Despite his failure as a novelist and magazine publisher, he kept his sense of humor and somehow came to grips with the cards that life had dealt him.
Newspaper publisher, editor, columnist. Hailed as “the Sage of Fountain Inn” by the highly influential critic Alexander Woolcott, Quillen used the files of the Fountain Inn Tribune to take his anecdotes and opinions of daily life in small-town, upstate South Carolina to an international audience. The Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor of his day, Quillen developed a widely accepted reputation as an authentic voice of village life, and his words were reprinted in Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, the Literary Digest, and many similar publications. At the height of its syndication, Quillen material could be found in more than four hundred newspapers published in North America and Europe with a combined circulation of more than twelve million.
Born in Syracuse, Kansas, Verni Robert Quillen grew up in Overbrook (population 273), a village near Topeka where his printer father, J.D. Quillen, was publisher of the Overbrook Citizen. Quillen, one of four children, attended local schools and in January 1914 produced the first issue of Vox Populi, an ambitious semi-monthly magazine filled with articles, drawings, and cryptic sayings that would become his trademark: “diplomat: a liar who draws a salary for it”; “physician: a scientific guesser”; and “crank: a person who persists in telling the truth.”
Then, two months later, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, this budding writer raised his right hand before a U.S. Army recruiting officer in Omaha, Nebraska, swore he was twenty-one years of age, and signed the name of “William Stewart” to documents placed before him. Although he sometimes referred casually to his military career–apparently sparked by an affair of the heart gone sour–Quillen never produced a full explanation and obviously was somewhat embarrassed by this incident. After a few months in the Philippines, his superiors realized–perhaps because of protests lodged by his father–that an error had been made. By January 1905 his real name appeared on military records, and six months later he was a civilian once more.
Released from the army in the northeastern United States, Quillen spent the next few months working on various newspapers in that region. Then, early in 1906, he answered an advertisement seeking an editor for a weekly newspaper that a Belton, South Carolina publisher planned to launch in Fountain Inn, seventeen miles south of Greenville. This rural market town, equidistant from Greenville and Laurens and named for a small inn near a spring that once catered to weary stage coach travelers, then harbored misplaced hopes of becoming the capital of a new county.
Quillen’s initial association with the community that eventually would become his home lasted only ninety days, just long enough for him to win the heart of a local girl, Donnie Cox, a milliner in her mid-twenties, whose father’s shop adjoined the newspaper office. Dissatisfied with his new job, Quillen moved to a printing house in Americus, Georgia, where the young couple was united in wed- lock. Two months later, he published his first issue of the Americus Christian, an eight-page monthly that he shepherded into print until moving with his bride to Washington state where the rest of his family was busy producing weeklies in the Puget Sound area. With Quillen’s arrival, a new monthly entitled Love One Another was added to the list along with a Swedish dialect column “The Observations of Knute Olafson.”
Meanwhile, back in Fountain Inn, Donnie’s brother, Ford Todd Cox, had become co-owner of News and Notions, a local weekly. An opportunity to buy this paper outright, coupled with bleak prospects in the Northwest, led to a fateful decision. In December 1910, Robert Quillen, having dispensed with his first name and borrowed two hundred dollars, headed east where he proceeded to transform News and Notions into the Fountain Inn Tribune. Two years later, while urging subscribers to settle their accounts, Quillen said that he had gone “busted” in the West, was still in debt, and needed their help.
Transformation soon ensued. News and Notions gave way in February 1911 to a well-organized publication overflowing with news of the local community. An editorial on small-town life published three months later caught the attention of Collier’s, which eventually led to a national column, “Small Town Stuff.”
During these years, Quillen’s personal life was a roller coaster of highs and lows. Unable to have children of their own, he and his wife adopted “Louise,” who would be immortalized in numerous columns. Then Donnie Quillen suddenly died following a routine operation, and in December 1922, Robert married yet another local girl, Marcelle Babb. Although syndicate work continued, he sold the Tribune and turned his attention to two novels published by Macmillan, neither of which sold well.
In the spring of 1925, aware that he really needed his work on the Tribune as fodder for his syndicate work, Quillen bought back the weekly and eventually established firm ties with a publishing group based in Chicago. Except for 1929, files of the Tribune are complete from 1928 to the time of his death in 1948.
Quillen eventually realized that he needed Fountain Inn, but this did not keep him from dreaming of expanding his sphere of influence. Despite his failure as a novelist and magazine publisher, he kept his sense of humor and somehow came to grips with the cards that life had dealt him. After all, being known as the best “paragrapher” of his day was no mean accolade. In 2014 Quillen was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Moore, John Hammond. The Voice of Small-Town America: The Selected Writings of Robert Quillen, 1920–1948. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.