ: [15:33] Good for your mom.
Robert: [15:34] Yeah. Well she knew when to say no, she was good at that.
Russ: [15:39] We’ll learn more about Roberta Sheldon shortly. But as I’m sure you’ve heard Robert Sheldon say, his father passed away when Robert was just three-years-old. Charles Kuralt’s eulogy for Don Sheldon aired on the CBS Evening News on January 28th, 1975.
Kuralt: [16:00] Don Sheldon flew airplanes where airplanes were never meant to fly, up among the peaks of the Alaska Range. Numbers of men in this world, mountain climbers in trouble, crash-landed pilots, hikers and campers lost in the Alaska wilderness owe their lives to him.
What I owe to him is merely a few days of last summer filled by the most breathless sights I ever hoped to see. Don Sheldon knew he had cancer and chose to spend his last days up where he felt most at home, among the snow fields and glaciers that surround Mount McKinley. “Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked him, and this is what he answered.
Don Sheldon: [16:39] Well I don’t consider it dangerous, I consider it a pleasure.
Kuralt: [16:42] Don Sheldon’s funeral is being held today at Holy Family Catholic Church in Anchorage. He will be buried in his hometown of Talkeetna, within sight of the Alaska Range. The Governor of Alaska has asked the federal government to name a mountain in the vicinity, Mount Sheldon. Charles Kuralt, CBS News.
Russ: [17:03] Roberta Sheldon was 18 years younger than her husband. The daughter of another legendary pilot, Bob Reeve, she traveled the world as an airline stewardess before marrying Don and moving to Talkeetna to help run his Talkeetna Air Service. After his death, she remained in Talkeetna where she raised Robert and his two sisters and created her own legacy, taking an active interest in issues related to Alaskan history and the preservation of both the environment and local historical structures. Robert recalled Charles Kuralt visiting his family several years after his father’s passing.
Robert: [17:39] I believe in ‘79 or 1980, he had come back to Talkeetna, he was on some other assignment in Alaska. He had frequent interludes where he came back to Alaska. It was either ‘79 or ‘80 that he had come back, and we sat at the table as if they were friends.
He was a man of significant stature, he carried himself very well, and he had this wonderful voice. I know it’s been termed mahogany in the past. That seems to be one of the words that comes up time and again, but it was true. In his personal life he had that mahogany voice.
We sat at our kitchen table, one which I still have to this day, but we sat at that kitchen table and we talked about how his experience up there in the amphitheater as we call it, it’s now been renamed after my father. In the clip, it says the Ruth Glacier and Ruth Amphitheater, but it’s those 30 square miles…
Russ: [18:38] Now the Sheldon Amphitheater?
Robert: [18:39] Don Sheldon Amphitheater, the full name. They had set out to name a mountain after my father, but after he passed on they decided that wasn’t big enough and instead they named 30 square miles the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, and it truly is an amphitheater to life. You go there, and it will change you. Charles Kuralt remarks in at least two different pieces that we viewed here, where Charles Kuralt’s speaking quite fondly of his remembrances of…whether they were just real fresh there, but later that was what he was speaking about at the kitchen table with my mom, how much it impacted his life. I was about eight at the time of that visit.
So after that second visit, I vividly remember my mom stating that, “What a nice man he was,” and that she might actually consider allowing him to tape her one day. But no, he was a nice man. He was a man of recognizable stature. He commanded the presence of a room not in a negative way. He was someone that you wanted to speak with, and understand, and hear their view and take on things. He was around at a time when we really needed to understand that this country is still full of good men and good women. He was out there documenting it, and he really did document some of the unsung heroes of our day, and whether it was minutia or not, the reality is that this is an extraordinary filled with extraordinary people. You just have to ask them to share their story. That’s what I’m so excited about, that this archive exists, is we get to hear that. We get snippets and pieces and such.
