by David E. Petzal
On July 1, 1965, I was listening to the AM radio in the kitchen when Herman’s Hermits were interrupted by a news bulletin that the writer Robert Ruark had died in a London hospital at the age of 49. It dawned on me that he would never write again, and I leaped to my feet in anger, cursing…who? What?
Ruark’s great days were behind him, but he was still important enough for his death to call for a radio network news bulletin.
My second Ruark jolt came in 1998 when I worked in the Field & Stream office and was rummaging through old author file cards. I got to Ruark, Robert, “The Old Man and the Boy,” and discovered that, in 1953, we paid him $1,500 for each installment of his monthly column. The room spun and stars flashed before my eyes. That would have been a very good wage in 1998. Today, it would be the equivalent of $17,000, which was—is—inconceivable.
But he was worth every cent. “The Old Man and the Boy” appeared in February, 1953, and ran for 106 episodes, ending in 1961. It is the most popular column the magazine has published in its 125-plus years. Theformula was simple: A youngster in 1920s North Carolina is taken under his grandfather’s wing and learns from him about hunting, fishing, and life.
Ruark was, quite simply, a genius. He was unable to write a boring sentence. He was smart enough to get into college at 15, and became a newspaper reporter when it came time to make a living. The papers taught him how to write professionally. By the time he got to Field & Stream, he was a nationally syndicated columnist, and famous.