Earl Ruth Highway unveiled on US 601
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — The late Earl B. Ruth had so many titles in his life that if you strung them together they might stretch from here to Davie County.
So it was fitting Thursday that the N.C. Department of Transportation — with the help of Ruth’s family, friends and political colleagues — unveiled a sign for the newly named “Congressman Earl Ruth Highway,” the section of U.S. 601 between Jake Alexander Boulevard and the Davie County line.
Ruth, who died in 1989, served as U.S. House representative for the 8th District from 1968-74. Not long after that, President Gerald Ford appointed him as governor of American Samoa, and he also worked a short time in the U.S. Department of Interior.
But there were other titles for Ruth, a native of Spencer.
“Lieutenant.” He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
“Champion.” He won the N.C. singles crown in tennis while attending Central High in Charlotte. He used a borrowed racket.
“Captain.” He headed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill basketball team during his junior and senior seasons.
“Councilman.” He served on the Salisbury City Council, including a stint as mayor pro tem.
“Dean.” He was dean of students at Catawba College.
“Dr.” He held a doctorate degree.
“Coach.” He coached most sports at Catawba College, and his friends and family said he probably liked being called “Coach” the best.
The story goes — and it was confirmed by several sources Thursday — that Ruth was once a finalist for head coach of the UNC Tar Heel basketball team. “Our bags were packed,” said his son, Wiley Ruth of Richmond. But Frank McGuire got the job.
“I know and love him as ‘Coach Ruth,’ ” said Catawba College Interim President Joe Oxendine, who was a star athlete for the school. “He was my coach and mentor. There is no higher title I can give him.”
When the college baseball team rode to away games by car, Oxendine said, he always wanted to be in Ruth’s vehicle because the coach told good stories and had a way of bringing out the stories in him.
“He was ‘Coach,’ ” Joe’s brother Ray Oxendine added, “but he ran that school.”
A trademark of the Ruth for Congress campaigns was the handing out of Baby Ruth candy bars.
Phil Kirk said in a letter read at Thursday’s ceremony that, “I always thought the dentists of the 8th District paid for that candy.”
Brothers John and Paul Carter played significant roles in Ruth’s campaigns. In a letter, Paul Carter said Ruth’s running for Congress in 1968 came down to a coin toss.
At the time, both Ruth and John Carter were serving on the city council, and each of the conservative-minded men confessed to the other that he was considering a congressional candidacy. The friends decided to flip a coin. The winner would run for Congress, and the loser would manage his campaign.
Ruth, as he did many times in his life, won the toss.
Dignitaries attending Thursday’s highway dedication ceremony at Catawba College included former Gov. Jim Martin and former U.S Sen. Jim Broyhill. Mac Butner, who worked on Ruth’s congressional campaigns as a young man, led the efforts to have the highway named for Ruth.
Butner said U.S. 601 was a perfect choice because it served as the spine for the 8th District, as it used to be configured. Butner first mentioned the idea of naming something for Ruth when he saw one of Ruth’s daughters, Jackie Burleson, at the Farmhouse restaurant.
“I just felt like it was long overdue,” Butner said.
A congressman at the time, Broyhill recalled when Ruth first came to Washington in 1969, and Broyhill said he felt obligated to introduce the rookie representative to as many people as possible, including doorkeepers and elevator operators. Broyhill introduced Ruth as “Dr. Ruth” everywhere they went, and Ruth complained to Broyhill much later that not a day went by that someone in Washington didn’t ask him for free health advice, though he wasn’t a medical doctor.
Broyhill said Congress in his day had two kinds of lawmakers: the “showhorses” and the “workhorses,” and Ruth “was one of those trying to make the place work.”
“We need more of those today,” Broyhill added.
Broyhill said Ruth fit the profile of someone from Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” Ruth grew up in the Depression, served his country during World War II, built a strong career, was a strong family man and gave back to his community and nation through public service, Broyhill said.
Gov. Jim Holshouser also planned to attend the highway dedication, but he continues to recover from a broken ankle. State Sen. Andrew Brock read a letter from Holshouser in which he said Ruth took “an amazing amount of common sense to Washington.”
Martin, the former governor, remembered sharing a joke that Ruth had told him during a private dinner meeting one night with President Reagan. It was a hit.
“Earl Ruth was my uncle in Congress,” said Martin, who served in the U.S. House before becoming governor. “He was there to guide me and give me good ideas.”
All of the children from the late Earl and Jane Ruth attended Thursday’s event: Marian Sanders of Fairfax, Va., Jackie Burleson of Salisbury, Billie Jane Foil of Roswell, Ga., and Wiley Ruth of Richmond. Grandchildren Baker Burleson and Kelley Hijleh also attended.
The Ruth offspring used many of the same words to describe their father. They said he was funny, loyal and honest. He hated when anyone tried to cheat, whether it was in sports or cards. “He was honest as the day was long,” Burleson said.
Wiley Ruth said his father taught him to play every sport and game under the sun and would open up the old Catawba gym so he could practice both left- and right-handed basketball shots. Ruth played basketball for Catawba while his father was athletic director.
DOT Division Engineer Pat Ivey said two “Congressman Earl Ruth Highway” signs would be erected on the roughly 5-mile stretch of U.S. 601 — one near the Davie County line; the other, near Jake Alexander Boulevard.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.