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Mourning the loss of a Sun colleague

When the bad news arrived by email on April 12 — as so much of it does these days in the 21st-century equivalent of the dreaded Western Union telegram — this time it seemed almost unbelievable. Painfully unbelievable.

Vincent Peter Ruehl was a popular, wisecracking newsroom colleague who had been a reporter for The Sunday Sun and The Evening Sun during the 1970s and 1980s, before moving to Australia in the late 1980s, where he went on to become a national celebrity in his adopted country through his humor columns and books.

Pete, as we called him around here in those now far-off years, was 64 when he died April 11 at his home near Sydney.

The son of an FBI agent and a schoolteacher, Pete was born in New York City and raised around Washington.

After graduating from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, and then went to work for the Annapolis Evening Capital, where he honed his trade as a newspaperman.

While living in Annapolis, he pursued his lifelong love of sailing and drinking oceans of beer while downing plate after plate of chilled oysters at his favorite watering hole, McGarvey's Saloon.

Pete left The Capital and on June 1, 1976, joined The Sunday Sun as assistant to Carleton Jones, who was real estate editor.

The '70s being the sartorial nadir for men, when powder blue or lime green polyester suits, Nehru jackets and the Che Guevara street rebel look reigned. Yet there was Pete, standing in the newsroom in perfectly pressed khaki trousers, a button-down white shirt, a hand-tied striped rep bow tie and a blue blazer with shiny brass buttons.

His sartorial splendor put us all to shame, and when we discreetly asked where such goods could be had, he replied, "Britches. Georgetown."

It was a uniform and look he sported the rest of his life. I think the only addition he made was braces, as the British call them, (suspenders to us just plain Americans).

When Jones was moved over to the old Sunday Sun Magazine as a staff writer, Pete took over his job.

Things went along fine for a while, until he started writing critical articles about the lack of real estate ethics — one story was headlined "Tougher standards for agents eyed" — shady land deals, slapdash developments and public officials who just happened to have a financial interest in land where a proposed interstate highway cloverleaf was going to be constructed.

In between, there were plenty of stories about insulation and solar heating (these were the years when President Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigan sweaters and asking the nation to turn down the thermostat).

A check of Pete's old byline files in The Sun's library reveals that he wrote plenty about inflation, mortgage rates, Ocean City condominiums, cluster housing, restoration of old neighborhoods like Federal Hill and the Otterbein, and a new thing: retirement communities for the elderly.

But there were veiled threats from the real estate community about pulling ads, and Pete soon found himself in The Evening Sun newsroom down the hall in 1978.

He couldn't have been happier; career-wise, it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He was sent to cover Harford County, and then to Anne Arundel County, and the courts. He did it all.

Joel McCord, then of the morning paper, and Pete, representing the evening paper, shared office space in a West Street building in Annapolis.

After both had covered a news conference early one morning, McCord had trouble deciphering his notes and went into Pete's office seeking clarification.

"Without looking up from his typewriter, Pete said, 'If you say he said it, and I say he said it, he said it,'" McCord, who is now a reporter for WYPR, said recently with a laugh.

I had forgotten that Pete even found time to write music criticism for The Sun in the late 1970s, covering rock, blues and country music.

"If there is an emerging sound in rock, one that might mark what the Seventies music sounded like," he wrote, "Fleetwood Mac probably has as just a claim to it as anyone."

He was a man of set routines, but could be awfully flexible when the suggestion of getting a drink after work was raised.

Every Friday, he and several other newsroom colleagues ate lunch at the old O'Henry's, today the Midtown Yacht Club, on Centre Street, and sipped a beer or two — in those days, no one looked askance at the practice while enjoying a burger — and swapped newspaper gossip.

Some days, his drop-dead good-looking kid sister, a struggling actress named Mercedes Ruehl, who was looking for acting jobs in these parts and in need of a square meal, would join our merry band.

Back in the days when The Evening Sun didn't have much of a budget, Pete pulled off a feat that newsroom veterans of that era are still talking about.

Somehow or other, he managed to persuade Jack Lemmon, then editor of The Evening Sun, to send him to Newport, R.I., in 1983 to cover the America's Cup.

Then in 1987, Pete, now living in Australia, got Lemmon to buy his freelance coverage of the America's Cup, which was held in Australian waters.

"Ruehl had the ability to turn on the charm. That's how he got Lemmon," McCord said.

In between watching the races in Newport and sipping beer, he met and fell in love with an Australian beauty, Jennifer Hewitt, who was the U.S. correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Two years later, they married, and when she was recalled back home, Pete resigned from the paper in 1986 and joined the staff of The Australian Financial Review as the sailing writer.

I remember the phone ringing on my desk at the newspaper several days after Pete had gone Down Under. He was chirping on the phone and absolutely giddy about his new life, as I was soon to find out.

"Dad [he had picked up that term of endearment from Carleton Jones who conferred it on those he liked], you won't believe this place. I walked off the plane and saw some kid wearing an Orioles hat. I took that as an omen," he said.

"And guess what, the beer here comes in 26-ounce cans. And it gets better," he said.

"Really?" I asked.

"The apartment the paper rented for me overlooks a nude beach!" he said, barely able to contain his excitement.

Pete owned a sailboat and right before he left town, he sold it to his old pal McCord.

For several years afterward, if you wanted to give McCord the needle, you only had to mention that "submarine Ruehl sold you."

McCord explained that he had been out sailing on the Severn River on a brisk day with his stepson when the boat suddenly flipped in the choppy waters.

"Once we got it righted, we couldn't bail fast enough to make it seaworthy. While being towed to a marina in Eastport, the foredeck separated from the hull," McCord said. "Then I got rid of it. The last time I saw it was in some old boat graveyard being taken apart."

Pete found great success, adulation and celebrity through his books and columns in his adopted country, where he eventually was able to obtain dual citizenship.

He and Jen had three children, Mercedes, John and Tom. He was proud of them, his wife and his sister. He loved talking about their accomplishments, not his.

Whenever I would mention a new book of his, he'd say, "Oh, yeah," and then move on.

"Hey, Dad, my kid may be going abroad to France for her senior year in high school," he said in one phone call. "That stuff never happened when were in high school, right? We considered ourselves fortunate if we got a day trip to Trenton, N.J."

Success never went to Pete's head. He was the same Pete Ruehl of old with that great laugh, quick wisecrack and amiability, even though his hair grew a little thinner, always a problem, and my hair went from brown to white.

We kept in touch, talking four or five times a year. Whenever he came to East Hampton, N.Y., to visit his sister, now an Academy Award-winning and successful Broadway actress, or to Washington on business, he made sure that when passing through Baltimore, we had lunch, dinner or at least a drink.

He worked hard at his friendships and because of who he was, I'm sure they were many. There are a lot of sad people across the world who count Pete as their friend.

Whenever I'm in a liquor store and pass the rum section and glance at a bottle of Cruzan Rum, I hear Pete's voice in my head.

One blazing hot summer's day during a 1970s Newspaper Guild strike at the paper, we fled from the picket line and decided to cool off with a few rum and tonics on my ample front porch.

Cruzan Rum had just been introduced into the market, and Pete said he hadn't tried it. We tried it a lot that afternoon, as I recall.

At one point, and with a great heave of contentment crawling across his face, he said, "I'm crusin on Cruzan."

I hope wherever you are Pete, you're "crusin on Cruzan," and have a following sea and fair winds.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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