Recipient Biography

Robert W. Ruhe

Robert W. Ruhe (1923-1986) received the Pugsley Medal in 1970. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He began his professional career in recreation as program director of the Wesley Settlement House in St. Louis. He held this position until 1949, except for a two-year period with the United States Navy (1943 to 1945). Ruhe received his B.S. degree in commerce from St. Louis University (1947) and his M.S. in Recreation from Indiana University (1952). Ruhe was appointed director of recreation in La Porte, Indiana, in 1950, and in 1954 resigned to become director of parks and recreation for the newly organized Skokie Park District in Skokie, Illinois. Under Ruhe's direction, the Skokie Park District became one of the outstanding park districts in Illinois and a nationally recognized model for suburban park systems.
In 1966, Ruhe accepted his biggest challenge when he became superintendent of parks and recreation in Minneapolis, a position he held until his retirement in 1978. When Ruhe was appointed to this position, both the executive board and the agency's senior managers were polarized and the department was in disarray. He was perceived to be an outsider who could rejuvenate and modernize a tired park system.
After several years of weak leadership, the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners had hired Ruhe on the assumption that he would be a more aggressive superintendent than his predecessor. The commissioners expected him to provide direction to the board, and they were not disappointed. Parks and recreation were Ruhe's life and passion. Since he spent every waking hour (and maybe his dreams as well) thinking about his profession, he was never at a loss for ideas. Nor was he reluctant to advocate for them since according to his philosophy of leadership, it was his professional responsibility to educate the board. "Professionalism," he frequently asserted, "is providing those services for people that they cannot provide for themselves." As the professional administrator, he had an obligation to propose policies to the board, to convince others of the wisdom of his recommendations, and to implement policies adopted by the board. Ultimate decision-making authority resided in the elected board, but he believed the impetus for sound decisions should come from the superintendent. "You can say that the board makes policy, that the administrator administers it," Ruhe proclaimed toward the end of his administration, "But let me tell you, if you wait for a board to make policy, a lot of water will go over the dam." This administrator had no intention of waiting.
Ruhe was a big man, standing 6'5", weighing 225 pounds. After his size, you noticed the sour look on his face, which seemed to denote displeasure with something or someone. If you didn't know him, you would not be inclined to approach him; if you did know, you would think twice about approaching him. Upon meeting him, you sensed that he would rather be somewhere else. He fidgeted, puffed on his cigarette, glanced at bis watch, and seldom looked you in the eye. Was he indifferent to your existence or just socially awkward? You could not be sure, but soon you too, wanted to be somewhere else. When a conversation did not interest him, he did not conceal his boredom; as often as not, he simply walked away, leaving you feeling both dismissed and relieved. Those offended by his abrupt manner tried to write him off, though even they grudgingly admited, that he could not be written off easily.
If the subject was parks and recreation, he dominated. It was then that he became animated, even inspiring. When he stood to address his board, towering over the commissioners and the audience, he spoke with such personal assurance and professional finality that there was little room for doubt or debate. When he ambled through the office, employees became tense, wondering whether they were meeting his high standards of performance. Somehow, one felt smaller in his presence. Those whom he did not respect felt the sting of his intellectual contempt; those he did respect wanted to please him so as to retain his respect. Depending upon his mood of the moment, he could be intimidating or ingratiating. His supporters excused his interpersonal shortcomings as the inept posturing of a basically shy man ,whereas his enemies, of whom there were many, considered him an egotist concerned only with his own career. On one thing all could agree: Robert W Ruhe, sixth superintendent of the Minneapolis park system, was someone to be taken seriously.
Among Ruhe's greatest accomplishments was his leadership of efforts to resist encroachment by the Minnesota Highway Department on parklands for use as highways. Previous administrations had sought to compromise and negotiate with the highway department, but Ruhe's stance was much more aggressive. He persuaded his board to adopt a "Land Policy Statement" that he drafted which included the statement: "Those who seek park lands for their own particular ends must look elsewhere to satiate their land hunger."
