The Obituary

Eugene Ruggles -- poet who cared deeply for others

Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004

Poet and activist Eugene Ruggles, known for his "deep image'' verse and for organizing large and popular San Francisco poetry readings and benefits, has died at age 68.
Mr. Ruggles, who was recovering from open-heart surgery, was found dead on Thursday in his third-floor room of the stately Petaluma Hotel in downtown Petaluma, where he had lived for 15 years.
In his trademark Pendleton wool shirt and boots, Mr. Ruggles wrote passionately about his upbringing on a Michigan dairy farm, his love for his children and his loathing of injustice.
Born Dec. 4, 1935 in Pontiac, Mich., he came to San Francisco in the early 1960s and became a regular in North Beach coffee houses.
"Gene's most astounding characteristic is his heart,'' said his longtime friend, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "He really empathizes with the downtrodden and the down-and-out.''
In recent weeks, he had been battling an eviction notice at the hotel. Unable to pay rent on his disability and welfare stipend, he recently came to an agreement to move out.
"I have no place to go and hardly any money,'' he said last month. "All I need is a river and a good bookstore, and I feel good.''
Just before he died, Ruggles had finally found an apartment in Petaluma with a view of the river, said his longtime companion Sue Kubly. "We had planned to move him in next week," she said.
"He had the ability to reach the essence of people -- the pain, the suffering, the joy -- and write about it so passionately," Kubly said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Ruggles' organized about 20 large poetry- reading benefits for such causes as Amnesty International, Vietnam War opponents and the Native American takeover of Alcatraz Island. His brother, Glenn Ruggles said one benefit for the Native Americans of Alcatraz raised "$800 and one milk goat."
He served in the U.S. Marines, worked odd jobs and rarely turned down a glass of red wine. He received occasional poetry grants and frequently appeared in poetry magazines and journals. His 1977 book, "Lifeguard in the Snow,'' was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
"He could be a little freewheeling himself, but his poetry was perfectly controlled,'' said his friend and fellow poet, Kaye McDonough. "He had a perfect ear and a sense of craft, and his poems had a broad heart.''
In a 1971 poem titled "Traveling Into the Snow,'' Mr. Ruggles wrote: "Driving west through Montana at dusk/The headlights discover the flakes/Swarming inside their beams, like pure alcohol/The storm comes into my arms.''
In another poem, he wrote "She has placed the wind about me/Like a shirt without a seam/and told me that the words/like men, should have weather in them.''
He is survived by his children Adam Ruggles of San Anselmo, Benjamen Ruggles of Kentfield and Sarah Tompson, of Kentfield; his brother, Glenn Ruggles, sister Mary Ruggles and sister Margaret Walton, all of Michigan. Another brother, Charles Ruggles, of Michigan, died two years ago.
Services are pending.
Chronicle correspondent John Geluardi contributed to this obituary.