Coronavirus takes a friend, fighter
On Sunday, March 8, Gary Wayne Ruff sat at a card table with Kelly Brown, Devin McDonald, Lyle Aney and myself, enjoying an afternoon game of poker. As usual, he never folded. And as usual, a good time was had by all.
This past Thursday, March 26, he died from the coronavirus. He was 73. During my last conversation with him on March 20, he indicated that he was fighting a cold and that his legs ached. Five days later he became the county’s second victim of this global scourge. For those out there who still believe it’s all a hoax, reread this paragraph.
Permit me to tell you a bit about my best bud. I hired him at Herkimer County Community College in 1968 just after he’d earned his master’s at Hartwick College. Only he answered correctly the two key questions I asked during several interviews I conducted — do you play slo-pitch softball and do you drink beer? For the next 30-plus years he became one of the college’s finest teachers. His American Minority and Social Problems courses addressed face on the ugly realities of racism and social injustice in our society. His students especially enjoyed his field trips, particularly those to the Onondaga Nation’s reservation. There they learned first-hand the trials and tribulations of Native Americans from Tadadaho Ray Elm and his educator son, Lloyd.
The Coach (our mutually shared nicknames) was a staunch, outspoken advocate of Vietnam veterans and their fight for better treatment at VA hospitals. Influenced by Agent Orange martyr Ed Juteau Jr., he joined him on several occasions beseeching Uncle Sam to establish outreach/treatment centers for those suffering from PTSD and alcohol/drug abuse and to compensate the hundreds of thousands veterans poisoned by the deadly herbicide. I’ll never forget that snowy January night in 1980 when Gary and ‘Nam combat vet Dennis Thorp carried a dying Ed (dioxin-caused Lymphoma) into the auditorium at Utica College where he gave his final speech.
Finally, and most admirably, Coach was the best father and husband and son in the world. He spent a lot of time instilling certain values and characteristics in his beloved Lisa, Jennifer, Sarah, Laura and Eric. Those efforts paid huge dividends. Each of the kids is a success, but more importantly, they are great people, instilling in their children the same qualities which have made them so special. He was the quintessential proud grampa-never missing any of the children’s games or school events. Hopefully, their memories of and love for him will inspire them to become the best they’re capable of being. He was a dutiful son to his late dad, World War II vet Herbie, and cared for his mother, Hope, to his end.
My eulogy would not be complete without mentioning the love of his life, Karen. Kay and I have shared many great times with the two of them on area golf courses, and I can remember like it was yesterday attending their marriage at Twin Ponds Country Club. Never, never during that entire time did the bloom ever come off the rose.
At this moment, I’m overcome by two conflicting emotions. First, I’m extremely angry that my great friend’s life was prematurely taken by this modern-day plague, and I’m angry that the efforts to initiate the necessary testing took so long, an injustice for which we will pay dearly. Secondly, speaking for everyone who knew him, I’m experiencing a profound feeling of gratitude for having had the great fortune to know and love a man for all times named Gary Wayne Ruff.
Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.