Dick Dabney, 48, an author, historian and columnist who preferred to stand back from the Washington scene and write about birds and animals and life in such quiet places as Flint Hill, Va., died at his home in Arlington Monday following an apparent heart attack.
Mr. Dabney was a contributing editor of The Washingtonian Magazine, in which he wrote a regular feature, "Side Streets." He wrote columns and stories that had appeared in The Washington Post and also contributed to other journals. He was the author of two novels, "Old Man Jim's Book of Knowledge" and "The Honor System," both set in Flint Hill, where Mr. Dabney grew up, a collection of short stories, "Someone To Talk To," and a biography of Sen. Sam J. Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who conducted the Senate Watergate hearings, called, "A Good Man: the Life of Sam J. Ervin."
In the 1950s, Mr. Dabney had been manager of The Coffee 'n' Confusion Club. It was one of the principal beatnik gathering places in Washington during its time and Mr. Dabney, who wore a beard in those days, read poetry to crowds of young people who packed the place.
In 1965, he decided to complete his education. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree at American University and a doctorate in American studies at George Washington University. He taught at both schools and continued to teach until about five years ago.
At that point, he became a full-time writer, not in the sense that he decided to take up the craft, since he always had written (he kept a journal which ran to more than 7.5 million words), but in the sense that writing could provide his livelihood.
For his subjects, Mr. Dabney often chose the things that were closest to him -- his family, places he had lived, animals he had known or observed -- rather than the issues of the moment. He thus imparted his own sense of unchanging values.
In a column in this newspaper in September 1980, he told about feeding a pet rabbit with his 9-year-old daughter in their basement. The child said she loved it downstairs.
"So did I," wrote Mr. Dabney. "It was a more reasonable world than that loud one upstairs, whose television set was even now making noises through the floor. That set was tuned to a political talk show where some serious-faced people had been talking for an hour now on whether John Anderson was going to get enough exposure. This had been tense and upsetting, like being at a party where the pitch and volume of gabbling kept rising until at last you did not hear the words of the person in front of you anymore but just the generalized, hysterical turkey-like sounds, and your own voice as part of that. That was how Washington always was during an election year and I had come to the basement where things made sense."
In September 1980, he published a piece in The Washingtonian about growing up in Flint Hill, which is about 60 miles west of Washington in Rappahannock County. It was, he said, "still the most beautiful village in Virginia, with the white spire of the Methodist church pushing up against the huge backdrop of blue mountains, and the uncluttered village of maybe 200 souls laid out there seemingly as peaceful and as bucolic as it was back in the fall of 1933 when, having just been born at the university hospital down in Charlottesville, I came to that village to live."
He added: "I think that our sense of things in Flint Hill was this: that ours was the real world and always had been, and that somewhere out there, in the dark, teeming cities full of men who could not quite see the stars, another world was forming whose nature we were still blind to."
Having been born in Charlottesville and reared in Flint Hill, Mr. Dabney also lived in Atlanta, where he graduated from Henry W. Grady High School. He returned to the Washington area in the mid-1950s. While he was putting himself through college, he worked for about three years as a technical editor for the John F. Holman Company.
Mr. Dabney was a member of the Arlington Chess Club.
Survivors include his wife, Dana Elisabeth of Arlington; three children, John and Norah, both of Arlington, and Vaden of San Francisco; his mother, Reba Lawson Dabney, and a grandmother, Norah Poe Lawson, both of Arlington, and one brother, Wythe Dabney, of Flint Hill.