Ruhnke and his wife, Sharon, needed the protection as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country and menaced their community in rural Troy, Kan. Both were in their 70s, and Sharon suffered from dire health problems that would make an infection life-threatening.
But four masks would do, Ruhnke decided. The fifth should go to someone else who needed it.
In late March, after watching the death toll skyrocket in New York, he mailed a single respirator to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), along with a handwritten letter imploring him to give it to a healthcare worker.
“Please keep doing what you do so well,” he wrote, “which is to lead.”
It was the humblest of offerings in a desperate time. Cuomo, moved nearly to tears, read the letter aloud during a televised news conference in April, praising Ruhnke’s selflessness and helping the retired farmer achieve a moment of viral acclaim.
And on Tuesday, in honor of his generosity, Ruhnke received an award he’s waited decades for: a college degree.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) presided over an ad hoc commencement ceremony on the third floor of the statehouse, where Ruhnke received a diploma from Kansas State University. The distinction was nearly 50 years in the making: Ruhnke had to leave the university two credits short of a degree in 1971 to take over the family farm after his father’s sudden death.
Lauding Ruhnke’s goodwill as well as his extensive experience in agribusiness, Kelly noted that the degree was official and not just for show.
“He provided a dose of inspirational strength to America just as soon as we felt ourselves beginning to buckle under the crushing, prolonged weight of this crisis,” she said. “He has proved to us that he has mastered all the most important lessons that a university has to offer.”
Ruhnke had long ago written off any chance of getting a diploma. The last time he inquired about it, Kelly said, he was told he would have to start over because too much time had passed.
“Although he never doubted he made the right decision for his family,” Kelly said, “he could not quite shake the disappointment of not finishing what he had started.”
When Kelly learned about his mask donation, she asked university President Richard Myers whether he could award Ruhnke an honorary degree. Myers said his decades of farm work were enough to give him the real thing.
“I guess you call it karma,” said Ruhnke, wearing a purple-and-white Kansas State jersey, overalls and an N95 mask.
Speaking from the lectern, he said he had received many letters from people inspired by his example asking how they could help. “Just pay it forward as much as you can afford to do so to honor all of those who lost their lives to the C-19 virus,” he said. “And also to honor the first responders, who in some cases also lost their own lives in the line of duty — the ultimate sacrifice.”
Ruhnke’s donation came at a time when shortfalls in supplies of masks and other personal protective equipment have prompted widespread hoarding and price gouging. Hospitals and government officials have been forced into bidding wars over the medical gear, which is crucial for protecting front-line workers and patients with underlying conditions from infection.
In his letter to Cuomo, Ruhnke said his wife was diabetic and had only one lung, putting her at extremely high risk of developing a severe or fatal case of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. “Frankly, I am afraid for her,” he wrote.
He said he didn’t expect Cuomo to receive the note, knowing the governor was “busy beyond belief with the disaster that has befallen our country.” But he offered the N95, an unused relic from his farming days. “If you could,” he wrote, “would you please give it to a nurse or doctor.”
When the letter reached Cuomo weeks later, the governor read it in its entirety. Choking up, he called it a “snapshot of humanity.”
“It’s that love, that courage, that generosity of spirit that makes this country so beautiful,” Cuomo said. “And it’s that generosity for me makes up for all the ugliness that you see. Take one mask, I’ll keep four.”