Kansas State University gives diploma to Dennis Ruhnke, who left school to run family farm nearly 50 years ago; the retired Troy farmer became ambassador of goodwill by gifting mask to nurse he didn’t know in state he never visited

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TOPEKA — Dennis Ruhnke left Kansas State University two credits shy of a degree in 1971 to take over the family farm following his father’s death.


On Tuesday, recognizing Ruhnke’s decades of experience in agribusiness, K-State president Richard Myers conferred a degree upon the retired Troy farmer who became an ambassador of goodwill by donating an N95 mask for a nurse he didn’t know in a state he never visited.


With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of commencement ceremonies across the state, a makeshift exception for Ruhnke was held in an open area on the third floor of the Statehouse. Gov. Laura Kelly delivered his commencement address.


The governor said she became familiar with Ruhnke the same way most of the country met him — on national TV in late April, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shared the farmer’s handwritten message of generosity and the gift of a spare N95 mask left over from his farming days.


"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," Kelly said.


Health officials in Kansas have recorded at least 137 deaths from the coronavirus and more than 5,400 positive tests. Monday marked the launch of Kelly’s six-week plan for reopening the state, but health officials warn the pandemic could alter everyday life for another year or more.


In his letter to the New York governor, Ruhnke expressed apprehension about the spread of the deadly illness and the vulnerability of his wife, Sharon, who is diabetic and has only one lung. Cuomo called the gesture a "snapshot of humanity."


Now, Ruhnke said, his life has forever changed because of the simple act of kindness.


"I've waited half a century to receive my college degree and had pretty much written off any chance of getting it," Ruhnke said. "It would not have happened had I not mailed in that one N95 mask to Governor Cuomo for a first responder.


"I guess you call it karma. Many of those who wrote to me to thank me asked me 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. 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 journey to this stage began with his arrival as an 18-year-old at the Manhattan campus in 1967. It was an era of activism and turmoil over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy visited campus while he was a student there.


Then, an unexpected personal crisis altered his life. His father died at the age of 59.


About 10 years ago, Ruhnke inquired about completing his degree at K-State, only to learn he would have to start over because too much time had lapsed.


"Although he never doubted he made the right decision for his family in 1971," Kelly said, "he could not quite shake the disappointment of not finishing what he had started."


Kelly reached out to Myers to ask about the possibility of an honorary degree. Myers balked at the suggestion, opting instead to recognize four decades of experience running the family farm as meeting necessary educational requirements.


"This is the real deal," Myers said. "This is not an honorary tribute. This is his degree."


Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and family physician who said he has delivered some Ruhnkes through the years, said he was thrilled to learn his constituent finally would get a diploma.


"I knew that if anyone deserved a degree, that guy did," Eplee said. "He put in all the work for it and was just one course short."


Sharon Ruhnke said her husband has always been generous, giving people food, advanced paychecks and even room and board. The couple even bought a phone for a hired hand.


She urged fellow Kansans to donate to a food bank or animal shelter if they can, and to take the pandemic seriously.


"I’m very fearful," she said. ""I don't care what age you are, you need to take it seriously. I want to see my grandkids. I want to see them go to high school. I want to see them go to college."