Making A Difference

Clyde Ruffin describes himself as “classic overachiever.” And, if you push the rewind button of this quiet man’s life, you’ll probably agree. He graduated ahead of schedule three times and was an assistant professor at age 23. He preached his first sermon as a five-year-old boy. At an age when most people are planning to retire, he ran for public office and won a seat to represent the First Ward on the Columbia City Council. Sixty-three-year-old Clyde Ruffin has donned more hats than most people ever dream of: professor, actor, husband, politician, world traveler, activist, pastor, father, designer, mentor and grandfather. But from Ruffin’s perspective, every role intersects at one point — “teacher.” For him, each role gives him a unique opportunity to share, not only knowledge and information, but also passion.

After 40 years in the classroom, Ruffin retired from the University of Missouri Theatre Department where he served as chair of the department for many years. Former MU student and Ruffin’s protege, Robert Evans, first met the man he still addresses as “Professor Ruffin” in 1982 when he partnered with a friend to dance in Ruffin’s Black Theater Workshop production, “Rituals.”

“I had a lot of insecurities and he had a way of working with people and bringing out their best to make them comfortable with the giftings they had inside,” Evans explains. After leaving Columbia, he and his wife founded a dance company in New Rochelle, N.Y. His company, Dance Ministry Institute, produces an annual Christmas play with a cast of 100. “It’s safe to say that Professor Ruffin stamped me with a skill set, and his attention to detail is still with me,” Evans says.

Once when Evans struggled to figure out exactly what he wanted to do for a scene in one of Ruffin’s plays, he said, “Professor Ruffin encouraged me to simply close my eyes and visualize what I wanted to do. He said, ‘If what you see is not what you want, then change it.’ No one had ever told me to close my eyes to see before.” Ruffin wanted his students to draw from their own wells of creativity, not his. “He’d always explain the process, show you a few examples, and then let the students pick what was best for them. He’d say, ‘If I show you, you’d just be imitating my version.’”

“Clyde Ruffin is my professional and my spiritual father. He’s a real source of grounding for me,” Evan says. “He and his wife, Sheila, have poured so much into me and my wife and he’s at the very footing of my foundation.”

“Other people go crazy over the things Professor Ruffin has accomplished. There were always people calling from other cities asking him to do costumes for them. He qualifies to be full of himself,” Evans continues. “But that’s never been so with him. He’s the epitome of authority under control.”

Steve Twitchell, owner of the local video production studio Steve Twitchell Production, sees that strength first-hand whenever he and Ruffin collaborate on projects. Whether Twitchell is using Ruffin as voice talent for studio projects or helping him with Second Missionary Baptist Church’s annual Christmas play, creative excellence is a given. When the two recently collaborated to produce “The Prodigy,” an Amazon documentary about local Columbia musician, Blind Boone, he realized, once again, that Ruffin is “the definition of an artist – someone who can connect the real to what ought to be,” Twitchell asserts. “He does it, not just on stage, but in his daily life. Like when he reaches out on the city council, he’s not doing it for his own benefit. He’s doing it because he feels that it’s the right thing to do – using his talent to communicate with the public.”

When reviewing the script of Clyde Ruffin’s life, one has to wonder where such a quiet, unassuming man got all that drive and grit to succeed in so many different areas. When asked, he quickly points to his mother, Dr. Melvina Ruffin, who grew up in a small southern town where black kids were not allowed to go further than the eighth grade. The only high school they were allowed to attend was in another town but her father vetoed that idea. “No! That’s enough education for a girl!” Ruffin recalls. She had to put her dream of finishing school on hold, but not forever. She did eventually graduate years later in Kansas City. In fact, she graduated from high school the same year that her son, Clyde Ruffin, earned his high school diploma. She later earned several college degrees. “When she finally finished her doctorate,” he says, “she was in her 60s. It was a 20-year process.” It’s likely overachieving is a family trait.

