Larrabee remembered as advocate for RTI, N.C. public relations

Jun. 14, 2013 @ 10:13 PM

Charles X. Larrabee was known for announcing the Research Triangle Institute’s accomplishments to the world. He was known as a “regular guy” who could tell great jokes. Others say he served as a strong advocate for the public relations profession in North Carolina.

Simply known as ‘X’ to friends and admirers, Mr. Larrabee passed away Wednesday at his Croasdaile Village home in Durham. He was 90 years old.

Alex Larrabee, 57, is one of Mr. Larrabee's seven children. He said his father had to make adjustments to his life as his family grew.

“And he did very well by us,” Alex said.

The family moved to Durham in 1963, when Alex was only 8 years old. He remembers his father jogging in Duke Forest and ringing the holiday donation bell for the local United Way. As children, what their father did at the Research Triangle Institute was somewhat of a mystery, he said.

The Research Triangle Park was born in 1958, and out of its initial success, a group of central North Carolina scientists began the Research Triangle Institute. Today, it is one of the world’s leading nonprofit research organizations. Mr. Larrabee worked at RTI from 1964 until he retired in 1991 as the institute's manager of public information and public relations, and he shared RTI’s scientific programs with the community.

“Working in public relations for RTI,” Mr. Larrabee said at the time, “was a bit like being the public relations man for apple pie.”

Alex remembers his father bringing them to the office, where they’d make their own adventures.

“We’d play around there, and there would be fields and fields to play and run in,” he said. “Over the years, the fields got smaller and the buildings got bigger.”

Mr. Larrabee wrote the book “Many Missions,” which was published by RTI in 1991 and chronicles the institute’s first 31 years.

Karen Lauterbach, managing editor of RTI Press, said Mr. Larrabee was her first supervisor at the institute. He was known for being a gentleman to whomever he encountered, with an amazing wit and positive attitude about life, she said in an email.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better boss at the start of my career,” Lauterbach said. “I learned so much from him in the more than 35 years I knew him. He was a great communicator, a great editor, and most of all, a wonderful human being.”

He helped Lauterbach with her book project, “Impact on a Changing World,” which is about RTI’s first 50 years. He regularly met Lauterbach for lunch after retirement to hear about the company’s future plans.

She said she received an envelope just a few weeks ago from Mr. Larrabee. The envelope contained an article on writing and editing, and in shaky handwriting on the top corner of the article, it read, “send to Karen.”

“He was a mentor until the very end, Lauterbach said.

Mr. Larrabee was a Bellingham, Wash., native who attended school at Dartmouth College and served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

Before working at RTI, he held positions at the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanford Research Institute, Collier’s magazine in New York and the United Fruit Company in Boston.

He also was active in the Durham Chamber of Commerce and the N.C. Division of Tourism. He became a member of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Public Relations Hall of Fame in 1992.

Carol Reuss met Mr. Larrabee while teaching public relations at UNC Chapel Hill. She arrived at UNC in 1975 and taught for 20 years before retiring.

“PR education was beginning to take hold here,” Reuss said in an email. “X was an advocate and often talked to classes and very often helped students and grads get jobs in the field.

“X helped us teach that public relations has to be based on solid thinking and solid information, not puff,” Reuss added.

Elizabeth Swaringen, a UNC graduate and a former business and politics reporter for The Herald-Sun, said in an email that Mr. Larrabee was about “substance and communicating with facts in a way that made a difference.” He always wore a bow tie, she said, and his counsel was spot-on.

“It takes confidence to go by a single initial, and I think that spoke to the confidence he had in his work,” Swaringen said.

While he was at RTI, he was the fourth person to receive the Infinity Award from the Charlotte Public Relations Society, which celebrates those who represent the highest standards in public relations. He also served as president of the N.C. chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in 1973.

Joe Epley, now 75, was a Charlotte Public Relations Society officer at the time Mr. Larrabee received the Infinity Award.

“We didn’t have many people to look up to those days, but he was one of those key people,” Epley said. “He was the initial PR director of the institute. It was his integrity that helped set the standard for ethical conduct within our profession.”

Ken Sanford, 81, met Mr. Larrabee through the North Carolina chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. He said North Carolina at the time was evolving into a high-tech state.

Mr. Larrabee “helped the public and, back then, the legislature understand the profession and the role of technology in North Carolina,” Sanford said.

Mr. Larrabee leaves behind a big family. His wife of 65 years, Margaret Dwelle, passed away in 2008, and they leave seven children, seven grandchildren and one great granddaughter.

“He just told me and taught me do what you want to do and do it within your means,” said his son Alex. “Don’t let anything stop you, you know, you can do what you want to do, but you’ve got to figure it out. He didn’t try to push or guide in any certain way.”