'Poor man's Hemingway' lingers

Fans want writer Robert Ruark remembered and appreciated; a Chapel Hill exhibit will help

Staff WriterApril 20, 2006 

  • An exhibit honoring the works of Robert Chester Ruark will be on display at the Chapel Hill Museum, 523 E. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill through July 23. For information, call 967-1400.


    Write to the Robert Ruark Society, P.O. Box 115, 10 Meadowmont Circle, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27517 or contact Jim Cheatham at jtcheatham@prodigy.net. There is no charge to join, and all interested parties are added to the mailing list.

To admirers of North Carolina native Robert Chester Ruark, it's like people 50 years from now saying, "Who's Oprah?"

Ruark was one of the most popular writers in the 1940s and 1950s, penning syndicated columns that ran in hundreds of newspapers and memorable sporting articles for Field & Stream. But 40 years after Ruark's death, his fans say he is underappreciated and nearly forgotten.

"I had read his books and felt that he had not been adequately recognized as a UNC graduate," said Jim Cheatham, a UNC-Chapel Hill undergrad and law alumnus. "We want to make sure he's remembered as an outstanding writer. A lot of his older fans remember him, but the young ones did not."

Cheatham helped found the Robert Ruark Society three years ago to celebrate the novelist, essayist and playwright called the "poor man's Hemingway." The society, with 150 members, doesn't meet regularly, but it does hold special events, such as the party in Wrightsville Beach in December to celebrate Ruark's 90th birthday.

For the society, a reception at 6 p.m. today will be like a Ruark revival party in his college town. An exhibit honoring Ruark and his works opens today at the Chapel Hill Museum and runs through July 23. The group also will bestow its annual $1,000 award to a top creative writing student at UNC.

The exhibit tells Ruark's story with letters from his friend Ernest Hemingway and other artifacts, such as the author's typewriter and favored mug -- with a boar's tooth handle.

"What most people will find interesting is that there are a great number of photos that document the fact that this man lived all over the world," said museum administrator Traci Davenport.

Born in Wilmington, Ruark spent his summers in Southport, hunting and fishing with his grandfather. He graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school in 1935 and served in the Navy during World War II.

After working as a reporter for the Hamlet News-Messenger and the Sanford Herald, Ruark became a syndicated columnist in Washington. He also wrote more than a dozen books and thousands of newspaper columns.

Ruark later made frequent trips to East Africa, particularly Kenya and Tanzania. His 1955 novel, "Something of Value," was set in Africa and became a best seller worldwide. His Field & Stream columns were later collected in another celebrated book, "The Old Man and The Boy" -- another echo of Hemingway.

Ruark's experiences on the North Carolina coast, in the woods and overseas crafted the writer into a character himself. After becoming wealthy and famous, he returned to Chapel Hill in 1957 driving a Rolls Royce. He ended up at his old fraternity house.

Cheatham remembers that visit; it was his senior year, and he lived in the frat house across the street.

"I went over to meet him. He asked his old fraternity if they needed anything," said Cheatham, 71, a retired lawyer. "They said 'an ice machine,' and he bought one, and the next day it was delivered. We used to go over there and borrow ice."

Ruark moved to Spain the next year and continued to write until his death in 1965. He left his papers to UNC. In 2000, he was named to the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.

Staff writer Cindy George can be reached at 829-4656 or cgeorge@newsobserver.com.

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