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Mr. Dunlap, and his work, covered a lot of ground

From 1912 to 1961, a little Southern gentleman with a big pipe churned out columns on all manner of things, from Social Security to rain and liquor stores.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- William Gray Dunlap's fingers danced in a typing motion above the rolltop desk.

"He did it all from here," he said of journalist Archie Dunlap, his grandfather. "He would sit and pound the stories out."

For 50 years, the Southern pine desk was Dunlap's ally as he examined morals, aging and rubber shoestrings, among other topics, with the Evening Independent and the St. Petersburg Times.

Florida Speaks magazine called Dunlap's column "the most widely read in the city, not excluding those written by the big-time boys of the syndicate."

Dunlap was the Rambler, the dean of Florida newsmen. He loved St. Petersburg, and "everybody loved him," said Nancye Barrett, 82, former Independent reporter.

Born in Danville, Ky., in 1876, Dunlap considered a law career after graduating from Centre College about 1895.

"Law was a hard way to make a living then," so it was journalism, said William Gray Dunlap, now in his mid-60s.

With the Louisville Courier Journal, Dunlap once spent two days covering 26 speeches by William Jennings Bryan. "That man could eat fried chicken," Dunlap said.

In 1908, Dunlap married the "Belle of Frankfort," Rebecca Johnson. He joined the Independent four years later as city editor and reporter. "We had a small staff in those days," he said.

Dunlap premiered on July 7, 1912, as "The Newcomer," offering fresh impressions of the city. Within two weeks, others came and Dunlap wasn't so new.

He became the Rambler by traveling miles to cull writing material. His columns seemed to cover as much ground.

One day Dunlap would discuss pensions, oil shortages and Social Security. "I read him regularly," said resident Mamie Taylor, 83. "He was quite a storyteller."

The next day the father of two would explore rain, a minister and liquor stores. "All are operating at a profit ... and too many (people) are drinking too much," Dunlap wrote.

William Gray Dunlap said the strength of his grandfather "was that he wrote about everyday people."

Experiencing two world wars and the Depression left Dunlap with "an educated perspective on the world," said his grandson, who sometimes learned in print if he had misbehaved.

The Rambler covered the Hollywood boom of the 1920s and arranged a photo session with fan dancer Sally Rand. He clowned with Buster Keaton when the comic came to town in 1933.

Dunlap avoided profanity "in a profession that has many proficient in the art," the Independent wrote. Dunlap might say "by Jacks" or a "dag dab."

After nearly four decades with the Independent, Dunlap retired in 1951. About 1,000 people celebrated with the columnist on his 75th birthday after he arrived at Williams Park in a Rambler car on Archie Dunlap Day.

Four days later, "a howl from the city's thousands of old-time followers of the Rambler arose, and the Times' Nelson Poynter hired Dunlap," Florida Speaks wrote.

I'll write "as long as there are enough readers, suh, to pay mah paper to print it," the Rambler said.

Journalist Dick Bothwell called Dunlap the "little man with a big pipe" who once had a 1953 Chevrolet he'd driven 11,000 miles without having an accident.

Mary Evertz of the Times remembered the Rambler's seersucker suits and Panama hats. "I called him Mr. Dunlap," said Evertz, 67.

Dunlap's column continued daily into 1958. It then ran Sundays until Sept. 24, 1961, when he wrote his last piece at age 85. "Archie is retiring again," said Tom Harris, then executive editor of the Times.

The Times wrote that Dunlap's column was "thought to be the oldest continuously written by one person in the nation."

Dunlap filled his retirement with visits, letter writing and television. "I like Groucho Marx and the fights," he said.

William Gray Dunlap Jr., 42, the Rambler's great-grandson, visited often. "I can still remember the smell of pipe tobacco in his home."

Upon entering St. Anthony's Hospital at age 91, the Rambler admitted: "I think I'm wearing out. I'm ready to go." Dunlap died on July 24, 1968.

"He was the epitome of a Southern gentleman," Evertz said. "A landmark. A standard-bearer for his generation."

- Please forward comments or story ideas to Scott Hartzell at hartzel@gate.net.

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