His four daughters are among the first to agree that their father is an amazing man and an incredible father. “Growing up in what some people call a ‘small town,’ I had such a unique experience here,” says daughter, Mikisha Ruffin, who lives in Chicago and sells upscale children’s clothing through her online store. “I just really had so much pride in my last name because of his accomplishments,” she beams. “I looked up to him because of the example he set for us. He was able to expose us to a world outside of Columbia where we grew up; there was always a wealth of books around us… things like anthologies of fashion. Whatever we were interested in, we could reach and find something about it on the shelf.” An additional perk of being the daughter of an actor/director was getting to play dress-up with her sisters in their dad’s “deject costumes – the ones he’d finished experimenting with.”

Most would think being a full-time pastor, a full-time university professor and department chair is a recipe for stress…everyone except Clyde Ruffin. He believes pastoring the historic Second Missionary Baptist Church is a “blessing and a challenge, but never a burden. I get so much love here at the church and people seem to be so grateful and appreciative that I’m here. They’re very bold in their prayers for me. They gather and circle around me and pray before I preach on Sunday,” he says. They do the same before and after every play practice. To him, pastoring a church that’s been politically engaged since the turn of the century is a perfect fit. “Ever since college,” he says, “I’ve been involved in some sort of social activism.”

“Before I became a pastor, I compartmentalized my life. My work on campus, my church work and family work were all in separate boxes and I’d just go from one to another. And now, my disjointed life makes sense to me,” he says. He brings the same enthusiasm into the pulpit that he brought into the classroom. That kind of passion is what led him to spearhead a citywide effort to heal an ugly scar in Columbia’s history. “In 1923, James T. Scott was accused of accosting [and raping] a 14-year-old girl on her way home from her music lesson,” Ruffin shares. Scott was lynched by a mob before he even had a chance to stand trial. “Back then, Second Baptist Church was in the forefront of trying to stop the lynching,” he recalls.

While visiting the grave of Blind Boone, Ruffin asked to be shown Scott’s grave too, and noticed that it only had a nondescript marker, a small concrete slab with a crudely drawn arrow pointing to where his body lay. He learned that this simple marker was only added after many had visited his grave to do research on this tragic story.

“At that moment, I felt the Lord was saying ‘Speak for me.’ And, I thought, ‘He [James T. Scott] worked for the university and I work for the university. He was a member of Second Baptist and I am the pastor of Second Baptist.” That was the moment that catapulted him into action to spearhead the campaign to bring healing and closure to the community’s wound. What began during a quiet moment at the cemetery culminated in a memorial ceremony to unveil a “proper headstone” for Scott that was purchased with the $15,000 Ruffin was instrumental in raising.

“We did not want it to be a sad affair, but a celebration to honor his life. It was a moment when all the streams of my life came together,” Ruffin muses. In addition to politicians and some of Scott’s ancestors, Charles Nutter, the Columbia Missourian reporter who covered the 1923 story attended the ceremony that featured a full military salute, marching bands, gospel choirs and speeches from local dignitaries. The most poignant moment, however, happened when Ruffin was presented a precious token of Scott’s life. “When it was time to present the American flag, they gave it to me because there was no one to give it to,” he says. The flag, stored in the familiar triangular glass case, still sits proudly on a table in Ruffin’s church office.

After hundreds of sermons and theater performances, dozens of awards and tributes, Sheila Ruffin, his wife of 39 years best sums up the story of Clyde Ruffin. “When I first met Clyde, I thought he was amazing. He was directing, he was the main actor in a play and leading a choir. I was impressed!” she beams. “I couldn’t do what he does. He honors all of his commitments and once he makes the decision to do something, He’s going to be 100 percent!”

And what lies ahead for Ruffin after he’s given that final percent to Columbia? “I’d like to go back and reclaim some of my hobbies that I had to lay down along the way,” he admits. Things like painting, carpentry, reading,working out and playing the piano. And, there’s also that homeless shelter he’d like to see in Columbia. “Something that goes beyond just housing someone who needs a room for the night; something comprehensive to help transform lives and help people move away from homelessness,” he explains.