Russ: [20:27] As I’ve mentioned, Robert was accompanied by his son Ryan who, in addition to studying business and voice at Belmont University, is also competing in hammer, discus, and shot put for the university. I asked Ryan whether he’d ever seen Charles Kuralt’s profiles of his grandfather or Father Dunfee before.
Ryan: [20:46] I had not. It was quite fantastic though to see that there was more information out there than I’d originally known on my grandfather. I didn’t ever know him, so it’s absolutely fantastic just to see other people’s opinions of him match so well with the opinions of the people I grew up with around in Alaska and everything. It’s just quite a treat to see Charles Kuralt just do a wonderful piece on my grandfather.
Russ: [21:14] Ryan also tells the story of that time recording artist John Denver showed up in Talkeetna wanting to meet his grandmother.
Ryan: [21:21] We were saying she liked to stay out of the press, but one time John Denver came to visit in Talkeetna from the aviation history, because he was a pilot himself. He heard about this woman, my grandmother, and he wanted to meet her, but she wasn’t having any of it. [laughs] He basically came around to the back of the house and started playing a song out the window of my grandmother’s house. [laughter] She finally gave up and came outside, and basically wanted a ride in his Learjet. You guys, did that ever come to be, did you ever ride in the…?
Robert: [21:57] [laughs] We had a few rides, and actually this is a little longer than the version that you know. There is a pursuit of my mother and Ryan’s granny, Roberta Sheldon, there was a pursuit there for a while. But my dad passed away and my mom never got over it. She never remarried, didn’t matter that John Denver was serenading her outside her bedroom window. Didn’t matter that we had a couple of flights with him in the Learjet. That didn’t matter at all. She had been married and really didn’t seriously pursue anyone else.
An interesting side story of the renaming of Denali, my mom was a meticulous record keeper. She had the original materials when the federal government was going through the process side-by-side with the State of Alaska’s process on renaming. She had good documentation of everything that had led up to the naming and how it was done.
I was asked when President Obama in the prior administration held the Glacier Conference in Alaska, I was asked, “Gosh, was there any supporting documentation for the renaming of the Denali. You might want to announce it on this trip,” etc., etc., if it was possible. I delivered a digitized version of my mom’s file to people who then provided it to Sally Jewell, who at the time was Interior Secretary. That I was told was instrumental in them being able to actually work through a process, and how they did the renaming, and to isolate ways that they couldn’t rename from the ways that they could. It was a watershed, pardon the pun, but it was a watershed type set of documents that allowed them to completely make the decision in favor of renaming.
There was something about the documentation. Of course, being the gigantic bureaucracy that the US government is, I never obtained specifics on that. That was the interesting side note: My dad helped map the mountain, he helped survey the mountain. My mom was of course involved in the background on that. When it came right down to it, she was critical to the renaming of the mountain.
Russ: [24:19] Excellent. Was it always Denali to everybody that lives up in Alaska?
Robert: [24:24] Yeah it was. However, as Charles Kuralt says in the pieces that we’ve been able to view here, he’s pointed out it’s Mt. McKinley. I mean he didn’t point that out, he just said it matter of factly, but privately in Alaska since the ’70s we renamed it Denali on our own books. In my family, ever since I can remember we called it Denali. That was the mountain. However, in our brochures and other things you’ll see on our Instagram feed, which I have these old brochures from the ’60s up there to go to the Sheldon Mountain House, you’ll find that it says Mt. McKinley because that was the popularized name of the day. Media is what helped do that. You repeat something often enough, people start to say, “OK, that must be the name,” but the reality is our Alaska native groups in the region, if you look at the pronunciation guides, it is very close to Denali in all of them.
Russ: [25:22] A quick search of our TV news archive database yields a November 6th, 1978 CBS News report on the renaming controversy. Let’s listen to a portion of it.