Words alone were not enough to stop the highway department and soon after they presented Ruhe with a list of 27 park properties "involved" in highway construction. The affected lands totaled 148.5 acres, representing 2.4% of the total area of the park system, which would not have been a disastrous loss if encroachment could have ended there. However, since the University of Minnesota, businesses, hospitals, charitable and cultural institutions also coveted park land, where would it end? "If it's 2.4% for the highways and 1.1% for someone else and 1.8% for someone else," Ruhe explained, "sooner or later this dissipates what was once a pretty magnificent system. What price is progress?" Ruhe was at his best during encroachment conflicts. He stubbornly defended park board interests, yet he compromised when it was in the system's interest to do so (as at North Mississippi Park). Both by example and by entreaty, he restored to the board its sense of independence and mission. His national perspective on park affairs gave the board courage to adopt momentarily unpopular positions and enabled it to exploit federal highway legislation to its own advantage.
With Ruhe's urging, the park board challenged, in court, the authority of the highway department  to condemn park property and worked to show that the Department was not abiding by Section 4(f) of the federal Transportation Act, which was designed to curtail the use of park lands for highway purposes. When the highway department tried to condemn 20-plus acres of Minnehaha Park for a freeway, the park board brought suit. In 1969, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the authority of the commissioner of highways to condemn the property, but the United States Supreme Court, ruling in another case involving a park in Memphis, effectively overturned the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision, and ordered that provisions in the Highway Acts of 1966 and 1968 prohibiting building roads through parks with federal highway funds only be underminded in the most unusual circumstances.
In 1969 and 1971, the Ruhe administration submitted to the state legislature a comprehensive program (Challenge for Leadership) designed to meet the financial needs of the Park and Recreation Board over the next decade. It increased the permissible tax levy and created a "Park Rehabilitation and Parkway Maintenance Fund." The plan consolidated separate tree-related levies into a "Tree Preservation and Reforestation Fund" and established a "Lake Pollution Control Fund." The park board supplemented these tax levies with increases in fees and charges for revenue­-producing facilities.
When Ruhe arrived in Minneapolis in 1966, the park system's operating budget was $3.3 million, and by 1978 when he retired, it had increased to $11.1 million. The increases in capital expenditures were similarly impressive. Between these same years, bond sales totaled $35.6 million compared to only $13.7 million for the two post-war decades (1945-1966).
Ruhe was a builder. Physical construction during his regime centered on three kinds of facilities: recreation center buildings, neighborhood parks, and parkways. The building record during his12-year tenure included 37 miles of parkways, 48 recreation centers, 27 miles of bike trails, 14 parks, 10 tot-lots, 13 new park-school centers, and two swimming pools. A major purpose of Ruhe's building programs was to transform the system from an elitist park system serving the wealthy, into a recreation and park system accessible to all segments of the population, and to a large extent, he succeeded.
Ruhe inherited a system with major personnel problems. Employees used the department's equipment for their own personal use. They stored personal belongings, including boats and automobiles, in the agency's warehouse. One person referred to the warehouse as "Noah's Ark." They conducted private business, such as tree trimming, on public time. They took extended coffee breaks, collected excessive overtime pay, quit work at noon on Fridays. They drank on the job. Skating rink attendants remained in warming houses attending their television sets. Some truck drivers refused to unload trucks, and some tree trimmers refused to climb trees. As one labor representative put it, "Employees ran the park board." Supervisors tolerated the situation. Protected by civil service, the professional staff was content to perpetuate the status quo. Overpaid and underworked, that was the public image of the agency's employees in 1966. That it was unfair to the hard-working, dedicated majority was unfortunate, but it was the image nonetheless.
The new superintendent had no desire to be identified with this kind of organiZation. A workaholic himself, he expected "eight hours of work for eight hours of pay." Unlike his predecessor, whose administration had been dominated by organized labor, Ruhe was, to quote a union leader, "a manager who wanted to manage." One of his first actions as superintendent was to halt unacceptable work practices. Although union representatives criticized him publicly for being anti­-labor, privately they conceded that the system needed reform. As long as he did not eliminate jobs, they were willing to accept changes in operations. Besides putting an end to abuses, Ruhe reorganized park laborers into crews and created four district headquarters; he terminated nonessential security service at the warehouse and transferred the security guards to the maintenance division; he hired a "park operations planner" to study the uses of heavy equipment and then got rid of under­-utilized equipment; he purchased mechanical drags for ball diamonds and ice rinks, previously dragged by hand; he used mist blowers to blow leaves and dead grass out of shrub beds, previously raked by hand; he assigned construction contracts to private contractors, thereby restoring competitive bidding; and so on. According to one long-time park board employee, new work methods probably saved Minneapolis taxpayers "millions of dollars" in improved efficiency.
