Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary by Michael Gartner

John Ruan: A friend looks back at an amazing life

By Michael Gartner


I moved back to Des Moines in 1974 to become executive editor of the Register and Tribune. I had grown up here, but I’d been working in New York for the previous 14 years. So while I knew Des Moines, I didn’t know the players.

Ken MacDonald, who was soon to retire as editor, and David Kruidenier, the publisher, took it upon themselves to make sure I knew who was who. They made sure that my wife — a New Yorker — and I were invited to dinner parties, that I met the business, political, cultural and social lions, and that I went to the right affairs and showed up at the right speeches. (Walking back from one luncheon speech that first year, MacDonald apologized for bringing me along. “That was the second worst speech I’ve ever heard,” the gentlemanly editor told me. “What was the first?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’m just giving this guy the benefit of the doubt.”)

So that first year I developed a nodding acquaintance, or more, with the likes of banker John Fitzgibbon and business leader Jim Hubbell and the brilliant Joe Rosenfield and Governor Bob Ray and art center director Jim Demetrion and Drake president Wilbur Miller and the fascinating John Chrystal and scores of others. MacDonald, gently, and Kruidenier, bluntly, would tell me about each. This guy’s nice, that guy isn’t, the other guy is kind of strange — that sort of thing. But when they got to John Ruan, the trucking and banking guy, they both scratched their heads. He’s tough, they said. He can be a bully, they said. He always wants it his way, they said. Also, they said, he hates the newspaper.

I was, therefore, wary when I’d run into him, and he pretty much ignored me. Then one day I saw him, newspaper in hand, marching into my office. He hadn’t come to chat. The paper had written about him — I can’t remember what, but I do remember it was accurate — and he was furious. He started right in on me, jabbing and shouting and telling me where I could go and where I could shove the newspaper. He went on for 10 minutes or so, particularly telling me what I could print and what I couldn’t.

Finally, he stopped. “Are you finished?” I asked. “I guess so,” he said. “Well,” I said, “now let me tell you something. I don’t know anything about trucking. I don’t know anything about banking. I don’t know anything about real estate. But I do know about newspapers. And you don’t know a damn thing about them, so don’t tell me how to run a newspaper.”

He looked at me for a minute or so. Then he kind of smiled. And he said, “You know, I think we’re going to get along just fine.”

From then on, we had breakfast together every two or three weeks, always at the Des Moines Club, always at 6 a.m. (“I’m no smarter than anyone else,” he told me at one of those breakfasts in the otherwise-deserted Des Moines Club. “I just get up earlier.”) Usually, it was just the two of us. Other than the fact that we both grew up poor and both wore bowties, we had little in common. He was a rock-ribbed Republican, I was a Democrat. He was an entrepreneur, I was a hired hand. He’d had one year of college, I had a law degree. He was rich, I wasn’t. And he was 25 years older than me.

We became good friends, and eventually at each breakfast I’d get him to tell me a little about his life. Once, I asked him if he’d been scrappy all his life. His father was a doctor in the little coal-mining town of Beacon in southern Iowa, he told me, and his mother used to dress him up like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The coal-miners’ kids would call him a sissy and beat him up on the way home from school, and he’d come home crying. “Hit ‘em back,” his father told him. So one day he did. That night, a coal miner came to the house complaining that little John had beaten up his sons. Dr. Ruan scoffed and said he was proud of John. From then on, no one messed with him.

He told me how his parents lost everything in the Depression and moved to Des Moines to get a new start — only to have his father die three months later. John was at North High School then. His mother, whom he adored, sent him to Iowa State, but the money ran dry, and he left after a year. He told me how he traded in the family car for a dumptruck and how on July 4, 1932, when he was still a teenager, he drove that truck to southern Iowa and started hauling gravel. He pitched a tent to live in, and he worked 12- or 14-hour days. That was the beginning, he said, of Ruan Transportation.

He told me lots of other things. About the time he was with labor leader Jimmy Hoffa and a lesser labor leader when he got mad at the second guy. They started arguing, and John shoved him through a plate-glass window. “He deserved that,” Hoffa said to John, and the two kept walking. He told me about the death of his wife in childbirth and how, a few years later, he met the beautiful dancer who would become his second wife. He told me how she was struck with multiple sclerosis — the same disease that would take the life of their beloved daughter in 1992. He told me — and kept showing me plans and models and urging me to write editorials about it — how he was going to build a huge skyscraper in Des Moines as part of making Des Moines “the agricultural capital of the world.” He never built it, but he sure tried.

But there were things he never told me. He never told me about the big and little kindnesses to others, though I heard about them elsewhere. He never told me — but I could see it — about his incredible loyalty to people who had worked for him or helped him, people who stayed on his payroll until they died — usually of old age. He didn’t want to tell me — but he just couldn’t resist — about how one day in his 70s he got in a big new Ruan truck and drove it to Mason City, just because he missed driving a truck. He smiled and said he shouldn’t have done it, but he was glad he did.

I still saw him shout and argue — I thought he and Bill Knapp were going to kill one another during an argument about downtown development — but finally they agreed and walked out of the room as if they were long-lost brothers. (Knapp, another small-town boy who made it big, is the only person I ever saw who couldn’t be consistently outshouted by Ruan.) And he still railed at the newspaper — especially when we editorially opposed the site for the Marriott Hotel, which John shepherded and pretty-much owned. He was even more confused when the Register invested in the project while opposing it. But, then, so was I.

As he grew older, and maybe mellower, he began talking about the tragedy of world hunger, and about how Iowans, of all people, should be dealing with that. Then one day he told me had an idea: There should be a World Food Prize, he said, and it should be based in Des Moines. He spent more and more time on that, and then one day he met Norman Borlaug. It was a marriage made in heaven — two small-town Iowa boys, each of whom made his mark in life, plotting on how together they might save the world. Several times I had dinner with them as they talked about their dreams. Each was passionate, each was driven, and each had a glint in his eye. You came away thinking they’ll actually do this.

And they did, of course. Over the years, the World Food Prize has recognized, rewarded and inspired men and women throughout the world — men and women whose ideas, whose research, whose greatness has led to new ways to feed the world, to provide opportunities, and to save lives.

Thousands of people are prospering because of the work being done by men and women associated with the World Food Prize. As 96-year-old John Ruan lay dying in his home in Des Moines over the weekend, those people now had the hope of living to the same old age he attained.

That is his legacy. CV

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