By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke in the 1950s might be an unlikely beach resort for most Washington government officials, but not for Leonard Meeker and Charles Runyon, both of whom loved the island’s wild beauty.
The Meeker family will celebrate Leonard’s life Saturday (April 4) when he would have been 99 years old. Leonard, who died Nov. 29, and his widow Beverly became fulltime island residents in 2002.
“The island was beautiful and peaceful,” mused Anne Runyon, Charles’ daughter. “It was a fairly remote, sandy, barrier island between the broad Pamlico Sound and the deep waters of the Atlantic.”
In the 1950s, the harbor was a lovely place for small boats and a safe place for children to swim, she said, and the men and their families enjoyed all aspects of the island such as frequenting the former Albert Styron Store along Lighthouse Road.
“Charles would always order a coffee milk shake,” said Candy Gaskill, former owner of the store about the days when the store was the place to be on the “Down Point” side of the island.
“Charles was always a gentleman,” added James Barrie Gaskill, who owned it prior to Candy, his daughter. “Friendly, and he always looked out for his wife, Robbie,” who had trouble with severe arthritis in her later years.
Harvard-educated Meeker had a long and distinguished career including serving as ambassador to Romania. As a legal adviser in the U.S. State Department, he was a major policy player in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Runyon, who died in 1999, was a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School. He worked at the State Department as a legal adviser and for several years was an assistant dean at Yale Law School.
Their friendship dated back to their youth in Mantoloking, NJ, where they gained a lifelong love of sailing and ocean swimming. Both served in the armed forces during World War II, Meeker in the Army and Runyon in the Navy.
After a separation of many years caused by war and career paths, the two reestablished their friendship when they were both working at the State Department.
“On their first visit to Ocracoke in 1952, they took Charlie’s Jeep on Frazier Peele’s fishing boat for the trip to Ocracoke from Hatteras,” Charles Meeker explained. “There was no Hatteras road or ferry then.”
Both men ended up buying property on the island, and became active members of the community with Leonard having chaired the Ocracoke Advisory Planning Board for many years.
Both families were close.
“We would visit each other on Christmas when we lived in Washington, D.C.,” recalled Beverly.
“We had some fun races in Silver Lake for the small sailboats in the harbor,” Anne Runyon continued. “We set out markers and had great fun, being careful to stay clear of the Cedar Island ferry. The first-place winner went home with a beautiful whelk shell as a trophy.”
Merle Davis, who with her husband Don, spent a lot of time with both families, noted that Len and Charlie were quite different in personalities, but were great friends.
“No matter what they were wearing, overalls or a bathing suit, they always appeared to be distinguished,” Merle said.
Ann Ehringhaus said she often crossed paths with Charles and Robbie Runyon when she stopped into Tim Field’s Cat Ridge Deli for lunch at Styron’s Store.
“We would sit at one of the two tables and talk about island politics,” she said. “Charles and I both worked on several island planning committees in the 1990s,and we liked trying to see various issues from as many different points of view as we could.
“I could always feel Charles and Robbie’s love for the island and their care for the land and water here. After lunch they would often drive to the Lifeguard Beach ramp where Robbie would walk with her cane for exercise and Charles would sit in his car and read the newspaper. I’m so glad to have known these strong and inspiring individuals.”
“The small community wrapping around Silver Lake was a remarkable one,” Anne Runyon noted. “It was composed of kind and hardworking people, who combined commercial and sport fishing with a growing tourist trade. Friendships grew with many in the community over the years.”