By People Staff
April 10, 2000 12:00 PM

For 29 years, Patricia Shannon was the soul of discretion when it came to her secret relationship with Charles Kuralt, the rumpled, folksy and very-much-married TV journalist who chronicled smalltown America for CBS. But after Kuralt died of heart failure in 1997, at 62, Shannon, 66, had to go public with details of Kuralt’s remarkable double life in order to protect what she felt was hers—the idyllic, 110-acre fishing retreat they had shared near Twin Bridges, Mont. “He and I and my children considered ourselves a family,” Shannon, who lives in a small cabin on the property, testified at a February trial. “I considered it our cabin.”

On March 22 a Montana judge agreed, awarding Shannon the 90 acres—valued at $600,000—that she didn’t already own. While Kuralt, in his 1994 will, left everything he owned to Suzanna, his wife of 35 years, and his two daughters from a first marriage (who took up the legal battle after Suzanna, 70, died last year), the judge ruled that a letter Kuralt sent to Shannon from his New York City deathbed supported her claim. “I’ll have the lawyers visit the hospital,” wrote Kuralt, “to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in Montana.”

Kuralt met Shannon in 1968. Recently divorced, she was helping lead an effort to build a park in a predominantly black neighborhood in Reno, a struggle Kuralt covered for his popular CBS segment On the Road. For much of the next three decades, Kuralt saw Shannon several times a year, sent her about $5,000 a month and paid the college tuitions of her three children, who came to call him “Pop.” Shannon and Kuralt “seemed to have a very committed partnership,” Ken Ryder, a Montana contractor who helped the couple renovate a schoolhouse on their property, testified at the trial.

Clearly, Judge John Christensen drew the same conclusion. Now that Shannon gets to keep the rolling land along the Big Hole River—though Kuralt’s daughters could appeal the ruling—she hopes to recapture the privacy and quiet he cherished as well. “I’ll be interested in being out of the spotlight,” says Shannon. “I don’t want this to go on any longer, for Charles’s sake.”