This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.
Retired Troy farmer Dennis Ruhnke gained national fame from the simplest of acts.
In preparing for the novel coronavirus, he found that he had a small supply of N95 face masks. After setting aside four for immediate family members, Ruhnke had one left over. Rather than keeping it, he instead sent the mask — along with a heartfelt, handwritten letter — to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Ruhnke’s selfless act profoundly moved Cuomo. Back at home, it moved a state not always known for sentimentality. So on Tuesday, at a small Statehouse ceremony, he received his bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University.
You see, Ruhnke had to leave school two credit hours short of receiving his degree back in 1971. His father died, and he had to take over the family farm.
Learning this, Gov. Laura Kelly reached out to Kansas State University president Richard Myers about the prospect of awarding an honorary degree. Myers took it one step further: Recognizing Ruhnke’s abundant experience over the past decades to give him an actual degree.
So that’s how we found Kelly, Myers and Ruhnke together on Tuesday, and how another heartwarming moment was created in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
“I guess you call it karma,” the retired farmer said. “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.”
Anyone who has lived in Kansas for any time at all knows that our state is full of people like Dennis Ruhnke. That is, people who quietly and without any expectation of reward want to do the right thing for others. We are a profoundly generous and caring state. But we’re also often shy about it. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, because doing the right thing shouldn’t require a prize or a medal. It’s just doing the right thing.
That spirit of generosity too often goes unrecognized. Ruhnke’s story moved people in Kansas and beyond not because it was exaggerated or bizarre or wildly unusual. No, it was a simple caring gesture, made with no expectation of reward.
That’s Kansas. That’s the human spirit. And if anyone deserves a degree after all these years, it’s Ruhnke.