By Bryan Stevens
Whether over coffee at a local café or through his column in The Erwin Record, people hung onto every word from Ralph Hood.
A longtime newspaper columnist, author, celebrated speaker and Erwin resident, Hood died Wednesday, June 1. He was 81.
The community immediately felt the loss.
“I read many of his columns,” said Ben McNabb, owner of Keesecker’s and Steel Rails, the downtown Erwin coffee house that Hood and various friends visited on a regular basis.
McNabb said that eight years ago when Steel Rails first opened, Hood became a regular customer. Together with some friends, Hood was a ringleader in what became known as the White Cup Coffee Club.
“They always wanted white cups for their coffee,” McNabb said.
Connie Denney, a fellow newspaper columnist and a former Erwin vice mayor, was a charter member of the White Cup Coffee Club. She spoke about her friendship with Hood.
“He was very open,” Denney said. “Easy to talk to.”
Denney said the origins of the coffee club actually date back to when she and good friend Dorothy Fortune would meet at the Erwin McDonald’s for coffee.
“Dorothy and I were members of Erwin Presbyterian Church,” she noted.
When Hood moved to Erwin in 2007, he and his wife, Gail, also joined Erwin Presbyterian Church. Soon after he became acquainted with them in church, Hood met Denney and Fortune having their coffee at McDonald’s. He soon became the official third member of their group.
They moved their gathering when Steel Rails opened for business.
Nellie Pate became their fourth regular member when she moved from Spivey Mountain to Erwin once the group had already started visiting Steel Rails.
Denney said occasional members of the group included Ann Howze and the Rev. Stan Webster, who recently retired as pastor of Erwin Presbyterian Church.
McNabb said he found the banter between Hood and his friends hilarious.
“He was an awesome guy to listen to,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
McNabb said that Hood particularly liked to talk to hikers visiting the coffee shop.
“He engaged with them,” McNabb said. “He wanted to know their stories.”
When McNabb’s daughter, Madeline McNabb Bartlett, got married, Hood got her a nice wedding gift.
“He didn’t have to do that,” McNabb said. “He was just one of those people. He and his friends felt part of the team here.”
McNabb said Hood thoroughly enjoyed engaging and being a part of the community.
“He was a non-elected community welcoming committee,” McNabb said. “He’ll be sorely missed.”
One of McNabb’s employees, barista Beth Garland, posted about Hood on her Facebook page.
“I’m so sad,” Garland wrote. “Ralph was one of our regulars at the coffee shop. He was one of a kind, and we will miss him for sure.”
Wife Gail also said that her husband had his own regular coffee group that he gathered with in Huntsville, Alabama, before they moved to Erwin.
“He would get together with some of his pilot friends,” Gail recalled.
Hood loved storytelling, staying in touch with friends and flying. He flew planes for more than 30 years. He was inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.
He was also a member of the Kiwanis Club of Erwin.
A native of Anderson, South Carolina, Hood was the son of the late Ralph Erskine Sr. and Helen Gillespie Hood. He was a graduate of Clemson University.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Gail Arrington Hood; daughter Melanie Hood; son Kevin Hood and wife, Shirley Chan; son Brett Hood; grandson Rowan Hood; brother Jim Hood and wife Sue; sister Martha Standera and husband Ed; nephew Joe Standera; nephew Grant Hood and wife Ljubica; niece Audra Weiss and husband Ben; great-niece Madelyn Weiss; and great-nephew Braydon Weiss.
An award-winning newspaper columnist before he and his wife moved to Erwin, it didn’t take long before he was penning his humor-filled columns for The Erwin Record.
Mark A. Stevens, executive editor and publisher of The Erwin Record from 1997 until 2011, recalls that it only took one meeting to know that Hood’s voice needed to be part of the Record. Stevens dubbed the column “Hood’s Winks,” and Hood’s column began on July 31, 2007, and has been part of the newspaper ever since.
“When I think back to my own time at The Erwin Record, one of the things I’m most proud of is having regular contributions by so many great columnists from our community — Margaret Banks, Janice Willis Barnett, Connie Denney, Ben Doty, Ray Knapp and, of course, Ralph Hood. When Ralph agreed to be a regular contributor, I suggested ‘Hood’s Winks’ as the name for his column. I thought it perfectly summed up his style — a not-so-shy wink and nod to his takes on life. And we could play on his own name for the title. In his columns, Ralph could be nostalgic, poignant, thought-provoking and always funny.”
Stevens compares Hood to some of the industry’s most famous newspaper columnists.
“Ralph Hood was a fine newspaper columnist and a very fine man,” he said. “I have a shelf full of books by great newspaper columnists — Andy Rooney, Erma Bombeck and Lewis Grizzard — and Ralph’s books are right there, too. Like Andy, Erma and Lewis, Ralph may no longer be with us, but their words live on in their printed words. I am so grateful for that.”
Indeed, Hood’s musings are available in several books, including “The Truth & Other Lies: Life from a Different Angle,” “Southern Raised in the Fifties” and “Ground Clutter: The Book.” The latter is an aviation book. “Southern Raised in the Fifties” is still in print and available for purchase at smashwords.com.
Hood was also a past president of the National Speakers Association. He traveled to present inspirational, humorous and motivational speeches to such diverse audiences as Westinghouse, Maytag, Phillips 66, Monsanto, Vanity Fair, McDonnell Douglas, Blue Cross-Blue Shield and General Dynamics.
Wife Gail frequently traveled with him for the speaking engagements and enjoyed seeing the world with him. Some of Hood’s speaking engagements involved trips to Puerto Rico, Canada, Spain, England, Scotland and The Bahamas.
He was once a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s popular TV show, to which the famous host said, “Ralph, you are a funny man!”
“Ralph loved people,” Gail said of her husband. “He loved to talk, whether he knew you or not. He enjoyed telling stories. He was just a very social person.”