From Ruhe's point of view, organized labor posed less of an obstacle to innovation than did his own staff. What disturbed him more than anything was the staff's passivity. He commented:
Professionally, all the persons had appropriate degrees, but the initiative to succeed had been destroyed. They weren't proposers, they were reactors. They were drawing reasonable salaries, yet would wait for citizens to propose change. Our staff had been burned many times years ago when the board literally said "No" to them, and probably the thing that caused the board to say "No" was the ill-formed advice that it was getting. The staff had developed the attitude, "Well,why should I put myself out on a limb and take all this public criticism? We'll just wait until the board tells us what to do." I saw this when I first came here. I'd say to division heads, "Let's propose this to the board." "Oh,no, you propose it. I'm not going to stand that criticism:'
Antithetical to his philosophy of professional activism, this sit-tight mentality infuriated Ruhe. Staff members who were afraid to exercise judgment, he maintained, were really saying, "I'd rather be criticized for doing nothing than for doing something." The superintendent looked for three things in personnel: a willingness to propose, the ability to persuade, and the capacity to withstand criticism. In his opinion, few on his staff possessed these attributes.
These transitions were truly shocking for the department's employees. So many changes so fast would have been unsettling under ideal conditions. The contrast in leadership styles made matters worse. Ruhe's predecessor had been easy-going and personable. He had been on a first-name basis with everyone. He had socialized with the staff, and he had accorded it trust and respect. Ruhe was not easy-going, and he was personable only with a select few. He did not fraternize with the employees. Not only did he not trust or respect them, he talked openly of their "featherbedding" and incompetence. Where his predecessor had identified with the employees, Ruhe identified with management. In March 1970, for example, he refused to provide a park board truck driver with an attorney or to pay his fine of $175 when the driver was tagged by the Minnesota Highway Patrol for driving an overloaded truck on a state highway. Complaining that these kinds of violations had always been "taken care of" by the department, 34 fellow drivers picketed the park board warehouse and the downtown office in protest. Ruhe was unsympathetic. "I would not ask anybody to fix a ticket," he explained. "It's just unethical."
Employees mounted a political offensive to get Ruhe fired which resulted in the election of two commissioners who were sympathetic to their view and who promptly voted against renewing his contract. However, the remaining six commissioners remained in support with the chairman describing him as "the most dedicated and knowledgeable superintendent that the city has ever had."
The editors of The Minneapolis Star concurred. "Diplomacy may not be Ruhe's strong point," dedared an editorial, "but he continues to impress us as a dedicated, imaginative and thoroughly competent parks administrator." Bolstered by this support, Ruhe succeeded in transforming the staff into a highly competent, professional team.
Ruhe's vision was that parks and recreation were compatible only when both contributed to "human enrichment." His ideas about human enrichment were formed during his time as a group worker in a settlement house. He felt that the major purpose of a private social agency was to cooperate with the residents of a neighborhood to create an environment conducive to personal development. Since recreation was the means to the end, the "well rounded individual" the process of participation, not the final score, was what really mattered. To be truly meaningful, according to Ruhe, recreation had to be aimed at more than what people did with their leisure, but, more important, to understanding what happened to them when they participated.
During his tenure, Ruhe was responsible for stopping the encroachment on park lands, increasing the agency's financial resources, restoring and extending its physical plant, rescuing its parkways from commuter traffic, improving the performance of its employees, equalizing opportunities among neighborhoods, and enhances the standing of recreation vis-a-vis parks.
After leaving Minneapolis, Rube relocated to Glenview, Illinois, where he became a private consultant to the numerous park and recreation departments in the Chicago metropolitan area. He also served as treasurer of the Deerfield Park District from1984-86.
Wright, C. Ben. (1979). Minneapolis parks and recreation: A bistory of the park and recreation board since World War II.Unpublished Manuscript.