Reporter: [25:33] There was nothing else like it on the North American continent. It rises 20,000 feet, and since the turn of the century it’s been known as Mt. McKinley. Named by a prospector after his favorite politician, the Honorable William McKinley of Ohio. Long before that the Alaskan Indians, awed by its grandeur, had called the peak Denali, the great one. Now Alaskans are arguing, change it back. Denali yes, McKinley no. State Senator John Sackett, himself an Athabaskan Indian.
John Sackett: [26:05] Any name of either mountains, or highways, or parts of the state should be a part of that state in terms of recognition, and ultimately pride.
Reporter: [26:19] Alaskans like the name Denali so much they’ve put it on stores, streets, saloons, and theaters. You’ll find precious few things, other than the mountain, named McKinley. It’s nothing personal really, just that Alaskans think president McKinley, shown here in rare old newsreel footage, didn’t have much to do with their part of the world, and never even came to visit. So the Alaska legislature and the governor want the name changed and the Secretary of Interior agrees. All of which angers the folks back in Ohio, McKinley’s home state, who argue, he was a great president cut down before his prime by an assassin.
Russ: [27:00] As Robert has already explained, it wasn’t until the 2015 Glacier Conference in Anchorage, attended by President Obama, that McKinley was changed back to Denali, after which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in.
News anchor: [27:15] And an update. Last night we told you about a controversial move by President Obama renaming Mt. McKinley, Denali, the original name. Tonight, Republican front-runner Donald Trump diving into the debate, calling it an insult to Ohio where McKinley was from, tweeting, if elected, he’ll change the name right back.
Russ: [27:31] And elected he was. So then what happened? Robert gives us an update.
Robert: [27:37] Not only did we stump for that as a state back in the ’70s, but our current congressional delegation, the junior and the senior senator, when asked by now President Trump whether or not it should be renamed back to Mt. McKinley they said, “Heck no.” Then one of our senators, who is married to an Alaskan native said he couldn’t go home again if it was renamed to Mt. McKinley. [laughter] That of course is Dan Sullivan, our junior senator. They are a spectacular team for us in Alaska and true to form in this case they were properly aligned in their unity. Congressman Don Young grew up further north in Fort Yukon, another small community like mine. He is on the same page.
I meant to ask you, but I’ve been listening, and I hear you saying Den-AL-i. [laughter]
Russ: [28:34] Well, I mean…
Robert: [28:37] No, you picked up on a very important point.
Russ: [28:39] I didn’t know, is it Den-AL-i or Den-ALL-i?
Robert: [28:41] You can answer this Ryan and I’ll follow you up.
Ryan: [28:44] This is funny, because we have good friends who own an aviation service. They have their ads and everything, and they come over the radio and they say, “Fly Den-ALL-i,” and it just wrecks my ears every time I hear that, because I’ve grown up with it being Den-AL-i. Oh my goodness, honestly I truly believe, and when we look at the pronunciation, it’s Den-AL-i, not Den-ALL-i. [laughs]
Robert: [29:09] When you look at phonetically the regional language constructs, what I mentioned before, it’s Den-AL-i.
Ryan: [29:19] Then I go and talk to her, “It’s Denali.” [laughs]
Robert: [29:24] She called us this year, this past spring. They’re getting ready to do their new…
Russ: [29:27] Who is it?
Robert: [29:28] It’s K2 Aviation, Suzanne Rust, a wonderful lady, and I hope that makes it into the podcast. [laughter] She actually has been the subject of a couple of shows recently that will start popping up, she’s really a remarkable lady. She actually called us and said, “Walk me through again why you call it Den-AL-i Robert?” Because she calls it Den-ALL-i. I explained much what Ryan just said. You know, what’s important to know is, Alaska, we have a very transient population. Both sides of my family firmly made Alaska their home in the ’30s. We’re relative newcomers, of course, for those families that have been there for over 10,000 years, the Alaskan natives. I’m fond of saying, “I’m a Native Alaskan.” There is a difference in those two terms. Alaskan Natives refers to the folks that have been there forever, and Native Alaskans are for folks like myself.
