Russ DeVault had a greater range of knowledge than anyone I’ve known. Who else could speak in detail about hockey, automobile engines, guitar-playing, oyster harvesting, German wine, Impressionism, biorhythms, Thomas Mann and Charlemagne’s sword?
Ask him about any number of other subjects, he could speak knowingly about most of them.
Which to some extent explains why at the erstwhile Atlanta Journal sports department it was acknowledged that he was the best of us at interviewing. He knew enough about everything to relate to everyone. His eclectic newspaper beats included golf, music and automobiles. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his investigation of Virginia strip-mining.
As modest as he was, I never knew about his Pulitzer at the Winston-Salem Journal-Sentinel until he died recently after battling lung cancer and lung infections for a decade and a half. He was 75 when he passed in Springfield, Mass., where he was living for three years with his daughter, Leigh Houle, and her husband Eric.
She knew how her father acquired so much knowledge even though his scholastic training was limited, being born in Leesburg, Tenn., and degreed at Eastern Tennessee State. “My dad read all the time,” she said. “He was not much for sleeping.”
Sometimes when she and her brother Trip (Frederick Russell DeVault III, now of Chicopee, Mass.) misbehaved as children, they were dispatched to their rooms. Their dad would require them to spend the penalty time memorizing a poem. “He wanted us to experience as much from life as we could,” she said, adding that he took her on a trip to Europe when she was in fourth grade.
Unlike myself and most other newspaper reporters, Russ balanced hard work with family life. Not so much balanced them but merged them.
“My friends were amazingly jealous, me being with my dad while he interviewed Eric Clapton,” Leigh said. “But I didn’t appreciate it that much at the time. He dragged me to concerts with him, and I’d have to wait really late until he was finished doing his interviews.”
Because he was such a skilled reporter, he tended to get lengthy interviews. But a majority of his work he did at home. “I had long waits to use the telephone, day and night,” Leigh said, recalling the pre-cellphone era.
At the Journal sports department, much was said about Russ being absent from the office. “Anybody seen DeVault in the past two weeks?”
I’d answer, “Yesterday I played tennis with him near his house. After that he did his phone interviews.”
By living in what was then the village of Austell, Ga., Russ was more than an hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta. So he could never be summoned to cover a suddenly emerging story involving Braves or Hawks or Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
The truth is that as a journalist he was more productive at home than anywhere else. He had a deep, reassuring voice that was more of an asset in telephone interviewing than face to face.
One time when I was visiting him, Russ was in the bathroom, the phone rang and I answered. It was an even deeper voice than DeVault’s, that of country music’s John Anderson. He pleasantly chatted with me for a minute until Russ returned, and I wondered if the call would have been lost if it had gone to the office, where we didn’t even have a secretary.
Anderson was typical of DeVault’s subjects in that they made every effort to be interviewed by him. They knew he would treat them fairly.
Leigh Houle recalled dining with her father in Winston-Salem, “and Richard Petty – when he was NASCAR’s biggest star – came by our table to say hi.”
DeVault had lengthy one-on-ones with some of the most famous of celebrities — Bjorn Borg, Renee Richards, Ted Turner, Mick Jagger, et al. Leigh correctly cited a key to his success: “He had a way of getting people to talk about themselves; he was so non-threatening.”
Indeed, Russ was rail-thin, soft-spoken, unassuming. But he was a tenacious reporter in his own reserved way. He was punched by a NASCAR driver who objected to his objective coverage.
When Russ was the Journal’s golf writer, he was one of the few scribes who walked the course. His cohorts sat in the press tent, consuming roast beef sandwiches and icy beer and waiting for the golfers to drop in and summarize their performances.
After Gary Player finished his round at the Masters at Augusta, Ga., he was delivering the hole-by-hole report, when Russ interrupted.
“Gary, what caused you to fall into the water at Number Five?”
As laughter erupted in the press room, Player blushed and sputtered. He had not wanted to mention the pratfall, but Russ would not let him get away with it.
DeVault had a quick, searing wit that he showed in his stories and elsewhere.
Upon returning from a vacation I was telling my Journal pals about venturing too close to a herd of bison grazing at Custer National Park. A bull did not care to pose for my camera. In fact, he kicked up dust with his front hooves, and then he charged toward me.
Some other tourists, standing at a safe distance, were screaming, “Run faster, FASTER!”
Of course they did not need to tell me that.
I was running as fast as my short white legs could carry me.
As I finished my tale of the thundering bull drawing closer, to what sounded like 20 feet, and then stopping, giving up the chase, Russ grabbed a piece of paper we used for writing headlines.
Without missing a beat, he wrote with his pen: