Ruhls left mark on Medford and on journalism

His name was Robert W. Ruhl and he had a profound influence on the lives of Rogue Valley residents for decades, taking the lead in the local newspaper field and going on to win journalism's greatest honor.

Ruhl's leadership of the Mail Tribune as editor and publisher began in 1911 and spanned more than four decades, during which time he earned a reputation as an outspoken writer willing to take on some powerful forces.

The journey that would eventually lead him to Oregon began in the Midwest. Ruhl was born in Rockford, Ill., in 1880 and was educated in top northeastern schools.

He was a graduate of Harvard University, where one of his classmates and a fellow member of the Harvard Crimson newspaper staff was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The book "History of Oregon Newspapers," published in 1939 by George S. Turnbull, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, relates some of Ruhl's early newspaper experience. He worked for the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser from 1904 to 1906, then was on the staff of the Republican in his native Rockford, 1907-09. He next spent two years with the Spokane Spokesman-Review before deciding he was ready to step out on his own.

He chose Medford and in 1911 bought substantial interests in both of its newspapers, the weekly Sun and the daily Medford Mail Tribune.

Then in 1919, Ruhl and partner S. Sumpter Smith, a co-founder of the Sun, bought out George Putnam to assume full ownership of the Mail Tribune. Smith continued as the Mail Tribune's business manager.

Ruhl served as editor and publisher of the Mail Tribune for several decades. He spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and he won journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 1934 for his "campaign against unscrupulous politicians in Jackson County, Oregon," in which he wrote about a group's efforts to seize control of local government.

The Southern Oregon Historical Society book "Land in Common" (1993) notes that "in the early 1950s, Ruhl was — characteristically — one of the first mainstream journalists in the West to criticize the methods and motives of Sen. Joseph McCarthy."

His editorials, signed R.W.R., were widely quoted and debated, and that while his views were considered liberal by many readers he preferred the descriptive term "independent." "He performed his duties with a high sense of responsibility to the public and with uncompromising ethics," says the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication on its Web site.

Ruhl also served a nine-year term on the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.

He retired from the Mail Tribune in the mid-1950s and he and his wife, Mabel, lived in San Francisco for a number of years. But he retained the title of editor and publisher until 1964, at which time Managing Editor Eric W. Allen Jr. became editor.

Robert Ruhl died Aug. 21, 1967. In an editorial tribute the following day, Allen wrote:

"Robert W. Ruhl "¦ was one of that select company of editors who have given Oregon journalism a justified reputation for honesty, for courage, for plain-speaking, for decency, for clean government, for independent thought."

Mabel Ruhl continued as publisher until 1973 when she sold the paper to Ottaway Newspapers of Campbell Hall, N.Y., a subsidiary of Dow Jones, publishers of The Wall Street Journal.

In a 1981 Mail Tribune interview, Mabel Ruhl recalled that when she was 17 her father sat her down and told her how to read a newspaper, saying, "You read the front page to find out what the news is and then you turn to the editorials to find out what it means."

She felt she had little influence on the Mail Tribune during the years her husband was publisher, but others recognized her behind-the-scenes role.

"Bob and I discussed things," she recalled. "We argued. He was glad I expressed my views because it helped him form his opinions."

She also recalled that her husband believed not in individual stardom but in the importance of the newspaper to the community.

"She had an instinctive wisdom about the responsibilities of a newspaper to its readers," said Stephen W. Ryder, an Ottaway executive who became the Mail Tribune's first publisher following the sale.

Mrs. Ruhl founded the Ruhl Symposium and Ruhl Fellowship programs at the University of Oregon. These bring leading journalists to the campus each year to discuss issues with students, faculty and the public.

She died in 1987 at the age of 101.

Now retired, Cleve Twitchell was a member of the Mail Tribune news staff from 1961 to 2002. E-mail him at clevelinda@msn.com.


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