CHAPEL HILL — Louis Rubin was a man of words whose wry, raw, yet uniquely nurturing observations helped shape the voices of many Southern writers.
On Sunday, almost three months after his death, those writers and others got together to remember a teacher, essayist, editor and publisher whose words they longed to hear.
“I wish Louis was here today to respond to all of this,” said Jill McCorkle, a former student and author of 10 books since taking creative writing with Rubin as a UNC-Chapel Hill senior.
Rubin, a co-founder of Algonquin Books and founder of the Fellowship of Southern writers, died on Nov. 16 at Galloway Ridge in Fearrington from heart and kidney ailments. He was just three days shy of his 90th birthday.
A native of Charleston, S.C., he was a scholar, mentor and champion of Southern literature who spent 22 years on the UNC-Chapel Hill English department faculty.
The memorial service was held in the auditorium of the Genome Sciences Center at the university from which he retired in 1989. Former English department colleagues and students had many stories to tell about the colorful storyteller.
They talked about his love of the written word, his enthusiasm for baseball, fishing, music and painting. They marveled at the thread that stitched together the many generations that called him friend and mentor – his devotion to his students throughout his life and theirs.
They remembered a man with a brusk voice and bear-like demeanor, who could be intimidating on some occasions and somewhat of a teddy bear at the same time.
Manning Rubin, Rubin’s younger brother, shared comical stories of their South Carolina boyhood years and of the year they roomed together while studying at John Hopkins University.
Louis Rubin was a fast reader who retained the words on the pages he flipped through quickly. He was a mediocre baseball player who could only dream of the big leagues.
His younger brother, nicknamed “Shrimpy” because he did not top 4-feet-6 inches until after his 15th birthday, was a decent ballplayer. Louis Rubin would trot out his smaller sibling as a ringer and make bets that won him money in their youth.
In a video played at UNC on Sunday, Manning Rubin marveled at his older brother’s ability to rake in money on such bets but joked about his inability to make any money at his foray into publishing with Algonquin.
“Louis was always more interested in the almighty word than the almighty dollar,” Manning Rubin said.
Joseph Flora, one-time chair of the UNC English department, talked about how Rubin went to UNC at a time when few women were in the department.
Rubin, who went to UNC from Hollins University, a small, private women’s school in Roanoke, Va., was an advocate for diversifying the faculty, his former colleague said.
“Machiavellian he was not,” Flora said, “but he was right for the time.”
Rubin, his students, writers and children recalled, was a man who encouraged others to be themselves. And that was how he lived his life, they said.
He smoked his pipe, loved his jokes, was serious about writing and let others know how they could improve theirs. He tended to the birds at his feeders and loved the dogs under his feet. He was a husband, father, grandfather and brother who welcomed many as if they were family, a kinship that created many strong bonds and an absence that was palpable on Sunday.
“Our father was a proud man with a strong will who did things his way to the very end,” said Robert Rubin, one of his two sons. “We’ll all miss him a lot.”