Steve Ruppenthal, from '80s Chapel Hill band The Popes, dies at age 49

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2014 

Sad news out of Wrightsville Beach over the weekend -- Steve Ruppenthal, co-leader of 1980s-vintage Chapel Hill pop band The Popes, died on Friday. He was 49 years old and the cause of death was drowning.

Ruppenthal was with family members just off the beach in the water, which his brother Jeff Ruppenthal reports wasn’t that rough. But Steve went missing.

“We looked up at one point and wondered, ‘Where’s Steve?’” said Jeff. “We thought he’d maybe gone back to the house. Next thing I know I hear somebody yelling and I’m running 75 yards down to where a surf-school instructor had pulled him out of the water and was performing CPR. It was horrifying.”

In recent years, Ruppenthal had lived in Arlington, Va. He is survived by two brothers and his parents, who are still grappling with trying to figure out what happened.

“Maybe he had a seizure, or he was body-surfing and a wave knocked him out,” said Jeff Ruppenthal. “There were plenty of people around and there was no evidence he’d been flailing in the water. Something just took him under. We’ll never know.”

Back when the 1980s were turning into the ’90s, The Popes were one of Chapel Hill’s great guitar-pop bands, as catchy as they were rocked-up. They left behind a superb six-song mini-album, 1988’s self-released “Hi We’re The Popes.” But they never did break through to widespread success.

“Steve and I did have a special talent for making dumb and ornery decisions,” said John Elderkin, Ruppenthal’s co-leader in The Popes. “The two of us working together, we could definitely drive the car off the road. But he was so obviously talented, such a force. People still ask me all the time, ‘Why didn’t you guys have at least one hit?’ Who Knows? Better bands than us have faced up to that. But Steve was the reason people would ask that question.”

The Popes called it quits in early 1991, undone by a failed record deal with a New York-based label. But Elderkin and Ruppenthal continued playing together in bands including Lovely Lads, The Public Good and Stumble. The Popes also reconvened for a 2012 reunion show, yielding up an excellent live album.

“I just kind assumed he and I would always keep on going at it, on and off over the years,” Elderkin said. “He and I put so much into all these bands, but he was always the guy with the vision. It all went through him. We were friends outside the band, too. I think a lot about how lucky I was to cross paths with him. If not for him, I’d have probably just been in a series of novelty bands.”

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Monday, June 30 at Myers Park Baptist Church, 1900 Queens Road in Charlotte. There will also most likely be a tribute show in the Triangle at some point.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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