Editorial: Earl Ruth's real legacy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 26, 2012

This Salisbury Post editorial was originally published in 1989, after the death of former U.S. Rep. Earl Ruth, in whose name part of U.S. 601 was named on Thursday.
Reminiscences about Earl Ruth have flowed through Salisbury like a warm river this week. The former congressman and coach who died of cancer Tuesday made an impression on friends and acquaintances that few can match.
The community’s indebtedness to Ruth comes from a wide range of activities — and that “community” goes far beyond Rowan County’s borders.
As a young athlete in a Charlotte high school and on the Carolina basketball team, Ruth was known as a skillful player, a fierce competitor and a team leader. His drive to win was not motivated so much by a desire for personal glory as for team victory. That principle stayed with Ruth as he left the basketball court and moved on to the Catawba College coach’s office, City Council chambers and even Congress.
Perhaps one of Ruth’s biggest claims to fame was as a raconteur, though the word seems embarrassingly fancy for this down-to-earth man. He entertained all he met with his stories, and this week friends repaid Ruth by spinning a few about him.
Perhaps the most telling was Elinor Swaim’s recollection of a trip to Washington with friends to attend a National Republican Women’s meeting. As the women entered the Hilton Hotel lobby, someone asked Mrs. Swaim how they managed to get their taxi driver to carry in their luggage. “That’s not our taxi driver,” Mrs. Swaim explained, “that’s our congressman.”
That was Earl Ruth. Diligent. Hard-working. Not worried about pretenses.
His six years in Congress from 1968 to 1974 were full of hard work and service as part of the Republican team. Sadly, the colorful nature and competitive spirit that were his hallmarks at home did not win him national attention or stature. The same could be said about most congressmen. But Ruth voted the conservative line he believed his constituents wanted and made anyone who visited his office feel at home in the nation’s capital. …
Ruth’s subsequent tenure as governor of American Samoa — appointed by President Gerald Ford — and a stint at the U.S. Interior Department proved that his abilities enjoyed respect in Washington. When he finally left, it was not because the voters or leadership rebuked him. He wanted to go home.
That may be where Ruth’s real legacy lies. Service, not ambition, drove him into political life, and through it all he kept his family as a high priority. Between his family and his friends — including the GOP — he plugged into a network of support and camaraderie that drew more from him than he ever received.
The was Earl Ruth’s way.
According to Ray Oxendine, the editorial’s last line was incomplete. At Thursday’s dedication, he said it should read: That was Earl Ruth’s way — or the highway.