When Earl Proulx, the answer man of Yankee Magazine, searches for the roots of his home know-how, he often remembers an infuriating remark his father once made.
"You're going to have to look out for Earl, because he ain't going to be able to make a living," Mr. Proulx's dad told two other sons.
The comment was made in reference to a physical condition that prevented Proulx from standing for long periods.
He refused to accept his father's verdict and became a building contractor. But he always loved reading and would search magazines and newspapers for household pointers. "I'd save any tip on how to do things," he says. "I had them in two file drawers."
Years later he built the offices for Yankee Magazine, eventually accepted a position as maintenance supervisor for the Dublin, N.H.-based publisher, and now is a renowned columnist and successful book author.
His monthly "Plain Talk" magazine columns answer household questions submitted by readers of Yankee, a regional institution with far-flung readers. The columns have formed the basis for four books, including "Earl Proulx's Yankee Home Hints," which has sold more than 500,000 copies and is now available in paperback (Yankee Books). It contains tips on everything from dealing with stains in the rug to squirrels in the attic.
His next book, he says, will examine the myriad uses of vinegar, a liquid that he's so fond of that his golfing pals call him "Vinegar." (Among its many virtues, he says, is that a mixture of vinegar and water will keep his ears from itching.)
A widower for 21 years, Mr. Proulx (pronounced "proo") shares this and other nuggets during an interview in his home, where his frisky dog, Sparky, is his companion.
Naturally, he built the house, with its panoramic view of the green peaks of southwest New Hampshire. Tucked into the woods in tiny Surry (population about 600), it's not easy to find. In fact, Proulx has given up on giving directions and prefers to meet guests in the parking lot of a nearby convenience market, where he sits, midday, in his Oldsmobile 88 with headlights on.
Repairs not only are his stock in trade, they are the ongoing price of owning property, Proulx says. He, in a sense, owes his career to the need for maintenance.
"Fixin' things," he says is his main skill. It's what he learned working for his father, a builder, after high school graduation.
Although Proulx was a carpenter, his father leaned on him to help customers in other ways. He made keys, fixed appliances, and hung mirrors.
In 1963, after a long career as a building contractor, Proulx moved into full-time maintenance work at Yankee Magazine headquarters. His former construction foreman held the job before Proulx but wasn't cut out for the work.
"One day he says to me, 'Do you want this job. I'm sick of it. There's no end to it,' " Proulx says. "Of course not, maintenance work is not like building a house. You don't finish up today."
When Yankee needed to find a successor to its departed columnist, one office worker suggested Proulx.
He wrote out answers to 10 carpentry questions and called his effort "Plane Talk." The editors liked the column but renamed it "Plain Talk," opening the door to a much broader range of reader inquiries.
"I began to get all kinds of questions," he says. "It meant all kinds of research." At this point, Proulx realized that those articles he'd once clipped were now an invaluable resource. He sorted them into ring binders by category: furniture, animals, cleaning, etc.
Today he still keeps them at his fingertips in his home office, which sits in the basement next to a large, well-used, yet tidy workshop..
When Proulx can't answer a question right away, he'll put it aside in hopes of doing so later (he never repeats questions in print, but will send a copy from a back issue if readers missed it). Asked how long unfinished cases, including requests to identify old, obscure tools, remain open, he says, "Until I decide there's no real answer," to which he adds, "Even 'Dear Abby' doesn't answer all her letters."
One recurrent problem has probably generated more questions than any other: mildew. "Everybody's got mildew, especially down South," he observes.
And what's the solution? He reaches for his book, "Home Hints," and begins leafing through the index. "You may think I should have this in my mind," he says, "but as someone once said, 'Don't memorize anything you can look up.' So that's what I do."
The right answer, he explains, depends on the object, whether fabric, leather, or a roof, but he's partial to using common cleaning agents like baking soda and, yes, vinegar. He likes to rely on Yankee ingenuity rather than specialized products, which quickly accumulate in many garages and basements.
Proulx not only is frugal (he quit collecting player-piano music when it reached $3 a roll), he's down-to-earth and old-fashioned, acknowledging that it's hard to keep up with all the new products, tools, and technologies. Many new books cover this ground. Proulx owns some of them, but while flipping through a hefty how-to volume he makes his point. "It's a good book," he says. "It shows how to take things apart and put them back together again, but I haven't had to use it."