Russ: [30:24] So I took a look at your website, which is just the one page at this point.
Ryan: [30:30] Yeah, it’s a splash page.
Russ: [30:32] It looked as though, and you’re still building the chalet, right?
Robert: [30:34] The Sheldon Chalet at sheldonchalet.com.
Russ: [30:37] It looked like there was a helipad there. Is that true?
Robert: [30:39] That’s our observation deck. We are really sensitive to maximizing the use of our nunatak. In nunatak, “nuna” means “land” and “tak” is the “rock.” It translates to “rock outcropping out of the glacier.” We’re really sensitive that our nunatak would be consistent with our local environment.
The national park surrounded us in 1980. First, Denali National Park was created in 1917 and then it was expanded in 1980 to surround us. We’re the only land on Denali, we’ve got almost five acres there. It is an incredibly spectacular place, and we’re further surrounded by the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. This was something that began though back in the ’60s. My Dad got the land in the ’50s, when he was surveying the mountain with Bradford Washburn, and in the ’60s, he built the original Sheldon Mountain House there. They had a plan in place to build the Sheldon Chalet, and they started ferrying materials up.
In this Charles Kuralt sequence, the second story that comes out is Father Dunfee. Father Dunfee’s caretaking the Sheldon Mountain House as well as materials that my Dad was hauling up there for building the chalet. So after Kate and I, my middle sister, developed plans to 35-percent completion for the new chalet, my wife, Marne, in our warehouse, finds the plans from 1968. This is two years after the existing structure was built that you can see in the film archive that in 1968, these other plans are stamped. We didn’t know that those actually existed. We knew that they intended to build the chalet. We knew that materials were even up there because I had discovered those just two years ago, in 2015. They melted out from underneath ice on top of the nunatak.
Russ: [32:30] What?
Robert: [32:30] Yeah. True story. It’s all documented there at sheldonmthouse on Instagram. What you see there being built is a fulfillment of basically, at this point, coming up on a 50-year-long project. That is one of the reasons why I was out there searching online for any kind of footage because this helps tells the story. The fact that the news archive exists and that I knew that my father…what first spurred me on is I had just a voice recording of Walter Cronkite announcing that my father had passed on, on CBS Evening News, that then led me to, “Gosh, you have this other piece.” Then just late last night, I discovered that, “Oh, there’s a third piece on my Dad.”
It’s really something though to be able to reach back in time like that, and the value of these sorts of archives are literally indispensable. There’s things that we can learn from them, from mannerisms to a sense of place, that’s just incredible. I’ll tell you what, one of the things that I plan on doing, we know we’re going to attract the attention of the world. I also do some diplomatic work on the side. I’m going to make sure that this news archive is in a very visible place.
Russ: [33:51] I really appreciate that.
Robert: [33:52] Yeah. I’m going to make sure that people are aware of it. Because if we definitely do not know our history, we do not know where we’re going. This is an invaluable resource. You really gain a sense of place when you have video combined with voice. We’re here today in a nice office, and no one can see us, but the news archive is in full life color, as I like to say. It may be black-and-white, some of it, but it’s full life color. You definitely get a context for the sense of place and those sorts of things.
[34:32] [background music]
Russ: [34:31] Very kind. Thank you, Robert and Ryan. Thank you very much. We really appreciate it. It was great talking to you today.
Russ: [34:40] That concludes this episode of News Knowledge and my conversation with Robert and Ryan Sheldon, whose use of the TV News Archive to view news clips of their ancestor is just one more example of how our Archive’s collection of national news broadcasts has been utilized over the last 49 years.
Be sure to use the links we’ve provided on our News Knowledge website for a look at the incredible panoramic beauty of both Denali and the Don Sheldon Amphitheater that surrounds the soon-to-be-completed Sheldon Chalet.
[35:12] I’m Russ Mason, and for all of us here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, we thank you for listening.