John Ruff comes from the land of Minnesota, where he was born and raised. He’s spent the majority of his life teaching after first earning himself a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University.
Soon obtaining his Master of Arts in teaching, Ruff began his first teaching job as an intern in Bloomington, Minnesota before he moved on to teach sixth grade for three years in Rome, Italy.
Subsequent to all of that useful experience, Ruff bounced around between Oregon and Washington for a number of years, taking on another teaching stint in the city of Central Point and eventually finishing his PhD in literature. From there, he came to Valparaiso University (VU) in 1989, having not strayed since.
“I took an early retirement last year, but next year, I'm scheduled to teach a course in the fall. I came here as a generalist. I've taught many different kinds of writing classes. I directed our first-year Core Program for 18 years, which was a great experience. I'm an Americanist by training, so I teach early American literature. After I got out of Core, I devoted myself to teaching American literature by people who are underrepresented,” he said.
Even after seeking out other endeavors, Ruff realized that Valpo students are near and dear to his heart, so he’s always stayed close. It’s really been a two-way street for him, as he’s spent countless hours inside the classroom, working with students as they themselves work with him.
“I love my life in the classroom. I was lucky in that I typically taught classes that were relatively small, so we all got to know each other. I just think that teaching is a great thing. I approach the classroom as if I’m going into some sort of feast. I love working with people because teaching and learning is a very human activity, not just a business transaction. I'm always learning in order to teach, and I'm always learning from my students. I feel most fully alive in the act of teaching,” he said.
Education has meant a whole lot to Ruff throughout his career. He clearly doesn’t see it as something to simply help one make a living one day but rather as a beneficial process that is much more profound than most people might think.
To Ruff, it’s all about the expansion of his students’ capabilities for understanding and empathy. While critical thinking is an aspect of life as a teacher that he’s constantly attempting to stress, what matters most is the pursuit of the deepening of both the mind and soul.
“We have an acute need for people to learn, to think critically, to sort truth from fiction. Teaching is about developing a whole person for a whole life. The challenge is to constantly lift up the possibilities in education for transformation. If you receive a good education wherever, it's not just about your job; it affects who you are,” he said.
Involved with the widely known lecture series “Books & Coffee,” Ruff is the definition of a lifelong learner. Whether inside or outside of the classroom, there’s always something new to learn. Besides being immersed in books and the English language, he and his wife, who was the associate curator and registrar for the Brauer Museum of Art for 25 years, used to organize exhibits together, putting up select works from the permanent collection to add to certain curricula.
Retirement sets up the opportunity for lots of leisure, so Ruff takes advantage of all the exercise he can get, such as walking, cycling, and playing tennis from time-to-time. Still active on campus, he and his wife participate in a community garden. Visiting family and friends, too, is a priority.
Once a year, Ruff gathers his family for a trip to his cabin on one of the assorted lakes of central Minnesota. Comforted by everyone’s being under the same roof, this trip is better than Christmas for him. He and his wife usually go kayaking as everyone sleeps, doing the cooking for everybody as well.
Ruff has also casually shared a cup of tea on occasion with Confucius’s descendant, and is married to the woman who sewed the pockets for a sweater that went to Keith Richards’ wedding. Another cool component of his life is his residence here in Valparaiso, the town that’s made itself home.
“Valparaiso is a college town. You have lots of intellectual, cultural stimulation. When I go to the restaurants, I know the people in the restaurants. When I go to the grocery store, I run into people I know. Here things are the perfect size. Valparaiso seems to be a place that’s become more and more affluent. We've got a good public library, the university is here, and I just love my neighbors. It's a lovely place to live, and truly is the valley of paradise,” he said.